Protests erupted across Vietnam on Sunday against government plans to introduce a concession on new special economic zones (SEZs) that would allow land to be leased to foreign investors for a 99-year periods.
By the afternoon, tens of thousands of demonstrators had occupied the centers of Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the southern economic and financial hub. Large rallies also took place in a handful of other provinces, while solidarity protests were held abroad, from Paris to Tokyo.
In the face of mounting opposition, the ruling Communist Party has said it could delay or even scrap the SEZ plans, a rarity for a government that seldom solicits or heeds public opinion. But some political analysts say that this might not necessarily ease tensions nor win the Party support.
Pham Chi Dung, a prominent independent journalist, likened the events to the “Arab Spring,” writing that June 10 could go down as “one of the most historic days in [Vietnam’s] postwar history.”
The SEZ policy hit on a sensitive nationalistic nerve. Last year, the government announced that it would open three new SEZs in different areas of the country. Vietnam currently has 18 SEZs but, unlike the others, this particular deal would allow foreign investors to lease land for up to 99 years in the three new sites. To many, that meant selling land to Chinese interests.
Current laws only allow for 70-year leases. This sparked claims that the Communist Party is intent on selling Vietnamese land to the highest bidder, significantly at a time it faces charged accusations of land-grabbing from ordinary citizens.
Last week, Minister of Planning and Investment Nguyen Chi Dung reiterated that “there is no word that mentions China” in the SEZ plan. But this did little to dispel opinions that Beijing would be the main beneficiary of the deal, especially as one of the three SEZs will be in Quang Ninh province, just across the border from China’s Guangxi autonomous region.
The National Assembly, Vietnam’s supposed “elected” legislature, was expected to pass the law this week, though the government has called on it to delay proceedings. On Monday morning, the National Assembly voted by a 85% majority to suspend the law. It will now be debated again during the body’s next session in October.
Chinese investment in Vietnam is a combustive issue. For centuries, Chinese rulers invaded and colonized Vietnamese fiefdoms, mainly in the north of the country. In 1979, the two countries fought a month-long bloody border war.
In more recent years, anti-Chinese protests took place in 2014, after China began drilling for oil in the contested waters off central Vietnam, while in 2016 there were mass demonstrations when a Taiwanese-owned factory spilled tons of toxic waste in central Vietnam.
Hanoi also remains the leading opponent in Southeast Asia of Beijing’s attempts to dominate the contested South China Sea.
While this weekend’s protests were certainly marked by nationalist and anti-China rhetoric – as the majority of media reports noted – they were much more than mere chauvinistic gesticulations against Beijing.
As well as the numerous anti-China signs at the protests, there were also placards that demanded greater democracy. Some protestors carried banners reading “Returning Autonomy For [the] People.” Another placard stated the protest was against the National Assembly’s violation of the Constitution.
“It’s not mainly [about] China. It’s more a sign of the [people’s] deep frustration and dissatisfaction over the authorities’ control of everything,” tweeted Nguyen Phuong Linh, a political risk analyst.
That likely includes the glaring fact that Vietnamese have not been allowed meaningful elections for decades under a stifling one-party state.
But one prominent complaint, expressed by many protestors, was against the planned cyber security law, which the National Assembly is also expected to vote on this week. It is not clear if this vote will now also be delayed, though observers say it seems unlikely.
The government has worked on this draft legislation for months, which if passed could censor almost all critical comments expressed online.
One article of the draft legislation rules it a crime to post material online that “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people, and national heroes.”
Another requires companies that host websites where such content is posted, including Facebook, to regulate material. Controversially for foreign-based firms, they will also be required to store data domestically.
“The goal of Vietnam’s proposed cyber security law appears as much to protect the party’s monopoly on power as to protect network security,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press statement.
It’s not clear yet how the protests will affect the political environment. The Communist Party has become more conservative and puritanical since the 2016 Party Congress, when Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was reappointed and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, seen by some as a non-ideological populist, forced out of office.
Since, Trong and his clique have attempted to restore socialist ideology and “morality” among Party members, while cracking down more frequently on public dissent.
But public opposition to the SEZ deal has led the government into a potential retreat. On Saturday, even before the protests broke out, ministers asked the National Assembly to delay passing the SEZ law so they could better scrutinize the deal.
A statement says this was motivated after months of “listening to enthusiastic and responsible contributions of members of parliament, scientists, economists, experts, voters and the people.”
Last week, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that the 99-year term of the SEZ leases could be reduced, but didn’t say by how many years. The government likely hopes that anger quietens within a few months, meaning protests won’t erupt again in October when it will again try to pass the law.
Or the government could try introducing the same concessions but by different means, say political analysts. But clearly more Vietnamese people are now questioning the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy, particularly over issues like environmental protection and corruption, although the government has made strides in both.
Perceptions that the Party is selling out national interests to China is one issue that could lead to the Party’s eventual downfall, activists say. If the SEZ deal is passed at some point, more protests could erupt, they say.
But the decision to delay proceedings – and if the SEZ deal is eventually scrapped – is a rare indication that the Party does listen to public opinion when it comes in the form of nationwide protests. This is the line the government is now spinning, as demonstrated when Party General Secretary Trong went on national television on Sunday night to appeal for calm.
Of equal significance is how Vietnam’s growing pro-rights and democracy movement responds to the protests.
As dissidents told Asia Times, the SEZ deal isn’t the only instance of the Party “selling its land” to foreigners. Some think that this weekend’s protests might raise more awareness about land rights issues, especially the confiscation of land by the government.
It might also awaken growing interest in other deals between Hanoi and Beijing, which could spark more anti-China rhetoric, including in the online spaces the government is trying to restrict with its cybersecurity legislation. Political bloggers, moreover, note the SEZ issue has got ordinary people talking about issues like the role of the National Assembly, a body normally maligned by the public.
“The regime disperses any rally if they know there is going to be one, but yesterday they knew but couldn’t stop it,” said Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prominent human rights defender who goes by the online name ‘Anh Chi.’ Only protests in Hanoi were successfully curtailed by the authorities.
“The demonstrations were explosions yesterday and they encouraged others to pay attention. The demonstrations made the ruling communists scared,” Tuyen said. If the cybersecurity law is passed this week, it could lead to further protests, he added.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that this week’s protests will provide the same momentum for dissident groups as the 2016 Formosa demonstrations, which emboldened these groups. The government has been busy recently imprisoning democrats and pro-rights activists at rates not seen in decades.
The state’s heavy-hand was clinched this weekend. There are reports of dozens of protestors being detained, while many more were beaten by the police. It’s likely that authorities will arrest more protest organizers and participants in the coming weeks.
But by even showing the slightest bit of latitude, the Party has made clear that, first, it is not all powerful and, second, the people can enforce policy changes through popular mobilization.
More Vietnamese may thus ask why such popular actions should not be more commonplace and, down the line, why shouldn’t they have a greater say in who governs them.