If the goal of certain Chinese tourists is to rile up Vietnam, then one surefire way to do so would be to enter the country wearing provocative T-shirts flouting Hanoi’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, more than a dozen Chinese tourists landed in Vietnam, unzipped their coats and displayed matching white shirts with the backs emblazoned with red maps that showed all of the maritime area as China’s sovereign territory.
Vietnamese officials at the Cam Ranh international airport promptly ordered them to disrobe, but not in time to avoid a nationalistic anti-Chinese firestorm from proliferating online.
Vietnamese posted and reposted photos on social media of the Chinese visitors, with many calling for their deportation or worse. Others criticized Vietnam’s Communist Party leaders for not sufficiently denouncing or responding to the incident.
Vietnam lays claim to parts of the South China Sea, as does China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. The tee-shirt incident has inflamed long-heated tensions between Hanoi and Beijing over the contested waterway at a volatile grass roots level.
In 2014, China’s positioning of an oil exploration rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters close enough to be seen from Vietnam’s mainland sparked anti-Chinese riots that killed an unconfirmed number of Chinese and forced hundreds of others to evacuate.
The Vietnamese government claimed four were killed and more than 100 injured in the spasm of xenophobic violence. Reuters reported at the time that more than 20 Chinese were killed in riots that mostly targeted Chinese and other foreign invested factories.
More recently, however, Chinese tourists have flocked to Vietnam in droves amid a tourism boom. Nearly 1.8 million Chinese tourists arrived in Vietnam from January to April, marking a 39.7% year-on-year rise, according to reports.
While China is Vietnam’s main source of foreign visitors, the fact that the tourist tee-shirt kerfuffle happened at Cam Ranh Bay was seen by many as significant.
Vietnam’s strongest claim in the South China Sea is over the Spratly Islands, which it calls Truong Sa. Vietnamese generally travel to the contested archipelago by flying to Cam Ranh airport and then taking a boat to the maritime area.
The Chinese tee-shirt wearing tour group was likely headed to the nearby beach town of Nha Trang, which overlooks the South China Sea. Access to Truong Sa is tightly restricted, even among Vietnamese citizens.
The local media, all of which is state-owned or controlled in Vietnam, seized on the incident with surprisingly sharp rhetoric.
“The matter of Chinese tourists wearing a ‘cow tongue’ shirt and entering our country absolutely cannot be considered a ‘small incident,’” columnist Pham Duong wrote in an op-ed in the Laborer newspaper.
Vietnamese use a translation of the term “tongue of the cow” to describe the nine-dash map that Beijing uses to lay claim to nearly all of the South China Sea.
Duong’s op-ed was a counterpoint reaction to a government official who insinuated the incident was not significant. He also asked if national leaders were willing to look the other way because Chinese tourism is such a big cash-spinner for the country.
The garments in question were plain white shirts except for a red geographic outline of China on the backs. Protruding from the map was the so-called “nine-dash line” map which encompasses the waters that Vietnam refers to as the East Sea.
Other Vietnamese have asked how such a large group of travelers could coordinate their outfits in a way they no doubt knew would peeve Vietnam. The fact that the Chinese government tightly controls outward-bound tour groups has sparked suspicions of state complicity.
“We do not accept that a group of Chinese people entered Vietnam and then after taking off their jackets just saw that the T-shirt inside had the ‘cow tongue’ image printed,” said Mai Tien Dung, chairman of Vietnam’s office of the government. “This is definitely an organized and planned activity, not an accident.”
For their part, the tourists reportedly claimed they did not know their fashion choice would be insulting to Vietnamese sensibilities.
In a liberal democracy, a shirt with a controversial message might stir internet outrage then fade quickly from the headlines. In Vietnam’s one-party state, it is notable that locals are willing to restrict the tourists’ free expression in clothes.
Few have pointed out the double standard, as Vietnamese citizens themselves face further muzzling if officials approve a new cyber-security draft law now making its way through the legislature.
The draft requires websites to remove “any content that is prejudicial to national security, social order, and safety, or the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and individuals.” What is considered prejudicial, of course, is left to the discretion of the state.
One anonymous Vietnamese hinted at this troubling trend in a not-yet-censored online post.
He noted that the Chinese visitors were able to freely buy their South China Sea-themed garments in China, while Vietnamese have been punished for joining street protests and donning tee-shirts that crossed out China’s nine-dash map.
But while Vietnamese tussle over tee-shirts and tourists, Beijing marches on in fortifying its claims. Not long after the incident, news broke that Chinese bombers were parked for the first time on undisclosed South China Sea features, providing potential fodder for another controversial tee-shirt design.