By Bridget The demonstrations over the past several weeks in Hanoi over a maritime dispute with China may have been small. But they were still unusual.
For five consecutive Sundays this past month, protesters in Hanoi have gathered close to the Chinese embassy to protest China’s recent actions in the South China Sea (known as the East Sea in Vietnam).
The meetings have drawn perhaps just a few hundred people, and some weeks even less than that. Still, in a country where public protests are rare – and where if they do occur, they generally focus on issues that directly affect people’s day-to-day lives, such as land grabs or factory conditions – these gatherings have felt particularly unusual.
So far, the protests have started close to the Chinese embassy, although the block on Hoang Dieu street where the embassy actually sits has generally been cordoned off by police. As a result, demonstrators have spent time in Ba Dinh Square (home to a well-known statue of Lenin) before moving around the city centre and Hanoi’s central lake, Hoan Kiem.
The police, for their part, have seemed concerned with little more than ensuring traffic was still flowing properly.
Many protesters I’ve spoken with say they’ve found out about the demonstration through internet sources such as Facebook. The social networking site is popular in Vietnam, though the authorities have blocked it since the end of 2009, when activists began to organize online, mostly around the contentious issue of Chinese-run bauxite mines in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Back then, the bauxite issue united disparate groups, from dissident Catholics to environmental activists and political protesters worried over China’s growing influence in the country. One of the worries now, therefore, is that the current displays of nationalism could provide a platform for other grievances to be aired.
‘Although protesters have been allowed to demonstrate, the police keep a watchful eye for any attempts to turn the message against the government,’ says Jennifer Richmond, China director of intelligence analysis group Stratfor. ‘In other words, rocky domestic politics are adding further complication to these states' attempts to manage their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.’
So far, at least, there has been little overt evidence of this, although one man at a demonstration last month carried a hand-written anti-communist sign in English, while some well-known dissidents were also present. Instead, most of the anger has been centred on China, and the perceived violations of Vietnamese territorial waters by Vietnam’s larger neighbour, as well as the treatment of Vietnamese fishermen by Chinese fleets. Some foreign media have also reported that as nationalist sentiment has flared, a growing number of Chinese businesses have been boycotted.
‘China! Stop violating the territorial waters of Vietnam,’ one typical slogan read. Another protester held aloft a picture of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the nonagenarian who was the architect behind the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. ‘Vo Nguyen Giap’s spirit is ever lasting. We are ready to join the army!’