A Dance With Dragons

Vietnam has had a difficult week with anti-China protests, but the most significant one may be happening on its social networks


If China has a Mini-Me in this world, it is surely the one to be found both geographically and figuratively at its knee: Vietnam. Both are rapidly developing, autocratic, single-party Communist states, though Vietnam is small by comparison (despite being the 13th largest nation in the world by population) and got a later start on its economic reforms. They’re both highly collectivist societies deeply rooted in Confucian values. For nearly a thousand years Vietnam was considered part of China, a Florida-like appendage hanging awkwardly south and slightly to the east. And in so many ways Vietnam models itself after China, a tiny, somewhat less charismatic twin seeking validation and approval from the hero figure it’s forever looking up to.

So it’s surprising that the two don’t get along better than they do. Over the weekend, in the wake of China’s planting of a massive oil rig in a region of the East Sea that Vietnam has long considered an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), hundreds of people across Vietnam took part in anti-China demonstrations in all its major cities, and a series of riots in industrial districts of 22 provinces across the country trashed and burned scores of what protesters thought were Chinese businesses (though many turned out to be Taiwanese and Singaporean), killing several Chinese workers. At the same time, social media users in Vietnam also scrambled to denounce China’s actions in the East Sea by sharing and reposting dozens of hastily created image memes and mashups.

“Vietnam has harbored strong anti-Chinese sentiment for decades, dating at least to the 1979 border war between the two.”

Given that street protests of any kind in Vietnam are normally dispersed within minutes and that dozens of Vietnamese bloggers have been arrested and imprisoned for expressing anti-China sentiment online in recent years, it’s astonishing that so many feel so strongly about the issue that they’re willing to risk government wrath by engaging in such overt behavior. Such, though, is the force of the ambivalence that Vietnamese hold toward their northern neighbor.

But this is no accident. Vietnam has harbored strong anti-Chinese sentiment for decades, dating at least to the 1979 border war between the two, when Chinese forces briefly occupied a portion of nothern Vietnam in retaliation for Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia the previous year. And Hanoi has nurtured and cultivated such sentiment over the years in state-controlled media, which regularly indulges in a soft brand of China bashing. Newspapers revel in reports of China’s many food safety horror stories, knowing full well that much of the produce sold at Vietnamese markets is Chinese in origin. They wring endless juice from the Chinese hucksters who each year dupe gullible Vietnamese farmers by the thousands with get-rich-quick schemes. Reports of young Vietnamese girls who are kidnapped, sold as brides, or “hired” as workers in China only to be delivered into sexual slavery are as regular in local papers as Party diktats. In a New York Times article Monday reporting on anti-China protests in Hanoi over the weekend, one protester was quoted as saying, “We don’t have a problem with Chinese people or their culture, but we resent their government conspiring against us.” Rubbish. It is precisely the Chinese people and their culture that Vietnamese have been conditioned to fear, mistrust and resent.

This week, those feelings exploded to the fore, not only in the riots that were all over international news feeds but on social networks in Vietnam. At the beginning of the week, for example, hotels in Hanoi and Nha Trang placed placards in their lobbies proclaiming that they are refusing to serve guests from China until the Chinese government removes the drilling rig, known as HD-981, from what Vietnam claims are sovereign waters in the East Sea. Photos of the signs — written in Chinese, Vietnamese, and English — raced across the social web.

As always, Facebook is the prefered platform for Vietnamese expressing themselves on this and any issue, as they tend to ignore Twitter and other microblogs. As I’ve written before, the posting and sharing of image memes on Facebook allows users in repressive societies to feel more secure with expressing ideas and sentiments that might raise eyebrows and red flags if expressed more overtly — say, in an angry blog post. When Facebook introduced the ability, last summer, to comment by posting an image alone, without the need for any accompanying text, it opened the floodgates for an indirect form of activism in which remixed images and template memes with sometimes pointed social and political messages spread across the network with astonishing speed — without the need for any of the thousands of participants to actually write anything. Many of the images that emerged over the weekend appear to target Chinese people directly, despite the let’s-all-get-along rhetoric that’s been popular in state-controlled media narratives.

“The posting and sharing of image memes on Facebook allows users in repressive societies to feel more secure with expressing ideas and sentiments that might raise eyebrows and red flags if expressed more overtly.”

