The Facebook page of Nguyen Thanh Tuan, a retired lieutenant general in the Vietnamese military, seethes with his critical commentary of the newly released book Gạc Ma: Vòng Tròn Bất Tử, a historical account of China’s annexation from Vietnam of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Tuan, along with a growing number of online voices who refer to themselves as “red flag nationalists”, felt the volume was textbook “historical revisionism” that was both unpatriotic and disrespectful to national heroes, and agitated for the ruling Communist Party to censor the work.
In recent days, Vietnamese authorities have appeared to acquiesce by ordering a temporary halt to the book’s distribution, reportedly to make corrections to contentious passages.
It was yet another victory for Vietnam’s rising online “red flag” movement, named after the country’s starred scarlet banner. Some analysts who monitor its online posts have likened it to the xenophobic and illiberal Alt-Right movement in the United States.
Active mainly on Facebook and Youtube, the “red flag” groups message is clarion: They want more, not less, Communist Party repression against liberal voices and for it to restore the nation’s founding socialist credentials.
It is at times nationalistic and militaristic, but more than anything it is overtly anti-Western. As well as grassroots agitators, many prominent voices within these groups are current or retired members of the security apparatus, from both the police and military. And while most are ardent supports of the Communist Party, many complain that it has lost its way.
In particular, they argue that the Party has been too lenient on liberals, mistaken in its nominal advocacy for “democratization” of society and often dishonors the Party’s heroes like Ho Chi Minh by forging closer relations with America, the group’s bete noire.
For some, they are part of the polarization of Vietnamese society, seen most clearly online by antagonistic ideological groups. First and foremost is the sizable pro-human rights and democratic movement, which openly campaigns for a transition to a multi-party system in Vietnam.
Many of this movement’s activists have banded online around groups like the Brotherhood for Democracy, a network established in 2013 which has been severely hit by government repression in recent months, with six of its prominent members imprisoned in April.
Another component group are the so-called “yellow flags,” a reference to the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, the anti-communist South that fell to the North in 1975. Many of its proponents are from diaspora communities, especially in America where many supporters of the Saigon regime fled after the communist’s victory in 1975.
In seeming response, the regressive “red flag” groups have emerged with a vengeance in recent months. A popular YouTube channel known as Viet Vision, which at its height had 97,000 subscribers before reportedly ceasing operations in March, was thought to be a major voice for the movement.
Before shuttering, it published lengthy videos attacking liberal activists like prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Doan Trang, a well-known blogger and journalist who was recently placed under house arrest.
One of Viet Vision’s most well-known commentators was Tran Nhat Quang, a prominent “red flag nationalist” who gained notoriety in 2015 when he tried to resurrect vigilante “people’s courts” to punish, or at least to report, people who disrespected the country’s flag, defamed national heroes or showed support for the old South Vietnam.
This centered on the case of Nguyen Lan Thang, a human rights activist who Quang claimed had defamed the honor of revolutionary hero Ho Chi Minh. Thang said that he was constantly followed and attacked by unknown vigilantes, supposedly from “red flag” groups, who painted red insignia on the front door of his home.
Although it is primarily an online movement, its members often physically act on their threats. In September 2017, for example, group associates based in the nation’s southern provinces entered a church in Dong Nai province brandishing pistols and batons.
They came to threaten a Catholic priest, Nguyen Duy Tan, who had called for a referendum on certain social issues on his Facebook page. Eleven individuals were later fined over the incident. In another incident in 2017, Quang and associates reportedly attacked two priests in Nghe An province.
The “red flag” movement is known to be vehemently anti-Catholic, most likely because of its members’ articulated hatred of French colonialism and the old Republic of Vietnam regime, whose leaders and state apparatus privileged Catholics.
There are various opinions on the importance of the emerging hardline movement. Some commentators reckon they are paid by the state and only act and comment when the Party wants them to, particularly when the regime wants to silence liberal critics.
Another interpretation is they are just a consortium of a few voices, mainly retired military officials, who are glorified online “trolls.” Some spectators call them the new “Red Guards” of the Party, reference to the paramilitaries who previously ferreted out anti-regime elements.
But relationships with the Party differs from “red flag” individual to individual, and at least in the early days authorities were certainly not entirely supportive of the groups.
For example, when some “red flag” members counter-protested a memorial demonstration led by liberal activists in Hanoi in March 2015, the capital’s police chief Nguyen Duc Chung, who is now chairman of Hanoi’s People’s Committee, considered their actions inappropriate.
