Author: Benedict J Tria Kerkvliet, ANU
Before the mid-1990s, Vietnamese citizens rarely openly voiced discontent about working conditions, government policies or other political issues. They whispered their concerns to confidants and acted on them only surreptitiously. Such everyday resistance still occurs. But more remarkable today, people are also speaking out publicly.
Several times in June 2018, tens of thousands of Vietnamese poured into downtown Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other cities, causing huge traffic jams. The crowds were demonstrating against pending national legislation to create three special economic zones that Chinese enterprises would be able to lease for up to 99 years. The proposed zones are in sensitive areas: the southern end of the country, along Vietnam’s central coast and in the far north near Vietnam’s border with China. Opponents feared that this would create a virtual arc of Chinese control that would encompass Vietnam. The protests, along with massive online commentary and petitions against the zones, compelled Vietnam’s national leaders to withdraw the proposed legislation.
This was not the first time in recent years that incensed citizens have pressured government authorities to change course. In 2015, over 100,000 factory workers in Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces went on strike for eight days to oppose a law that would adversely affect their social insurance benefits. Only when national authorities agreed to change the law to meet workers’ demands did the strikes end. In 2015, thousands of people marched through Hanoi to protest a project that would cut down hundreds of large trees lining the city’s streets. Waves of demonstration and social media outbursts forced city officials to back down.
Equally momentous as the rise in political activism is authorities reacting not just with repression but with tolerance and positive response. Authorities have often either allowed citizens to speak or could not stop them. Many officials reason that undertaking aggressive campaigns to halt all activism would intensify discontent and challenges to Vietnamese Communist Party rule. The officials acknowledge that to maintain political order, the party and its government must heed, at least to some extent, people’s concerns.
Between 1995 and late 2018, factory workers across the country organised over 6600 strikes. They demanded higher wages, decent working conditions and better labour policies. Despite the strikes being illegal, authorities frequently tolerated and even sympathised with strikers. The government also revised several labour laws to meet some of the workers’ complaints. Repression against workers has predominantly been to intimidate and imprison those who attempt to form unauthorised independent unions.
Rural populations have also been restive. Between 2001 and 2010, government agencies appropriated nearly 2 million acres of agricultural land farmed by 9 million villagers, making up about 10 per cent of Vietnam’s population. Land appropriations have since slackened but still occur. The law allows the government to revoke farmers’ rights to land in order to create urban and industrial areas. Millions of villagers have openly protested, arguing that corrupt officials improperly implement those laws, cheat farmers of fair compensation and ignore the sacrifices that villagers made for the nation during two wars.
Investigations by government agencies frequently found that such complaints were valid, so officials increased compensations paid for appropriated land and revamped land-use laws. Authorities resorted to using force when evicting people after disputes persisted for years and to disperse very large demonstrations.
China’s actions in Vietnam have also prompted thousands of Vietnamese to speak out. Fishermen have defied Chinese authorities who try to stop them from fishing in waters within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Students, clerks, journalists and other citizens have marched and circulated petitions and essays condemning Chinese violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty. They also castigated Vietnamese leaders for being too compliant with China’s claims.
Officials countenanced numerous marches and protests against China. But they used intimidation and force when demonstrations became lengthy, threatened to spread nationwide or occurred in defiance of orders explicitly prohibiting them.
Calls for democratisation have also intensified in Vietnam. Since the late 1990s, thousands of citizens signed and sent to national authorities petitions and statements campaigning for multiparty elections, freedom of speech and other democratic institutions. Democratisation advocates have also published online magazines and newspapers, created blogs and written essays and books to advance their cause.
Authorities have been most repressive against those championing democratisation, employing intimidation, threats and brutality. A law which became effective in 2019 attempts to stop democratisation advocacy on the Internet. Authorities have also imprisoned many dissidents, especially since 2017. Yet numerous dissidents have not been arrested. Several of those who were jailed resumed their advocacy upon finishing their prison terms and yet authorities did not re-arrest them. Officials have also met with groups of dissidents and listened to their arguments.
Vietnamese citizens are today publicly voicing numerous political concerns, a development few thought possible before the 1990s. Authorities have reacted repressively, but not primarily so. They have tolerated public protests on a range of issues and frequently responded positively to citizens’ complaints and demands.
Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, an Affiliate Graduate Faculty member at the University of Hawai’i and author of Speaking Out in Vietnam: Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party-Ruled Nation (Cornell University Press, 2019) on which this article is based.