One widely-shared image urges Vietnamese to boycott Chinese products, a tactic that’s not only a political statement but also exploits the widespread belief in Vietnam that anything coming out of China is either of rock-bottom quality or hazardous to one’s health.

A few images offer a more lighthearted and humorous take on the situation, utilizing trollfaces and cartoonish drawings — but it’s clear giggles are not their chief intent.

“Chinese fools! You dare to come into my house. I’ll shoot you and break your skull!”
“Relax, we’re only fishing…”
“Vietnam rides a dragon flying in the wind.
China rides a dog, barking woof, woof.”
“Vietnam has no opponent.
China is like the knee of Vietnam.”

Even the uber-popular Disney remix factory known as the Tuyet Bitch Collection, which ordinarily eschews overt references to politics, jumped into the fray with not one but three images:

“Recently, China has ridiculously lost their mind for daring to intrude into Vietnamese territory. China must have forgotten how badly it has been beaten and humiliated in its history with Vietnam.”

They took a more conciliatory tone with a follow-up image posted Tuesday.

“I’m just like you.”
“The wrong people are the Chinese government, not Chinese citizens.”

A third post from Tuyet Bitch, accumulating 11,000 Likes and more than 2,000 shares, has become the default avatar for tens of thousands of Vietnamese Facebook users in less than a week.

“Together we focus all our attention on the East Sea.”

Given the nature and the origin of many of these kinds of images under ordinary circumstances — on the several 9GAG-like image-sharing sites such as Hai.VL, Epic.vn, and others, which specialize in the puerile, the silly, and the jejune — it’s remarkable that so few of them have humour as their intent; the images that seem to be most popular are either aggressively militaristic towards China or disparaging and derisive toward its claims in the East Sea. Some that have been widely shared go so far as to threaten apocalyptic military repercussions on China. One, for example, cites Vietnamese military victories against the French and the Americans as thinly-veiled warnings to China not to provoke the Vietnamese armed forces, who have a history of being underestimated.

\“In Vietnam, the French suffered their Dien Bien Phu on land. The Americans’ Dien Bien Phu was in the air. We won’t hesitate to give the Chinese a Dien Bien Phu in the sea.”

Another version offers up threats couched in a more romantic appeal to patriotism and the notion of an unpleasant but necessary call to military service to destroy China in defense of Vietnam’s freedom and independence.

“You stay home and wait for me to kill those Chinese invaders, then I’ll come back.”

Ultranationalism, expressed as patriotism, has been a popular theme in many of the images, some startlingly evocative of the country’s historic wartime propaganda posters.

“All Vietnamese people are determined to preserve and protect every single piece of our territory.”

One popular image (left) pushes particularly hard against the envelope of what’s acceptable both to local officials and to Vietnamese citizens. It’s a mashup that depicts an ordinary Vietnamese youth holding a military assault rifle on a beach — presumably one of the contested islands in the East Sea. Kneeling before him is Chinese president Xi Jinping, appearing fearful and contrite. Behind the boy, an array of world leaders including Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-un urge the boy to put a bullet into the man.

Other images mock the Chinese so-called “Nine-dash line,” which is disparagingly referred to as the “cow’s tongue” in Vietnam. In one popular image, a pair of scissors neatly snips off the tongue.

The Vietnamese pride themselves on being a peace-loving nation. Popular narratives in school textbooks, on propaganda posters and billboards, and in all manner of local media emphasize that Vietnam has only ever gone to war unwillingly and with great sadness, yet when they do so it is with an absolute determination to protect its people, its national interests, and its territory. China’s ongoing and escalating provocations in the East Sea may be having the unanticipated consequence of forcing government officials to allow Vietnamese Internet users to express themselves openly as a strategy of consolodating national unity. To that end, it is surely working.

But it also means that once this latest flare-up has passed, users there will have had a strong taste of what it is like to feel comfortable with expressing political sentiment online. For now, that sentiment is safely channeled toward a common foe. But in the words of the old Arabian proverb, “If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, the rest of him will soon follow.” Vietnam’s social media users and remixers are quietly, incrementally pushing their noses in. One day not long from now, the Vietnamese government may find their cozy little tent is suddenly quite full.

- Patrick Sharbaugh