The Prospect for Human Rights amid Warmer Sino-Vietnamese Ties

The Prospect for Human Rights amid Warmer Sino-Vietnamese Ties
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Warming Ideological Comradeship

The visit of Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) chief Nguyen Phu Trong to Beijing, following the conclusion of the all-important Chinese Communist Party Congress, where President Xi Jinping secured his norm-breaking third term as the Party leader, solidified the fact that Hanoi would continue to view ties with China as a top priority in its diplomatic agenda.

During the meeting, both countries issued a joint statement, the Vietnam - China Joint Declaration, which emphasizes the cordial relations between the two Communist comrades while seeking to bolster bilateral economic cooperation, information exchanges, trade activities, and the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea, among other things.

More importantly, the statement mentions the need to “promote cooperation” in the fight against terrorism, as well as “peaceful evolution,” and “color revolution.” Vietnam and China, for the first time, [1] also vowed to promote dialogue and international cooperation regarding human rights without seeking to “politicize it.” These political commitments were absent in the previous joint declarations approved by the two countries.

To be sure, Vietnam and China are one-party socialist states that base their social models and political institutions on the market-Leninist order. [2] They are known for the arrests and incarceration of independent journalists and political activists. Both countries have abysmal records regarding civil liberties or press freedom. And more recently, they have increasingly used technological capabilities to control what their citizens think, speak and express on social media.

Although the two countries have shared outlooks on human rights and social stability, Sino-Vietnamese relations have experienced multiple hurdles during the past decades. Both regimes still differ on the matter of sovereignty. Simmering territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which Vietnam refers to as the East Sea, remain a major conflict between the two nations.

While a warmer relationship between the two Communist parties is said [3] to be a reassurance for regional security and stability, it is not reassuring for human rights advocates in Vietnam.

The joint declaration was announced against the backdrop of the political unrest [4] in Iran, as tens of thousands of demonstrators, many of them women, were seen pouring into the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a young student who died in the custody of the morality police after being arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code.

Public outrage over the death of the 22-year-old Iranian student soon turned into a mass anti-government movement. Young protesters were seen pouring onto the streets while women defiantly removed their headscarves and tossed them onto bonfires. Many others called for an end to authoritarian clerical rule. The Iranian government brutally suppressed [5] the protests.

What’s happening in Iran is perhaps the last thing that the Vietnamese and Chinese governments want to occur in their countries.

Both Vietnam's [6] and China’s [7] propaganda machines have habitually denounced similar pro-democracy revolutions in the Middle East and the mass protests in Hong Kong as “color revolutions,” which were allegedly ignited by the United States to “intervene in other countries’ internal affairs” and “compel citizens to engage in anti-State activities.”

Color revolutions refer [8] to various anti-regime movements that first began in former Soviet nations in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s. Recently, the term is also used to describe popular movements in the Middle East and Asia. Most have involved large-scale movements on the streets, demands for free elections or regime change, or calls for removing authoritarian leaders.

Last September, during a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security group led by China and Russia, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on [9] the group’s members to work together to prevent “external forces” from promoting “color revolutions.” Xi also offered training for 2,000 police officers to establish a regional counterterrorism training center and to “strengthen law enforcement capacity building” among its member nations.

Likewise, Hanoi has often framed critics of Vietnam’s abysmal human rights situation as “hostile forces” and “political opportunists.” In one of its articles published earlier this year, the official publication of the VCP, the VCP Newspaper accused [10] the demands for political change and civil liberties would be the “peaceful revolution,” which is perceived as a threat to the one-party rule.

Redefining the Concept of Human Rights

The consensus between Vietnam and China on deepening their fight against the “politicization of human rights” serves as a political shield against Western criticisms regarding rights violations.

Vietnam was recently elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a three-year term starting in 2023, despite concerns raised by rights groups regarding the country’s restricted freedoms and the lack of civil liberties. Many observers are worried that instead of contributing to advancing human rights worldwide, Hanoi could become an accomplice of Beijing in obscuring the process of holding rights violators accountable.

In recent years, China has been criticized for its reeducation camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang and its latest clampdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the recent imprisonment of influential civil society leaders by the Vietnamese government has instilled paranoia and anxiety among other non-governmental organizations operating in the country. As a result, many have ceased their operations.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told BBC News in an interview that he believes that Vietnam and China have shared perspectives regarding human rights and civil liberties. “Both Hanoi and Beijing view individual freedom and the exercise of basic civil and political rights as a vital threat to their political power,” Robertson said. [11]

Robertson added that the Vietnamese-Sino joint statement was drafted to “further undermine the respect for human rights in both countries.” “Any other interpretation [of this statement] is simply naive and shows a lack of understanding of how these two Communist Parties actually work.”

Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization working to advance freedom and democratic resilience worldwide, writes in its latest report [12] that autocratic regimes are emerging as an alternative political model to replace the long-established democracies where human rights are respected, and everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law.

China is accelerating this transition. The Freedom House report notes that the Chinese government has aggressively extended its political prowess, mostly through economic incentives, in “encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance,” while successfully steering global discussions away from the widely perceived consensus that “democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security.”

While Vietnam does not possess the same political influence and economic influence that China does to undermine democratic institutions worldwide, it seeks to re-interpret the concept of human rights through educational programs at home.

The Vietnamese authorities recently announced [13] a plan to include human rights in the teaching curriculum of all-level educational institutes by 2025. The Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics (HCMA), a political institute that provides training for Communist Party cadres and State officials, is tasked with developing materials to help teachers integrate the subject “into all-level school curricula.”

Although Vietnam’s approach seemingly demonstrates its willingness to be a responsible member of the UNHRC, many observers have expressed concerns [14] that the government might not sincerely care about respect for human rights by carrying out such programs but rather uses such things as a weapon to conceal systemic rights violations and to fortify the Party’s political legitimacy.

