A man walks past a hoarding marking the 130th birthday of Vietnam's revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh on a street in Hanoi on May 19, 2020. Photo: AFP / Nhac Nguyen

On Thursday, Pham Chi Thanh, a Vietnamese writer and blogger, was arrested for “producing, storing, and disseminating information and documents against the Vietnamese state.” The following day, Nguyen Anh Tuan, a well-known pro-democracy activist and writer, was detained in Hanoi.

A former reporter at the state-radio Voice of Vietnam, Pham Chi Thanh subsequently became a “dissident” writer, publishing honest and critical books about Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and the Communist government’s founding father Ho Chi Minh.

Thanh is also thought to be connected to, and possibly targeted because of his connection with, the Liberal Publishing House, a local independent publisher that the Vietnamese government has been harassing for the past year. There may be no connection, though, as the Communist government happily targets any critic who poses a problem for the regime.

For starters, his arrest should receive a swift rebuke from human rights organizations, as well as from the international community and foreign governments.

For the latter, though, that might be optimistic. We still haven’t seen enough pushback after numerous arrests of other writers and activists in recent months, including of independent journalist Pham Chi Dung in November (see my article Vietnam’s assault on a journalist), even though this was raised at the European Union, which nonetheless voted through a free-trade deal with Vietnam in February.

It also comes amid a debate about Vietnam’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Last week, a social-media debate – which naturally turned into a shouting match – ensued after the publication of an article in Foreign Policy, “Vietnam’s Coronavirus Success Is Built on Repression,” written by Bill Hayton and a Vietnamese colleague of his.

To set the scene: In recent weeks, international media and governments have praised Vietnam’s handling of the crisis, which has resulted in relatively few cases, considering Vietnam neighbors China, and officially not one death, so far. I, among others, have also written about the Communist government’s uncharacteristic openness and transparency, which included regular press briefings, updates by phone and so forth.

This is especially the case when you compare it, say, with the 2016 Formosa toxic spill, when the government spent weeks trying to cover up the environmental disaster.

Or in comparison to how the Communist government did, in fact, manage to cover up what happened at the Dong Tam commune in January, when thousands of police raided the small village and shot dead the 84-year-old leader of the village’s land-rights protesters. Rightly, some call this a massacre, and Facebook has been criticized for helping the government cover it up.  

However, what Hayton and his co-author wrote is also true. The government’s response has also been built on repressive tactics, namely shutdowns, restrictions on free movement and the police’s enforcement of quarantine in certain areas of the country. 

To summarize their article in one sentence, they argued that the Communist government’s response was so effective because it has practiced the same repressive and coercive tactics for decades, ever since unifying the country in 1975. The same mechanisms that allowed for effective shutdowns and population control under the coronavirus pandemic, they wrote, “are the same mechanisms that facilitate and protect the country’s one-party rule.”

Even though this is relatively obvious, the article still elicited an angry response online. Some of the critics are simply Party loyalists, who won’t have a bad word said against it. You show these people the sheer facts of Communist Party brutality and repression, and they either have a ready set of excuses or think it’s a good thing.

But a more nuanced group of critics argued that in such a crisis coercive and repressive tactics should be praised. At times, the comments veered off into “what-aboutism,” by claiming that South Korea and Western democracies also used more surveillance, repealed civil liberties and restricted free movement, so Vietnam wasn’t an exception – and therefore, they seem to insinuate, Hayton was wrong to single out Vietnam.

However, that argument doesn’t contradict the point Hayton and his colleague were making, which is that Vietnam’s Communist government had decades of practice of such repression. “These are the same people,” they wrote, “who can barricade government critics inside their houses to prevent them meeting journalists, convene a neighborhood denunciation session to intimidate dissidents, or make sure someone’s kids get rough treatment at school if he or she makes too much noise about local corruption.”

