June 2018 may go down as a new record for mass protests in Vietnam. Thousands of people across the three main regions of the country took to the streets, mostly in a peaceful manner, to protest against two controversial bills tabled at the National Assembly: the now-delayed special economic zone (SEZ) bill and the recently enacted cybersecurity law.
Why mass protests broke out this month in Vietnam have produced a variety of explanations, such as public antipathy towards the government or foreign involvement. However, it is not necessary to play the blame game to conclude that bad timing in tabling two draft bills before the National Assembly and statements by key politicians has inflamed public opinion. After all, we are living in a world of optics, where public attitudes are more material than ever.
The situation has all the hallmarks of a crisis of trust.
The context is important. The first bill, among other things, proposes to give foreign investors the right to lease Vietnamese land for up to ninety-nine years. Without a single line mentioning China, it nonetheless raises much concern over the potential long-term land occupation by Chinese investors and the perceived threat of the erosion of sovereignty.
The cybersecurity bill, on the other hand, faces public backlash for the allegedly suppression and violation of the people’s freedom of speech in the social media, and their right to privacy.
What both bills really stipulate is overshadowed by how they appear. The tabling of these bills to the National Assembly is first and foremost a question of timing. The 5th session of the 14th National Assembly was the shortest in recent memory, with 20 work days. Yet it aimed to ratify eight bills (with seven eventually passed) and discuss another eight.
The Assembly also promoted an improved question time aimed at directness and conciseness. With such high expectations, everything was moving a bit too fast. There were voices of concern from within the parliamentary ranks about how unprepared and hasty the SEZ bill appeared.
‘Don’t give our land away’: the clash of interests in Vietnam’s anti-China protests https://t.co/VZd6AndiOQ— SCMP News (@SCMP_News) June 23, 2018
Put into a larger context, the optics were not good. The contemporary simmering anti-Chinese sentiment can be traced back to as early as 2009 (if not even sooner), over the grand bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands, which many former top officials and scholars considered as a Chinese threat to national security. The public was outraged again in light of the HD-981 oil platform stand-off in 2014. The South China Sea disputes are widely seen in Vietnam as Chinese violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty. Then came the news about Chinese buying a lot of land in Central Vietnam.
Sinophobia is a real and multilayered reality among a large part of the Vietnamese people. Compared to the millennial Chinese domination and Vietnamese deference, the “close as lips and teeth” ties were just a brief moment in time, and politically self-serving. It is no surprise that the harsh feelings are deep-seated.
Even when the SEZ bill was still on the National Assembly floor, there was dissenting feedback from top economists, at least for fear that the projected special economic zones under the bill are unlikely to be viable. In the same vein, some parliament members argued that the bill might inadvertently facilitate influxes of immigrants.
Facing unexpected public objections, the government eventually decided to delay the approval of the bill to the next working session of the National Assembly, but not before some controversial statements had been thrown in. The chairperson of the National Assembly initially affirmed that “the Politburo has approved this initiative [economic zones], we [the Assembly] have to discuss to enact this law”. The minister of planning and investment lamented that some forces were trying to sabotage Vietnam–China relations.
Such statements, well-intentioned as they might be, could not have assuaged public opinion. The concession, therefore, seemed to be a tad too late to appease the public. Some watchers have dubbed the subsequent demonstrations the “worst flare-up of anti-Chinese sentiment in years”, and certainly the worst since 2014.
To make the optics even grimmer, the bill on cybersecurity was passed by a super-majority vote. With the SEZ bill postponed, many Vietnamese are aggrieved that while national sovereignty has been temporarily kept intact, the cyber law will curb their freedom of speech and right to privacy. All of these concerns are not necessarily substantiated, but such negative public perceptions are warranted.
The situation has all the hallmarks of a crisis of trust, given that a majority of the public believes that public sector corruption is chronically severe in Vietnam. Though the nationwide anti-graft campaign is winning popular support, the people are still pessimistic about the public sector, thus are less likely to give new policies the benefit of the doubt. No matter what, as per Professor Carl Thayer’s observation, the current situation is toxic.
Pushing an agenda, without studying public perceptions, may not be the best move. Nguyen Phu Trong, the party’s chief, said that the party has no other purpose other than being for the country and for the people. PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc argued that public concerns must be addressed in policymaking [regarding the SEZ bill].
These key messages need to be amplified by government officials in a timely and coherent manner. The past couple of years, Vietnam has made a leap forward with more accessible information to make the public better informed. Therefore, playing to the public can give a boost to all the major initiatives spearheaded by the government. At least, that is the lesson learned in many parts of the world.