The 2011 Anti-China Social Movement had ended after more than three months of roughly weekly demonstrations, and despite the spontaneous nature of its inception, the movement had brought about significant social change to Vietnam.
A reflection on this event is worth it for two reasons: to understand how the movement fundamentally changed the fabric of Vietnamese society and to contemplate what must be done to sustain the movement’s momentum.
One of the most impressive changes to people’s perception is their realization that politics significantly affects their everyday lives. From that point onwards, Vietnamese people have realized that politics is not solely a game of cards for those at the top, but rather, a bread-and-butter matter that is both essential and crucial.
Normalizing Protest Activities
The 2011 anti-China protest movement opened the door for many other demonstrations that followed and created a new space for civic engagement in Vietnam. The following demonstrations in 2014, 2017, and 2018 have increased in scale, in the number of participants, and in their provocative and urgent demands for the government to act.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, there have not been many protests in Vietnam since the new communist-ruled government has not particularly tolerated such activities and mass gatherings of people.
However, before the 2011 Summer Movement, a few notable demonstrations had already occurred in the one-party nation, such as the anti-China rallies in Saigon in 2007 and 2008 or the protests of the Montagnards over land rights in the Central Highlands. Yet, these protests were only modest in scale, spontaneously organized, short-lived, or inevitably met with suppression from the authorities.
Furthermore, the demonstrations mentioned above mainly consisted of a small group of intellectuals, pro-democracy bloggers, and vocal dissidents. At the same time, most Vietnamese people still saw such activities as an illegal method of expression or even taboo. This might be the result of government propaganda, which repeatedly accused protesters of “stirring up the social order,” “opposing the people’s government,” or “using violence to cause damage.”
After the 2011 Summer Movement, a new generation of civil society organizations sprung up in Vietnam. These newly-established organizations, whether legally recognized or unregistered, focused on various issues: from promoting democratic values to fostering independent and high-quality journalism for Vietnam.
They are the No-U Club (an anti-China’s nine-dash line organization), the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, the Brotherhood for Democracy, the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience, and the Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (the managerial body of the Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines).
According to a report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Vietnam have become “broad-based” and have increasingly played “an advocacy-like role” by commenting on specific laws in advance of Parliamentary ratification. However, the ADB report also pointed out that the lack of CSOs’ independence and its limited impact have hindered what these civil organizations could influence in Vietnamese society.
To add to these setbacks, the strict legal framework regarding the registration of organizations, especially if they deal with sensitive matters such as human rights and government transparency, has put these CSOs under various surveillance measures by the government and security agencies. Currently, there are a significant number of civil society organizations in Vietnam that continue to operate without authorization.
The winds of change can also be felt in the people’s attitudes towards the civil rights movement and protest activities.
By utilizing social network platforms such as Facebook, demonstrators have organized and mobilized a large number of people to gather on the streets against many of the government’s controversial plans.
The most notable of these could include the objection to Hanoi municipal authorities’ tree-chopping plan in 2015, the case of Formosa in 2016, or the protests against exclusive economic zones legislation in 2018, which have successfully pressured the country’s National Assembly in delaying the implementation of these contentious laws that allow foreign investors to lease lands for up to 99 years.
Furthermore, the reasons for people to take to the streets have gradually expanded beyond anti-China sentiments to include striving for democratic values, defending human rights and safeguarding the environment.
This is a far cry from what the people originally believed. The public has come to realize that participating in protests and demonstrations is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Constitution; they have slowly transformed their silent disaffection into provocative resistance.
The Change of Attitude Regarding the Relationship with China and the South China Sea Dispute
Another noteworthy change that Vietnam has witnessed since the 2011 movement is a shift in public attitudes and the relaxation of mainstream media coverage towards long-standing sensitive issues, namely, Sino-Vietnam relations and the South China Sea.
Previously, any public discussion regarding political brinkmanship with China remained tightly controlled; this taboo subject was considered a task to be exclusively handled by the government. Meanwhile, local mainstream media and newspapers had been effectively restricted from reporting or initiating any further debate regarding this issue.