Other critics, choosing not actually to rebut the arguments of the article, chose instead to bash it for its journalistic merit. The authors used few sources and only spoke to a handful of Vietnamese nationals, some asserted. Others refused to crack a smile at the pseudonym given for Hayton’s co-author, “Tro Ly Ngheo,” which means “poor assistant,” a rather witty comment on how local journalists and translators are often overlooked in Asia when reporting with foreign journalists (at least, that’s how I read the intended pun).

In actual fact, Hayton’s article was rather tame. Indeed, it didn’t mention the Dong Tam commune massacre or the Formosa disaster. It didn’t argue – as it could have done – that the Vietnamese Communist Party is incapable of not being repressive; that its response to the crisis was instinctive. Neither did it mention the country’s pro-democracy movement, which has tried to raise the issue of repression throughout the crisis.

In one sense, it was also going to be a controversial topic given the battle of global narratives, especially the one being intensely pushed by Beijing for the last few weeks, which says that strong and authoritative governments have handled the Covid-19 crisis better than weak, enfeebled democracies.

As a regular commentator on Vietnam, and having written several articles on its Communist government’s Covid-19 response in recent months, I agree fully with Hayton. However, I might add a few facets that I have tried to get across.

First, that the Communist government responded with uncharacteristic transparency and openness during the pandemic crisis. Despite this, it’s very likely that, in truth, there have been Covid-19-related deaths in Vietnam despite the government’s claim of zero fatalities – either intentionally concealed or not. But the numbers are likely to be small. While it’s possible to overlook a handful or a few dozen deaths, it would impossible to do so for thousands.

Second, I’ve written that the government appears to have won much public applause for its handling of the crisis. Some recent opinion polls support this. One survey of 23 countries by Blackbox Research and international online panel specialist Toluna found that 77% of Vietnamese approved of their government’s handling of the crisis, second to only China.

Third, while the government has performed comparatively well during this health crisis, and has won applause from the public, it will face an even more difficult challenge as the health crisis wanes and as more people come face to face with the economic crisis that will affect greater numbers of people.

That said, let’s return to the matter at hand. Throughout this crisis, and even despite the Communist government’s more-than-usual transparency and openness about the problems faced, it hasn’t stopped its policy of suppression.

According to the Foreign Policy piece, “between January 23, when Vietnam detected its first case of infection, and mid-March, police censored around 300,000 posts on news sites and blogs and 600,000 posts on social media about Covid-19. During those two months, police took action against 654 cases of so-called fake news and sanctioned 146 people.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, during it, and now that things are beginning to return to some normalcy in Vietnam, the authorities haven’t ceased repressing Party critics. The arrest on Thursday of Pham Thanh makes that clear. Most probably, he was targeted because of his apparent connection with the Liberal Publishing House, which the government has tried to crush since it opened in February 2019.

It’s not hard to see why. It has published titles that include Politics of a Police StateNon-Violent ResistancePolitics for the Common PeopleLife Behind Iron Bars. In other words, books that don’t conform to state propaganda.

It’s one of the only independent publishers, given that almost all printing presses are state-owned, and, according to an Al Jazeera report from January, the editors and workers have to move operations often to avoid the police confiscating their machinery. The publishing law forbids work that can be easily deemed “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” and which “spread reactionary ideology.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the same month the Liberal Publishing House was set up, its Facebook page had to close after being targeted by a cyber-troop attack, probably one of those connected to the Party. Its website was then targeted by hackers in November.

Last July, it had several accounts closed by banks, again most likely because of state pressure. Police also tried to force shipping companies to hand over the names of people who bought books from the publisher.

More straightforward repression was also deployed. People working for the publisher, or who were found to have bought books from it, have been interrogated at police stations in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hue, as well as in several other provinces. Most had to sign a statement saying they would never buy books from the publisher again.

One alleged worker for the publisher was badly beaten by the police on October 15 in Ho Chi Minh City. The following month, another worker went into hiding. Amnesty International asserted in January that more than 100 people connected to the publisher had been questioned by the authorities. And now, as we see, even despite an unprecedented crisis, more arrests have been made.

As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations.