“You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution.”
—Huey Newton, American activist and communist revolutionary
On June 7, a group of about 300 ordinary Vietnamese in Phan Ri Cua City of Binh Thuan province formed the first rally against a draft law on special economic zones (SEZ). They had trouble before with an ongoing Chinese thermal power plant investment project in their own province and were opposed to more such Chinese investments.
Two days later, tens of thousands of workers at Pouyuen footwear company in Tan Tao Industrial Park, Ho Chi Minh City, went on strike against the SEZ draft law.
The following day, on June 10, many demonstrations sprung up in other cities throughout the country, including the capital of Hanoi, Nghe An, Da Nang, Khanh Hoa, Dac Lac, Binh Duong, Dong Nai, My Tho, Vinh Long, Kien Giang, and Ho Chi Minh City.
According to the controversial draft law, land in the zones may be leased by foreign investors for up to 99 years. The protesters feared that SEZs will be dominated and controlled by Chinese investors as self-governing zones, ceding sovereignty to Vietnam’s giant northern neighbor.
Many carried anti-China posters, including ones that said “No leasing land to China even for one day,” and “Leasing land to China is selling the country to the Vietnamese people’s enemies,” and “China get out of Vietnam.” Several protesters carried American flags and anti-communist slogans such as “Down with communists” and “Down with traitors.”
The demonstrators not only protested the SEZ draft law, but also a cybersecurity law that will require technology companies to store their users’ data in Vietnam, to hand the data over to Vietnamese authorities on request and to censor any contentious content.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the law is similar to a repressive Chinese law that took effect a year ago. The law was passed by Vietnam’s National Assembly on June 12 without any changes and will take effect on January 1, 2019. Its main objective is to protect the Communist Party of Vietnam, according to Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong.
The demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City was the largest, with tens of thousands participating; like the demonstrations in most other cities, it was generally peaceful. The protest in Binh Thuan province began peacefully but turned violent when police started beating the crowd, arresting protestors and hauling them away.
Protestors turned violent, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police and burning some of their cars, a police station and some local government office buildings.
After the demonstrations ended, police reportedly arrested and brutally beat hundreds of protesters. In some cases, public hospitals required injured protesters to sign a waiver declaring that they were hurt in an accident, otherwise they would refuse them treatment.
Video clips posted on YouTube and pictures circulated on social media showed that many ordinary people from all walks of life participated in the demonstrations: old and young, men and women, workers, peasants, professionals, artists, intellectuals, and even religious leaders. Most of the protesters in Binh Thuan were fishermen and local people.
These protests gained wide and strong support from the masses. Indeed, they were quite different from the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China 29 years ago, where most of the protesters were students and teachers.
This suggests that Vietnam’s communist regime has lost the support of the majority of the country’s 95 million-strong population, except those on the government payroll, including five million Communist Party members.
It is telling that these mostly orderly yet massive demonstrations were organized without any dissident leaders. The reason was quite simple: about 200 of the country’s most prominent activists and democracy advocates are currently in prison. Others were blocked from leaving their homes by plainclothes police, with some of their homes even locked by authorities from the outside.
Still, the SEZ law, cybersecurity law and a fear of China have united people against the Communist Party-led government. A growing number of Vietnamese see government officials and Party leaders as traitors, particularly since they have consistently failed to protect the country’s sovereignty and fishermen from China in the contested South China Sea.
They also believe that the government betrayed the soldiers who fought valiantly against China during the border war in 1979 and the Chinese invasion of Johnson South Reef in 1988 by denying them proper memorial services and removing some wording against China on their tombstones. Both moves are seen as kowtowing to Beijing.
The protestors were enabled in part by the internet, Facebook, YouTube, Messenger and wireless cell phones and cameras, tools that protesters used to communicate with each other about where and when demonstrations should take place. People could even watch demonstrations in real time on video-sharing site YouTube.
Despite its best censorship efforts, the government has failed to block the news from major international news outlets and local social media networks.
Hence the authorities’ efforts to regain control of these channels via the cybersecurity law, even though its provisions run counter to Vietnam’s commitments to the World Trade Organization and the European Union–Vietnam Free Trade Area agreement. Neither requires foreign companies to open offices and data centers in Vietnam.
The protests were widely welcomed by the Vietnamese diaspora, seen in parallel demonstrations by Vietnamese in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Germany, France, Poland, Norway, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
The time is arguably ripe for a democratic revolution in Vietnam. Domestically, the Party has broken down into two main fractions—not on ideological differences, but rather their own vested interests. The Party has largely abandoned socialist ideology since adopting a free market system in 1986 under the so-called doi moi reforms. However, until now they still maintain a monopoly on political power.
Vietnam’s political apparatus has outgrown its usefulness, becoming heavier and costlier in the hope that it would protect the Party.
Former Party Secretary General Le Kha Phieu said in an interview before the 12th Central Committee’s sixth plenum in October 2017 that “the political apparatus must be revolutionized. There is no way for a retreat. It has been sluggish, not to mention the personnel. Many people are doing nothing.”
The government now spends about 82.1% of the national budget to pay salaries to government officials, military, police, 205 public security generals and five million Party members. The remaining 17.9% is earmarked for development investments.
With so many people on the government’s payroll, their small share of the budget is not enough to live on. Many must find other ways to make extra money to survive. That’s why corruption is pervasive: because Vietnam is a one-party system without a free press and no separation of power among the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, it has proven impossible to control corruption.
With rising Chinese investments, Vietnam’s communist leaders have grown accustomed to bowing their head to Chinese interventions in their domestic affairs. Indeed, they seem to avoid confrontation with China at all costs, but are still unable to please Beijing. In 1988, for example, Vietnam lost 64 soldiers without a fight in the Johnson South Reef skirmish.
In 2014, China positioned its Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil drilling platform into Vietnam’s maritime territory, about 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s Ly Son Island. After unsuccessfully sending ships to disrupt the Chinese oil rig, Vietnam asked the international community for help but no nation—including the US, Japan or India—came to Vietnam’s defense. They only urged both sides to be self-restrained and to solve disputes peacefully.
Now, the US, Japan and Australia seem eager to help Vietnam with its economic development, national defense and South China Sea disputes with China. However, Vietnam’s poor human rights and religious freedom records have restrained more robust ties at a crucial time of Chinese expansionism.
Recent revolutions in Asia and the Middle East, including the Arab Spring, were born of similar situations now seen in Vietnam. Although there was no organization and no coordination at the outset, Vietnam’s democratic revolution is gathering unmistakable pace in an orderly, powerful and patriotic way.
“If poverty was the cause of revolutions, there would be revolutions all the time,” Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky once said. While poverty may not be the strongest factor behind revolutions, social injustice and corruption often are. A huge gap between rich and poor is present in Vietnam, within nearly all districts, cities and provinces.
The poor are ordinary and powerless people; the rich are government officials, high-ranking Party members and their cronies who not long ago claimed to belong to the proletariat. The Vietnamese people supported the communists in their victory against foreign oppressors, but they are ready to move on.
Many Vietnamese now believe that a long-awaited true revolution has just begun.