Almost every worry in modern-day Vietnam is represented in the fish kill saga. The test for the government is not just in how to respond to protests over pollution, but how to manage many of the deeper problems these protests reflect. Cracking heads at demonstrations has little long term viability.
Even in a one-party nation, unexpected political landmines can wrongfoot a government, as the ca chet (dead fish) protests in Vietnam show. Public concern and anger have been growing since mid-April when tonnes of dead fish began washing up on beaches. Government inaction prompted large protests in major cities, which in turn resulted in a predictable government reaction: arrests and violence.
Many of the bigger issues that worry the populace, and the government, are present in this round of protests. For the people, these include the management of foreign investment, environmental protection and food safety. The government's major concern is staying a few steps ahead of a growing civil society that is organising online.
The facts are these: from early April, dead fish began washing up on Vietnam's beaches, first on Vung An in Ha Tinh and then three other central northern provinces. The mass deaths were quickly linked to a massive waste discharge from the new steel milling plant run by Taiwanese company Formosa. Matters were not helped when Formosa spokesman Chou Chun Fan told a media conference that Vietnam needed 'to choose whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a state-of-the-art steel mill.'
Social media came alive with photos of people holding handwritten signs saying, in Vietnamese and English, 'I choose fish'. That was followed by protests involving hundreds of people in Hanoi and Saigon on two successive weeks. Last week they turned violent, with many beaten and arrested, including a mother with her young daughter.
The government's reluctance to blame Formosa has irritated people deeply. This government sells itself on its ability to manage problems clearly and smoothly; in this case that has not happened.
People worry over the quality of their food, much of which may now be carcinogenic, according to local media. Foods are polluted with pesticides and meat has been improperly raised or stored. Other food stuffs may be poisonous, containing dangerous chemicals or, in the case of bright orange chilli sauces, dyes. Even the beloved ca phe sua da (traditional Vietnamese coffee) may be fake.
Worries over the state of the environment have been growing as pollution worsens. Younger people, educated and net connected, are also very aware of global environmental concerns. In some cases, such as on climate change, which will affect Vietnam badly in decades to come, the government message is gung ho environmentalism. Many government ministers have commented on the dangers climate change will pose to low lying Mekong regions as waters rise and the media have comprehensively covered the successive UN climate change conferences. Climate change is, however, portrayed as an external threat.
Faced by activism against Central Highlands Bauxite mines in 2009. the government message was confused but Facebook wound up unofficially blocked to stop disparate groups organising online.
Internet-organised activism is growing in Vietnam and is no longer restricted to educated dissidents. Last year there were large protests against Hanoi's tree kill, when many of the city's beautiful rare wood trees were marked for the chainsaw.
The mass fish kill is is not the first environmental scandal involving Taiwan. In 2008 Vedan, an MSG producer, was found to have left a 10km stretch of the Thi Vai River in Dong Nai province, north of Saigon, ecologically 'dead'; unable to sustain life again. The outrage then did not match current levels, but the low fines the company paid, and its cavalier attitude, irritated many and led to the evergreen question in the developing world: what price progress?
Protests in Vietnam are more common than the casual watcher may appreciate; however, the majority that take place outside of the major cities are inspired not by politics but everyday problems: corruption, land grabs, police violence. Big protests involving citizens who don't have a direct stake in the game are less common. Protests against Chinese actions in the South China Sea have been an exception, but these were generally sedate and attended mainly by a core group of the politically motivated.
These fish kill protests are some of the biggest Vietnam has seen in its major cities in recent years and were attended by more than the politically motivated. Across the board, the population has been horrified by so many tonnes of fish washing up on already polluted beaches (newspapers and commentators have noted a certain cognitive dissonance in the anger at a foreign company when beaches are regularly trashed by local tourists).
Foreign investment and corruption are twin challenges for the government. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong committed to continuing Vietnam's reforms when he retained the top post in the new government that was ushered in by the January national congress. At that time, the emphasis was on fighting corruption, reforming state-owned enterprises, and bringing the country in line with TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) commitments of transparency and rule of law. Making sure foreign investors observed environmental guidelines was not on the agenda. Reform is touted as a way to entice foreign investment; ignoring your own environmental laws is not but seems to have worked too, to the anger of the population.
Government transparency in solving problems and laying blame where it may be due has also remained a non-issue for the ruling party, publicly at least.
President Obama is due to visit Vietnam and Japan later this month and the US top human rights envoy, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowksi, will precede him. Lifting the weapons sales embargo will be on the agenda, but human rights will be a stumbling block. Given the crackdown and violent treatment of protesters, there may be more to talk about in relation to human rights than the Vietnamese government would have hoped.
In the longer term, the test for the government won't just be how it deals with both its discouraged and angry citizens and with Formosa. It will also have to manage an increasingly active civil society, environmental concerns, and the need to balance foreign investment with local priorities. Until then, people will keep choosing fish.