The problem with using nationalism as an explanation for the riotous protests that broke out in Vietnam last week is that nationalism does not explain anything.
It does not answer the key questions of the moment. Who exactly was involved? How were they organised? What were their underlying motivations? And, above all, why did nationalist demonstrations that had until then been exemplary in their restraint and orderliness suddenly turn violent?
While many reporters and experts view the riots that broke out in the provincial towns of Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Ha Tinh on Tuesday last week as nationalist zealotry, these incidents should be clearly distinguished from the widespread outpouring of nationalist sentiment that had preceded them and, especially, the two peaceful demonstrations that were held in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City only two days before.
Mistaking one for the other fails to understand the complex domestic politics of Vietnamese nationalism today, and does grave injustice to the vast majority of Vietnamese citizens peacefully expressing their right to protect the nation.
Shortly after the first reports of the ramming of a Vietnamese ship to protect Chinese oil rig HD 981 in disputed waters of the South China Sea on May 3, groups of prominent Vietnamese intellectuals, bloggers and civil activists took to the blogosphere to condemn Chinese aggression and demand resolute action. Those leading these discussions are part of a growing political culture in Vietnam that has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of both the state and the ruling Communist Party, especially since the widespread controversy over bauxite mining in 2009.
In ways not seen since at least the Vietnam War, this controversy brought together numerous and diverse Vietnamese groups in common opposition to a major state policy. Among them was no less than the late legendary general Vo Nguyen Giap, who had also raised concerns about Chinese involvement in these bauxite mining projects.
Since then, the number and diversity of Vietnamese groups that have been daring to challenge the state authorities publicly on major policy issues have been increasing. One of the main forces driving them together has been the perceived complacency or incompetency of the Vietnamese leadership in its dealings with Beijing.
Many of these groups and individuals were also at the centre of public demonstrations regarding the South China Sea in 2011 and 2012. These demonstrations were held in the nation's main cities. The protesters came from diverse urban groups, announced their protests beforehand, discussed the issues extensively online and their demonstrations were invariably peaceful, at least until they were broken up and dispersed by state security officials.
In comparison, the riots that broke out in Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Ha Tinh last week were of an entirely different character. They involved an entirely different set of people. The organisation was covert, and the protests were carried out in the industrial zones of provincial towns. Notably, they were also riotous and violent. In fact, many of those groups that had endorsed the initial demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were quick to condemn these violent incidents. On the blogosphere and for the vast majority of Vietnamese, these latter incidents were riots out of control, not expressions of Vietnamese nationalism.
Even to refer to these expressions of nationalism that led to the initial demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as "anti-Chinese" is somewhat misleading. Tightly wound into their arguments is also a pointed critique of Vietnamese state politics. They rail against the lack of transparency with which the leadership typically deals with Beijing, its tendency to restrict information and avoid public discussion, and, above all, its punishment of Vietnamese citizens who raise their voices to defend the nation.
For example, the Declaration of 20 Civil Society Organisations included in its condemnation of China a demand to release blogger Anh Ba Sam. The latter is well known for his outspoken views on the South China Sea and was, incidentally, arrested only two days after the ramming incident around HD 981.
Thus, to assume that "nationalism" necessarily unites state and society is to miss completely how those dynamics are currently being played out in Vietnam.
This also brings us to the question of whether the domestic protests might have been deliberately allowed or even manipulated by the Vietnamese state to leverage its international bargaining power. China has done so in similar confrontations with Japan in the East China Sea.
However, if this is true, then the Vietnamese leadership has badly overplayed its hand. Not only do the recent riots furnish the Chinese leadership with reasons to take a harsher stance towards Vietnam, they have also led to division at home, not least of all between state authorities and the masses of peaceful demonstrators expressing nationalist sentiments.
One can even notice subtle discursive shifts among state officials and the state-controlled media. Statements of strong action against China and protecting the nation have been replaced by statements about the need for strong action against rioters and the need to protect Chinese and other multinational firms.
Unfortunately for the Vietnamese, this most recent bout of riotous protests plays right into the hands of the Chinese leadership.
Returning peaceful protesters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday were met with guarded barricades and security forces dispersing crowds and carrying away suspected agitators.
One wonders whether the state authorities are not also using "nationalism" to justify more forcible measures against the domestic criticism that has been steadily growing against them.
This article was published on May 21 in The Straits Times.
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