Over the weekend, several protests took place in Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hanoi and other places in Vietnam, opposing proposed laws on special economic zones and cyber security deliberated at the Vietnamese National Assembly.
Western media have hyped up the incidents that these demonstrations are targeting China, stirring up anti-China sentiment among Vietnamese. The proposed special economic zone law extends the land lease period of the three special zones in Vietnam to 99 years for investors from all countries. But a few Vietnamese radicals clamored that the law would lead to Chinese “long-term occupation of Vietnamese land.”
This view distorts the original intentions of the Vietnamese government, and it is using anti-China sentiment to incite nationalism to challenge the current political system in Vietnam. Sino-Vietnamese relations have maintained steady development in recent years. South China Sea disputes have been effectively under control and bilateral cooperation has been fruitful. Moreover, China has remained Vietnam’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade volume reached $121.3 billion last year, 24 percent higher than in 2016.
Vietnam is not a pioneer in leasing land up to 99 years to foreign companies in economic zones. Neighboring Thailand has already enacted the policy. Since renters are businesses, rather than governments, it is political intrigue of outside forces to bring up the issue of sovereignty.
Vietnam falls short in network management and technical capabilities. Citizens have direct access to Western websites such as Facebook, a convenient platform for political dissidents, such as the New Vietnam Revolutionary Party, to engage in political liaison and mobilization. Prevention of the infiltration of foreign forces is likely behind Hanoi’s recent cyber security legislation.
In fact, Vietnam’s reforms have gradually entered “deep water area,” where the preservation of domestic political order gets increasingly complex. With effective control of maritime disputes, conflicts with Beijing are no longer the main challenge for Hanoi. Instead, forces who attempt to utilize disputes between the two countries to instigate discontent within Vietnamese society over the Vietnamese Communist Party are becoming a prominent political concern in Vietnam.
Incitement of nationalism to oppose a government that is promoting sound foreign policy is often a trick of political opponents. Now that Chinese and Vietnamese mutual interests have become closely aligned, without political incitement, there should be no collective hatred toward China in Vietnam.
Today, Vietnam is already a hot destination for Chinese tourists. The number of Vietnamese studying in China is also among the highest among Southeast Asia. Non-governmental exchanges between the two countries are thriving. The law provision on the length of land lease term is a typical issue of economic legislation. Even if there are disagreements, it should be discussed through legitimate channels according to Vietnamese law. However, demonstrations against the provision broke out simultaneously in several places. Is it possible the land provision was simply a pretense for opposition forces with malicious intent to mobilize?
At any rate, what’s behind the protests is up to Vietnamese leadership to decide, though they should be allowed to do so without outside provocation. I believe that the mainstream society of Vietnam will take notice of similar “proxy conflict” experiences around the world.