In 2007 and 2008, the move of Chinese authorities to establish the prefecture-level city of Sansha in the disputed Paracels archipelago had sparked several small protests in both Hanoi and Saigon. However, these demonstrations were organized mainly by high-profile democracy activists, who were later detained, interrogated, and even sentenced to jail. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the press that these protests were “spontaneous” and “not authorized by the state.”
Pham Doan Trang had become the first journalist in Vietnam to write in-depth on Sino-Vietnam relations since 2008. Her articles enjoyed wide recognition in the “Weekly Vietnam” section on the VietnamNet e-newspaper, where she was previously employed. At the time, there were not many journalists who were permitted to dig into such topics. However, in 2009, Doan Trang was detained for nine days for “violating national security” and was later discharged from her position.
The 2011 mass demonstrations, which were at times met with brutal intervention from the government, had paved the way for significant progress in the country's civic space. Following the event, Vietnamese authorities had to begrudgingly allow protests to take place within a controllable scale, and at the same time, relax regulations for news agencies to report on sensitive matters.
The Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Thanh Nien (Young People) newspapers, two of the country’s largest news agencies, have run their own series regarding China’s drillship in the South China Sea, alongside the maritime disputes of the Paracel and Spratly archipelago, and most significantly, the Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974.
The Paracels maritime battle in 1974 happened when the Republic of Vietnam navy (South Vietnam) discovered the presence of Chinese troops in the Crescent Group in the western Paracel archipelago; this led to bloody clashes and to the defeat of the South Vietnamese navy.
The current Vietnamese government has rarely mentioned this event, and this is due to a number of political reasons.
Firstly, the battle took place when the Spratly islands were still controlled by the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), a country which the communist government has not formally recognized up to this day.
The former South Vietnamese regime was often denounced by Hanoi as an “American puppet” and its soldiers were seen as the enemy. And secondly, Hanoi has understood that it must walk a fine line in maintaining a cordial relation with its giant neighbor, while at the same time, keeping domestic nationalist sentiments under control.
However, 40 years after the battle took place, the government had begun to commemorate the historical event through a desensitization effort in 2014. Ho Van Ky Thoai, a former Southern rear admiral and one of the commanders in the 1974 battle agreed with the BBC News that there has been “a shift in the Vietnamese government's approach [towards] the subject.”
In 2014, the Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre newspapers delivered a series of special reports on the battle. The state-owned Thanh Nien also subsequently published the list of South Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the 1974 maritime clash. Since the Communist Party tightly controls the media in Vietnam, it is most likely that the approval to cover the issue may have come from above.
Yet, the first sign of change regarding the Battle of the Paracel Islands could be witnessed during the 2011 summer demonstrations.
In one of the Sunday rallies, several protesters had demanded that the government honor and commemorate the South Vietnamese soldiers and their heroic actions. The protesters also endorsed an article from the local Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) newspaper, which called to “honor the Vietnamese people who laid down their lives to protect the sovereignty of the Paracels.” Dai Doan Ket was one of the few local newspapers which mentioned detailed accounts of the 1974 event.
People’s participation in politics
In 2013, the Vietnamese government had accrued over 20 million contributing public recommendations to amend the 1992 Constitution. According to state-owned newspapers, the government had received “mostly positive feedback” from government offices, organizations, and individuals; besides constructive criticism to “consolidate and improve the quality of the [amendment] drafts.”
Although the statistical authenticity of this claim was prone to manipulation for propaganda purposes, along with the lack of real reforms on fundamental human rights in the newly adopted Constitution, this has presented “an unprecedented display of public participation in a legal reform process in Vietnam,” as acknowledged by Human Rights Watch.
Three years after the passing of the new Constitution, a group of intellectuals, dissidents, and activists had decided to run for National Assembly seats in the 2016 elections.
In reality, their main objective was not to win but to use their self-nomination to raise public awareness of how the Party utilizes unfair methods to bar independent candidates from winning. Among these self-nominated candidates were some familiar faces also present during the 2011 movement, including Professor Nguyen Quang A, now exiled activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, and recently jailed activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh.
While these self-nominated candidates shared the same fate with the protesters and were crushed under the iron fist of the authoritarian regime, there is a small spark of hope for the future of civic activism in Vietnam: the people have begun to view politics as a vital element interwoven with their daily lives.