15 May 2014

Vietnam: death in a quiet country

Attacks on foreign-owned businesses are rare in Vietnam. Is there more behind the violence than just anti-Chinese sentiment?

Workers wave Vietnamese national flags during an anti-China protest at a Chinese shoe factory in Vietnam's northern Thai Binh province

In a quiet country, where unsanctioned outbursts are rare, Vietnam has shown the world something rather different this week.

Fuelled by anti-Chinese sentiment, tens of thousands of people in this south east Asian nation have taken to the streets, staging boisterous street protests and attacking foreign-owned factories.

Hundreds of manufacturing facilities have been ransacked or destroyed – 460 companies reported damage in Binh Duong Province alone – and a $20 billion steel operation in central Vietnam was set upon by 1,000 rioters, according to its Taiwanese owners.

Media agencies are reporting tonight that protestors mistook it for a Chinese-owned plant (although there is an alternative explanation for this – see below). Hundreds of Chinese nationals are reported to have fled to Cambodia to escape the rioting.

Read more: Why the South China Sea is the latest global flashpoint

You can see the remains of a Chinese factory in Binh Duong province here. These pictures show the destruction of part of a factory complex on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City  (formerly Saigon).

To get an idea of how unusual these protests really are, consider this: Vietnam is so tightly controlled that the ruling communists have made it a crime to post a news story on Facebook.

The government is so paranoid in fact, that 40 bloggers and activists were arrested last year for speaking their mind online. Over 30 are still behind bars, according to Reporters Without Borders.

This time it is different, says Hoi Trinh, a lawyer and director of human rights organisation Voice. He says the ruling communists are too afraid to take the people on.

“The top four party officials in the country including the prime minister and president have not uttered a word in public since this all started,” says Mr Trinh. “Anti-Chinese sentiment is so high that politicians cannot be seen to be kowtowing to the Chinese leadership. It demonstrates that people have power.”

The protests were triggered by China’s decision to deploy an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. The “Haiyang Shiyou 981” now sits about 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in an area claimed by both countries. It is just one of many long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Still, Mr Trinh says there is more going on here than a simple demonstration in anti-Chinese feeling. He argues that factory workers in particular have taken this opportunity to blow off steam.

“For years (factory) workers have been nursing grievances about their working conditions and the way they are treated.”

Without access to independent labour unions, says Trinh, workers have taken matters into their hands. “That’s why you are seeing Taiwanese factories attacked as well. Workers think they are badly treated by the Taiwanese and (they are) demonstrating their anger.”