During a conference on the implementation of teaching human rights in Vietnam’s national education system, Nguyen Xuan Thang, director of HCMA and a member of the VCP Politburo, said [15] that human rights programs must “serve as a basis to counter distorting propaganda on human rights and human rights education in our country.” Thang did not clarify what content these courses would include or how they would be taught in Vietnamese schools.

Meanwhile, two other HCMA professors, Truong Ho Hai and Au Thi Tam Minh, wrote [16] in an article published in the Communist Journal, the mouthpiece of the Standing Committee of the VCP, that “reactionary and hostile forces have been taking advantage of freedom of speech to distort and oppose our Party and State, smear and slander the government, sow confusion among the people and threaten national security and social order and safety.” Therefore, the two authors argued. However, freedom of expression is a basic human right, it “must always be limited within the framework of the law.”

When the Public Pushes for Change

The escalation of public unrest [17] in China in defiance of the country’s draconian COVID-19 restrictions has become an unmistakable sign for the Chinese government, and even the Vietnamese authorities, that the people are increasingly pushing back against their government’s narrowly-defined concept of human rights and its arbitrary infringement on civil liberties in the name of protecting public health.

Many Chinese protesters have been taking to the streets to demand freedom, democracy and the rule of law, while others audaciously called for the resignation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the displacement of the Chinese Communist Party. Many students at Tsinghua University in Beijing used blank sheets of paper [18] to tacitly express their anger and frustration at the government’s rights abuses.

Meanwhile, back in the 2010s in Vietnam, a political movement called the “2013 Constitutional Amendment,” [19] initiated by a group of reformists and legal specialists advocating for the respect of human rights and broader political freedom was mobilized and attracted considerable public participation.

The movement leaders, referring to themselves as Group 72, proposed a new draft of the Constitution to Vietnam’s National Assembly. At the time, the Vietnamese government proposed to amend the country's constitution. The National Assembly was serving as the legislative body to gather public opinion to draft the country’s 2013 Constitution. Group72’s proposal brought forward multiple suggestions. Among them was that Vietnam should amend its Constitution to make fundamental human rights to be more inclusive in the country’s highest legal document, restore the private land ownership system, depoliticize the army, and institutionalize the government’s separation of powers.

As expected, at the end of 2013, the National Assembly adopted the country’s 2013 Constitution without considering Group 72’s suggested amendments. Although the movement did not bring substantial changes to the country’s legal system, it highlighted the importance of civil participation in the national lawmaking process and laid the groundwork for the potential development of rights-centered policies in the future.

It’s likely that the Chinese government will not let the recent anti-government demonstrations spiral out of control and that protesters and students will meet heavy suppression from the police.

But the recent anti-COVID lockdowns in China and Vietnam’s Constitutional movement in 2013, despite being inherently different in their causes and political motivations, demonstrate that both the Chinese and Vietnamese peoples are fully aware of the political situation and have been pushing for greater civil freedoms in the countries they live in.

Meanwhile, according to Freedom House [20], although popular demand for democracy still remains strong in many authoritarian countries, it is vital that democratic governments and societies “must harness and support this common desire for fundamental rights and build a world in which it is ultimately fulfilled.”

“Only global solidarity among democracy’s defenders can successfully counter the combined aggression of its adversaries,” Freedom House wrote.


[1] BBC News Tiếng Việt. (November 5, 2022). Vì sao Tuyên bố Việt - Trung lần đầu nhắc về “nhân quyền, cách mạng màu”?

[2] J.D. London, (2020). China and Vietnam as Instances of Consolidated Market-Leninism. SpringerLink.

[3] The Diplomat. (November 18, 2022). Why the Current Stall in US-Vietnam Relations is Necessary for Vietnam’s Security.

[4] The Diplomat. (November 18, 2022). Why the Current Stall in US-Vietnam Relations is Necessary for Vietnam’s Security.

[5] F. Fassihi. (November 16, 2022). Iran Cracks Down as Protests Show No Sign of Easing. The New York Times.

[6] Ibid.

[7] GT Investigates: US wages global color revolutions to topple govts for the sake of American control. (n.d.). Global Times.

[8] Ibid.

[9] VOA News. (September 16, 2022). China’s Xi Says “Color Revolutions” Must Be Prevented.

[10] NTM, H., & LT, K. (March 17, 2022). Lợi dụng dân chủ, nhân quyền, thủ đoạn nguy hiểm của thế lực thù địch.

[11] Ibid., [1]

[12] Freedom House. (n.d.). The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule.

[13] VNA. (November 18, 2022). Vietnam striving to teach human rights at all-level educational institutes by 2025 | Society |. VietnamPlus.

[14] Việt Nam đưa quyền con người vào cơ sở giáo dục quốc dân sau hơn năm năm trễ hẹn. (October 25, 2022). Radio Free Asia.

[15] M. Chau. (October 19, 2022). Nâng cao chất lượng, hiệu quả giáo dục về quyền con người.

[16] NTM, H., & LT, K. (March 17, 2022). Lợi dụng dân chủ, nhân quyền, thủ đoạn nguy hiểm của thế lực thù địch.

[17] M. Schuman. (November 28, 2022). China’s Zero Tolerance for Xi’s COVID Restrictions. The Atlantic.

[18] C. Che, and A.C. Chien, (November 28, 2022). Why Protesters in China Are Using Blank Sheets of White Paper. The New York Times.

[19] Luat Khoa Magazine. (November 2022). Luật Khoa | Báo Tháng Mười Một 2022: Trăm năm lập hiến. Gumroad.

[20] Ibid., [12]

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