The people of Vietnam have had enough of Chinese expansion in the region and the tensions are beginning to bubble over in tangible ways. Around 100 people were arrested during demonstrations over a draft law for special economic zones that workers fear will be dominated by Chinese interests. Vietnam’s worst flare-up of anti-Chinese sentiment in years has the potential to strain already troubled relations with the country’s powerful neighbor, as the government tries to keep a lid on nationwide protests.
On Wednesday hundreds of defiant demonstrators gathered at Tan Huong Industrial Park in the southern province of Tien Giang, holding up banners with slogans such as “I love the fatherland — don’t let China lease our land”.
Videos posted on social media showed hundreds of workers facing down police at factory gates and marching through the streets. The anti-China protests — the worst seen in Vietnam since 2014 — began on Saturday at Taiwanese-owned shoe factory Pou Yuen in Ho Chi Minh City, where workers demonstrated over the government’s plan to set up three new special economic zones that would allow 99-year concessions.
The protests spread throughout the weekend, with crescendos of violence erupting at other rallies in the southern province Binh Thuan by Sunday. The protests continued Monday even after the National Assembly voted to defer discussion of the special economic zones bill until October.
Although the government of Vietnam has yet to specify who would invest in the zones, protesters fear they will be dominated by Chinese interests. “The links between the Vietnamese and Chinese authorities are becoming more and more conspicuous each day, and make citizens frustrated and angry,” said Do Thi Minh Hanh, president of the Viet Labor Movement, a labor rights organization.
The protests are set to aggravate the already tense relations between the two countries. China’s embassy in Hanoi on Sunday issued a safety warning to Chinese nationals, calling the protests “illegal gatherings” with “anti-China content”, and said it would pay close attention to the developments.
The growing anti-Chinese nationalism poses a challenge for Vietnamese foreign policy, because China is such an overwhelmingly powerful neighbor and relations are already strained due to Chinese activity in the South China Sea. It is a difficult balancing act for the government to appease the nationalists by implementing anti-Chinese rhetoric and anti-Chinese policies without incurring potential Chinese retaliation.
In April, the foreign ministers of both countries met in Hanoi and pledged to address their disputes – especially over contested territory in the South China Sea — peacefully. But in May, Vietnam took a more direct tack when it asked China to remove military equipment it had reportedly installed on three man-made islands in the disputed Spratly chain claimed by China and Vietnam, among others.
Thousands of workers have also taken part in strikes across southern Vietnam since the unrest began, including at Pou Yuen and Ching Luh, another shoe factory in Long An province, and at Tan Houng Industrial Park in Tien Giang province according to local media outlets.
While the vote on the special economic zones has been postponed, Vietnam analysts believe any amendments to the bill were likely to be cosmetic at best and purely symbolic at worst. There is simply too much money tied up in the relationship between Beijing and the Communist Party of Vietnam and they don’t want anything to jeopardize that. China is also going to be hard pressed to loosen its grip on any of the inroads it has made into the rest of South East Asia.
Featured Image: Vietnamese protesting against China in Hanoi. By Voice of America [Public Domain]