Art Censorship and Historical Memories in Authoritarian Vietnam

Art Censorship and Historical Memories in Authoritarian Vietnam
Graphic: Canva

In early October, Vietnam's Ministry of Information and Communications ordered Netflix's Korean series “Little Women” removed from the platform for the country's market. The reason the government gave for this removal is the apparent “distortion of  Vietnamese history” in some dialogues in the drama which mentioned the Vietnam War.

Despite the show gaining positive reviews outside of the country, Vietnamese netizens seemed to applaud the decision to blacklist the series.  

The government's tactic of art censorship seems counterintuitive. If the state publicly censors a specific movie, would it not only increase the show's popularity as people would be constantly talking about it?

Furthermore, would people only just stream the movie on other unofficial platforms if a film is censored on Netflix? The latter scenario is even more likely if we consider that Vietnamese netizens are notorious for their wide usage of illegal sites for downloading or streaming movies and music, as well as their general disregard for copyright law.

In an era of increasing internet access, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP)  faces the threat of a free flow of information that is very difficult to control. The VCP is probably aware that people will be able to seek out censored content, but the main point for its tight grip on art is not about that.

Instead, it sends two messages. First, there is only one acceptable version of history and ideology: the narrative of the VCP. Second, even in a globalized world, the Vietnamese government will not loosen its control over the masses. Individuals may have dissenting opinions, but the VCP wants to ensure that the collective agrees with the Party’s perspective on history and its ideals, even if it only remains surface level.

Censorship in Vietnamese Communist History

The Vietnamese authorities’ censorship is not a new phenomenon, as art censorship is synonymous with the socialist state’s history.

Before cinema and online streaming were made available in Vietnam, the story of art censorship in socialist Vietnam has been a never-ending story.

One of the most notorious instances of art censorship in the socialist state dates back to the 1950s with the Nhan Van Giai Pham (Humanity-Masterworks) affair. Nhan Van Giai Pham was a massive intellectual movement that criticized the increasing oppressiveness of the communist government and called for liberal reforms.

Inspired by the anti-Stalinist movement in the Soviet Union and horrified by land reform within the country, many established intellectuals - artists, journalists, writers, and the like- came together in this movement. Some notable names include Tran Duc Thao- the brilliant French-educated philosopher, Van Cao- the musician who wrote Vietnam’s national anthem, and a range of famous writers such as Tran Dan, Hoang Cam, and Phung Quan.

Despite their essential artistic contributions, and even though many were Communist Party members and veterans, the intellectuals and artists of the Nhan Van Giai Pham movement suffered greatly as a result of state persecution.

Many were fired from their jobs and sent to do manual labor. Later in their lives, they were subjected to strict state surveillance. And these famous artists never regained the prestige they once held.

In the 1980s, there was a brief moment of loosening art censorship under Party Secretary, Nguyen Van Linh. However, following the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rope of censorship was once again tightened as the Party feared of a similar revolution happening within Vietnam.

Making an “Official” Memory

Memory seems to be a private and personal matter, but it cannot be as much under an authoritarian regime. To stay in power, the VCP has to convince people of its historical legitimacy and that it was “inevitable” for the VCP to become the one and only leader of Vietnam.

To use the words of Harvard’s emeritus historian, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, the VCP has to promote “a version of the past that inscribes it as the legitimate inheritor of the Vietnamese patriotic tradition and the dominant force in the recent history of the country.” This is why alternative interpretations of history cannot be allowed under the Party’s leadership.

To suppress different variations, the VCP does something that all other authoritarian regimes do: construct an “official memory” which selectively remembers certain events while intentionally forgetting others (“hyper-mnemosis” vs “collective amnesia”). In other words, authoritarian regimes often use state power to deprive citizens of their ability to construct their own memory.

Hyper-mnemonics is not just intensive remembering of specific events but also the obsession with those memories, often to exploit them. Fictional dialogue glorifying Korean soldiers fighting the Viet Cong in “Little Women,” though there are only scant details, challenge the official memory of the Party as Vietnam’s salvation.

On the other hand, collective amnesia happens when official memory, as pushed by the State, refuses to acknowledge certain actors or chapters of history. For example, the Nhan Van Giai Pham movement mentioned earlier is a forbidden subject in Vietnam. In movies like “Little Women,” Korean soldiers, or soldiers not fighting for the Communist cause, have always been portrayed in a negative light.

How is this a problem for authoritarian countries if almost all other nations in the world seem to have dominant narratives about certain historical events? The issue lies not in whether there is a prevailing version of events but whether alternatives are allowed to exist.

It is true that some historical memories are painful. However, in consolidated liberal democracies, a plurality of memories are allowed to exist, even if those memories challenge the state.

The way to discredit harmful historical narratives is not through banning people from having these beliefs but rather by using science and research to show why these narratives are wrong. For example, Holocaust denier, David Irving, was proven wrong by American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, in a U.K. court case which used her academic research into Nazi Germany’s crimes.

Despite winning the court case and showing how dangerous Holocaust deniers are, Lipstadt expressed her disapproval of Irving being imprisoned. She told BBC, "I don't think Holocaust denial should be a crime.” She did not say that because she thought Holocaust denial was acceptable, but rather to affirm the free speech principle, which implies that people are entitled to their opinions.

Likewise, maybe the VCP is right; maybe they were really the heroes of the Vietnam War and maybe it is true that Korean soldiers were the villains. However, by sweeping other versions of history under the rug, through official state policy instead of using science and research, the country affirms its authoritarian mentality while also sending a message to its citizens and international observers.

Firstly, it does not accept any alternative narratives, regardless of how insignificant they may be. Secondly, political pluralism has never been and will never be tolerated in Vietnam.

This is not the first time Netflix has run into trouble with Vietnamese censorship authorities. Multiple Netflix movies and series have been removed on government’s orders, specifically because the films showcased - oftentimes briefly - China’s nine-dash line map, which claims sovereignty in the South China Sea. Some examples include “Pine Gap,” “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” and “Madame Secretary.”

As censorship mobilized a sense of anti-China nationalism, Vietnamese netizens did not seem to disagree with it. Since 2011, anti-China nationalism has been the main reason for all of the major demonstrations in Vietnam after the war ended in 1975. For ongoing disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnamese people still show great concern for China's actions. On the contrary, like the case with the Korean series “Little Women,” Vietnamese citizens applauded the government's decision.

Everyone has different opinions about art, but the fact that the public tolerates, or even supports, the Party’s blatant censorship is worrisome. Where do we draw the line if the response to disagreeable narratives is through state censorship?


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