The Vietnam-China Nexus: A Tale of Authoritarian Ascent

The Vietnam-China Nexus: A Tale of Authoritarian Ascent
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnam has shared a border with a cumbersome northern neighbor since the beginning of its existence. Throughout this country's history, China has sometimes been a threat, sometimes a source of influence, and most of the time, both at once. Within this ambiguous relationship, the last 40 years have unveiled the following path for the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), keeping this omnipresent neighbor at arm's length while drawing inspiration from it. From a Western perspective, the hope for openness in China during the 1980s has been in parallel with the Đổi Mới (1986) reforms in Vietnam.

However, international observers and local human rights activists have been disappointed to notice that economic liberalization has not promoted democratic values, press freedom, and an independent civil society. Indeed, we can see that political freedom and human rights have not developed despite China and Vietnam having opened to a market economy.

These two countries were rated as “Not Free” in the Freedom House 2023 annual Freedom in the World report. [1] In its Press Freedom Index 2024, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Vietnam 174th and lower than China 172nd. [2] The two biggest Communist parties in the world, the CCP, with 95 million members, and the VCP, with 5.3 million members, are ruling their Party states by firmly stifling all potential opposition.

Historically, Vietnam and China have long shared this love-hate relationship while existing between inspiration and rejection. China occupied Vietnam for over a thousand years (from 111 BC to 939 AD), and its society is still strongly impregnated by Chinese influences today. [3]

Of course, Vietnam has its own history, but the influence of its tremendous and omnipresent northern neighbor is still demonstrated in a way. Throughout its contemporary history, Vietnam has had time to refine its own particularities regarding governance, the law, and social organization. However, recent years have shown growing significant ties between these two party-state countries regarding authoritarian governance, control of the population, and the repression of public voices.

After a long period of cold relations between China and Vietnam, including a bloody armed conflict in 1979, it seems that these two countries are now enjoying closer diplomatic ties. The last visit of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to China in the Fall of 2022 highlights the Vietnamese government's desire to maintain a balance in the growing confrontation between the United States and China. [4]

Beyond diplomatic concerns and economic ties, the VCP and the CCP share a common concern about their need to remain in power. To guarantee its monopolistic ruling over its country, the VCP is following in the footsteps of its older Chinese counterpart in many ways.

If we look at the predominant position of the Communist parties in China and Vietnam, some fundamental elements appear. Indeed, the CCP and VCP bear the same existential burden: to maintain their hegemony over their respective countries. This stance is at the root of authoritarian measures aimed at preventing the emergence of any potential threat to the party's legitimacy and silencing voices that speak out against it. We can see the starting point of the Vietnamese government's propensity to mimic China’s repressive policies.

Another issue of concern is the convergence of these ruling Communist party narratives. The two parties' major concern is discrediting democratic ideas and progressive values considered part of a so-called “Western ideology.”

China and Vietnam often present themselves as threatened by foreign values influenced by American cultural hegemony. These narratives, facing an ideology that promotes democracy, press freedom, and free civil society, put the label of “foreign agent” on every human rights activist both in China and Vietnam.

In defiance of internationally recognized human rights, China is smoothly developing its own norms to advocate for a new narrative. Within it, an idea is reflected in Chinese intellectual circles that favors the rule of law over a “rule by law.”

This useful concept for illiberal states legitimizes the authority of the CCP and its policies in China, seriously compromising a real application of the Rule of Law. In China and Vietnam, this concept allows the two Communist parties to legislate the relationship between politics and media so that the latter serves the former. Media outlets and journalists are compelled to convey the ruling party’s voice as an intermediary between the political establishment and the people.

Freedom of the press is proclaimed in Article 19 of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s Constitution. But the political apparatus has a tailor-made legislative arsenal that allows it to imprison any news and information provider who proves troublesome. It includes articles 109, 117, and 331 of the penal code, under which anyone found guilty of “activities aimed at overthrowing the government,” “anti-state propaganda,” or “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy” can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. - RSF website, Vietnam page of the World Press Freedom Index

This legal framework, which places the media at the service of political power when the Party exercises its own power, is a concrete application of what can be described as ruling by law. Rule of Law is perverted to serve the interests of the party in China, as is freedom of information. Through this subjugation of the legal and media spheres, China reinforces its authoritarian character.

Faced with this example, the VCP has followed in the footsteps of its Chinese neighbor, employing the same tactics to solidify its power. The result of this authoritarian convergence is the regression of both China and Vietnam in international democracy rankings. Between 2022 and 2023, China dropped from 175th to 179th place (out of 180) in RSF's World Press Freedom Index. Vietnam, following its model, also slipped from 174th to 178th place.

China has developed an impressive censorship apparatus to guarantee complete control of the media, blogs, and the internet, and it is still developing digital tools to solidify its control. The well-known Great Firewall, implemented in the early  2000s, has already inspired the VCP to adopt the same tools to block sensitive online activities in Vietnam. The army of censors monitoring the activities on the Chinese internet has already inspired the VCP to adopt the same tools.

Force 47  and the 2018 Cybersecurity Law could be considered Vietnam’s counterpart to China’s Great Firewall, silencing dissenting voices and controlling any information that could harm the party's image. However, Vietnam does not have the same resources to restrain public liberties. That said, new oppressive tools and collaboration with other autocratic powers might provide many new ways to worsen the current situation.

Thus begins this series of articles in which the author will analyze the issues posed by the authoritarian drift in countries already leaning towards such tendencies. This series of coming articles aims to describe the different narratives and tendencies developed by the CCP to give our audience a description of the latest trends in authoritarianism in China.

Another focus will be on analyzing the most prevalent issues regarding the intricate tools of repression developed by Beijing and the implications for critically-minded people in this country. Looking at the recent evolution of shrinking civil society and the civic realm in Xi Jinping’s China could give Vietnamese readers some insights into what might happen to civil liberties in their country.

The repressive mechanisms devised by the CCP are becoming increasingly sophisticated and multifaceted. On the other hand, examining the strategies of resistance elaborated by some Chinese critical minds can provide some clues about political possibilities within an authoritarian context.

Starting this week with a social-history analysis of the space for criticism in China since the 1980s, our series will propose several adaptations from recent research to show how the struggles between the population’s democratic aspirations and state repression are two parts of a dynamic process in such a dictatorship like China.

Vietnam’s copying of China and move toward a more repressive system must be watched. Unveiling China's recent evolution, in which we see shrinking spaces for liberty and looming surveillance of activists, is a way to warn citizens to brace for increased authoritarianism in Vietnam.

East Asia and the world are slowing down regarding public liberties, human rights, and progressivism. For the critically minded people in Vietnam and East Asia, open access to documentation and reflection about China's multifaceted threats could provide some resources to fight back. When there is a concerted effort within a dictatorship to collaborate, explore avenues to safeguard its repressive system, and consolidate its authority and power, transnational civil society is compelled to rise.


  1. Freedom House. (n.d.). Explore the map. In Freedom House.
  2. Index. (n.d.). RSF.
  3. Shibboleth Authentication Request. (n.d.).
  4. Peng, N. (2022, November 3). Nguyen Phu Trong’s trip highlights special relationship between China and Vietnam. The Diplomat.

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