Some high profile members lost their government jobs as a result while others quit their nationalistic activism
Nowadays, however, there is very little push back from the government. Indeed, last year the propaganda branch of Ho Chi Minh City’s party apparatus started a Facebook page called “Cờ Đỏ TPHCM”, or “Ho Chi Minh City Red Flags,” reportedly under pressure from proponents living in the southern economic hub where most “red flag” members are based.
The “red flag” groups relations with Force 47, a 10,000-strong cyber-warfare unit controlled by the military tasked with spreading pro-Party propaganda and flagging up content for authorities to investigate. Analysts say that “red flag” groups actually grew because of what they considered an inadequate response by authorities towards “anti-state” content published online.
“From a psychological point of view, their members regard participating in a so-called cyber-warfare against liberal activists and commentators as a ‘people’s war’… paradoxically as a human right to have a greater say in the nation’s politics,” contends a political risk analyst who requested anonymity.
In many ways, the “red flag” are comparable in outlook to the so-called “New Left” which formed in China during the 1990s reform era. Taisu Zhang, of Yale Law School, has described the “New Left” as combining nationalist sentiments, particularly anti-Western ones, with demands for a “reconstruction of socialism.”
But unlike China’s “New Left,” which chiefly emerged from intellectual circles, Vietnam’s “red flag” movement often lacks a coherent ideological standpoint on big questions and issues.
For example, some partisans oppose globalist and pro-capitalist economic reforms, “but fervently support any economic policy… as long as they are government-initiated – regardless of being ostensibly progressive or outright anti-socialist economic measures,” says one analyst who monitors the movement online.
Their foreign policy outlook is also often confused. Many present themselves as patriotic by being critical of China, Vietnam’s historic enemy and source of much nationalistic fervor in the country. Yet they often express envy at Beijing’s model of governance and tend to drop anti-China sentiment when it comes to Vietnam’s improved relations with America.
At the basest level, “red flag” nationalists consider America to be a much greater threat than China. They broadly oppose what they see as a worrying trend in Vietnamese society, which some of them term “bài Trung, phò Mỹ,” or “shunning China and being a prostitute to the US.”
China’s “New Left” and Vietnam’s “red flag” groups share concerns about their respective nations’ “post-ideological” eras, the 1990s in China and more recently in Vietnam.
Small wonder, then, that former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was instrumental in forming closer relations with America during the 2000s and veered away from ideology in favor of more individualistic rule, is widely panned in “red flag” circles.
During Dung’s decade-long tenure, communist ideologues were replaced by both technocrats, in line with the nation’s transition to more market-oriented economics, as well as capitalistic rent-seekers whose only interest in politics was for financial gain.
Vietnam’s “red flag” groups are now openly calling for the reconstruction of socialism in its most illiberal form. They have found a natural champion in current Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. For some, Trong has “re-ideologicalized” Vietnamese politics.
Unlike his predecessors, Trong has reemphasized the country’s – and Party’s – moral and ideological cravings. He often speaks about socialism and the dangers of “peaceful evolution,” Party lexicon for democratic reforms.
Improving the morality of Party members will decide “whether the revolution will succeed or fail,” Trong said in May, around the same time that he introduced new performance assessments for Party members.
Trong’s asserted his dominance over the Party at the 2016 Party Congress, when his conservative allies forced the less-ideological and Dung, out of office.
“The campaigns against ordinary and ideological corruption are for Nguyen Phu Trong the fruit of a lifetime of effort,” wrote David Brown, a former US diplomat and Vietnamese linguist, in April.
“At 73, the General Secretary is already well past retirement age and impatient to fulfill his mission of cleansing the Party and restoring its authority,” he added.
Since the 2016 Party Congress, Trong has unleashed a monumental anti-corruption drive to restore the Party’s morality as well as purge Dung loyalists. He has also led a crackdown against Party critics and liberal activists, of which more than 100 are now thought to be imprisoned.
“I would say the crackdown on liberals these days is part of a trend where the conservatives at the top are gaining more influence, including the ‘red flags’. They have for a long time complained that the government has been too lenient on liberal forces,” says an analyst.
It’s a repressive trend that is likely to intensify as Trong and the “red flag” groups essentially sing from the same hymn book. Yet it would be wrongheaded to think of the nationalist groups as unswerving Party loyalists and hence represent a double-edged sword for the communists, say analysts.
Whether the groups morph into the sort of movement that challenges the Party’s current configuration and outlook, like the Tea Party did to the Republican Party in the US, is yet to be seen. But the “red flag” groups are clearly driving greater polarization in Vietnamese society between liberal and illiberal groups and through violent acts and rhetoric threaten to tip the stability the regime has long given primacy.