July 8, 2011
By M Goonan
HANOI - Sovereignty spats in the South China Sea have made global headlines in recent months. In Vietnam, state-run press coverage of the conflict has toed the ruling communist party's nationalistic line but has also shown less clear direction than with previous contentious issues related to China.
VietnamNet, an online news service in Vietnam, ran a story last week with the unwieldy headline: "Social networks turn red for Vietnam's sovereignty over East Sea." The East Sea is how Vietnam officially refers to the South China Sea where Chinese and Vietnamese vessels have in recent weeks clashed in contested waters.
The social network the state-owned news site referred to was Facebook, a site the government tries to block but pretends it doesn't. The story noted hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had joined patriotic groups on the site which are opposed to rising Chinese assertiveness in the East Sea.
"Besides topics about Hoang Sa and Truong Sa [the Spratly and Paracel Islands], topics on patriotism, lessons from history in defending the country are also discussed enthusiastically," the article said. "Tension in the East Sea has become the common interest of the nation. The online community, which is said to be only interest in entertaining issues, is now very serious with politics [sic]."
In between talk of patriotic avatars and online petitions, the story somehow failed to note that Facebook has been one of the primary organizing tools for the anti-China street protests staged in Vietnam over the past five Sunday mornings. It also forgot to mention official government decrees against discussing politics online.
At the end of 2008, an official law was passed limiting blog chatter to the personal while outlawing the political. So far the protests held in the capital have not rated a mention in any local news reports.
"In my opinion, the Vietnamese government as a whole has no firm strategy to direct the press to cover this issue, evidenced in the inconsistent nature of the stories," said Geoffrey Cain, a Ho Chi Minh City-based Fulbright scholar researching Vietnamese media.
That inconsistent nature includes the odd attack on Chinese media and its consistent claims of sovereignty over the contested maritime areas. However, the vitriol directed at other South China Sea claimants seen in some elements of the Chinese press, both in Chinese and English, has been conspicuously absent from press coverage here.
Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, says, "A bit of patriotism and nationalism is permitted, but direct negative references to China are not."
In recent years, authorities have detained and sentenced a handful of local bloggers who posted materials deemed as critical of China. One blogger, Nguyen Van Hai, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after calling for demonstrations on his Dieu Cay blog against the Beijing Olympic torch relay when it was scheduled to pass through Ho Chi Minh City.
The nature of those protests and commentaries were different because they attacked the government on its perceived capitulation to China on disputed territorial issues. Indeed, pro-democracy group activists have sometimes used appeals to nationalism, including the government's perceived weak stance on asserting its territorial claims vis-a-vis China, to drive their own agendas.
This has not happened yet with the current anti-China protests, though the government has no doubt kept a watchful eye to see that the protests do not spill over to include grievances about governance. That, of course, is unlikely to happen in the tightly controlled official media but would be possible via blogs or Facebook.
Still, the government's line on allowing expressions of anti-China sentiment has clearly softened with recent rising tensions with China. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made a show of announcing recent live-fire drills in an area of the South China Sea well within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and a new draft law on military conscription which comes into force in August.
Thayer said that in general "major developments involving China and the South China Sea go unreported" in the local media but pointed out that many Vietnamese papers had published stories on the plight of Vietnamese fishermen who have been harassed or captured by Chinese vessels. Other articles have been allowed that "demonstrate Vietnam's historical connections to islands and rocks in the East China Sea," Thayer said.
Cain says that different government ministries may have competing agendas when it comes to press coverage. "In the South China Sea spats, for example, journalists have told me that the Vietnamese navy favors publishing certain stories in the interests of making them look like valiant heroes against China, while the Ministry of Public Security [secret police] does not like those same stories because they stir up public unrest and protests."
The lack of information has pushed the local rumor mill into overdrive. One popular theory is that the anti-China protests are in fact government organized, rather than just sanctioned. These rumors have spread despite the fact police apparently tried to disperse a recent anti-China demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City.
In Hanoi, authorities have routinely blocked access to the street where the Chinese Embassy is situated, though they have allowed protesters to march around the city disrupting traffic for a few hours on five consecutive Sunday mornings. Public protests are uncommon in authoritarian-run Vietnam, especially overtly political ones that don't involve people's daily lives or well-being. In 2007, the last time there were protests over China, arrests followed.
Some believe the situation may die down before it flares up. Realizing that ongoing tensions are not entirely useful, Hanoi and Beijing recently penned a joint press release which in part emphasized "the need to steer public opinions along the correct direction, avoiding comments and deeds that harm the friendship and trust of the people of the two countries".
The joint statement also made note of their mutual friendship and the need for peace, stability and development in the region. Thayer said that even with the joint statement the situation remains "delicate" and that honoring its intentions will not be easy. "Any transgressions will likely be magnified," he said.
As such, the wars of words between the two state-run presses could still motivate new attacks. There were reports of cyber-attacks when tensions first started to boil, including a hacking attack last year on VietnamNet. Though some observers wondered whether the news site was the target of regime hardliners, sources close to the paper believe the attacks could have come from "outside Vietnam" - ie from China.
M Goonan, a pseudonym, is a Vietnam-based freelance journalist.