Beneath Vietnam's economic glow simmers discontent

Anger at proposed special economic zones, and cybersecurity legislation protesters believe will curb online freedoms

Vietnamese protesters shout slogans against a proposal to grant companies lengthy land leases during a demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City on June 10, 2018. The draft law at the centre of the furore would allow 99-year concessions in planned special economic zones, which some view as sweetheart deals for foreign and specifically Chinese firms. / AFP / Kao NGUYEN

Vietnam boasts one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, optimistic citizens and a stable government.

But below the surface of positive data points lies discontent that spilled over during recent protests across the country.

On Sunday, hundreds of anti-riot police blanketed central Ho Chi Minh City, the nation’s thriving commercial centre, to prevent demonstrations after thousands of Vietnamese took to the streets across the nation the previous week. They were marching against proposed special economic zones with 99-year land leases they fear will lead to Chinese encroachment, as well as cybersecurity legislation they believe will curb online freedoms.

Alexander Vuving, a political analyst at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, said there’s an overall frustration in society. During the 10 years since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation, the public has seen progress in terms of wealth creation, he pointed out, adding that at the same time, people have seen a lot of corruption scandals. And, he said, Vietnamese are "very suspicious" of Chinese influence.

Vietnam’s one-party system is governed by a collective leadership involving the Communist Party general secretary and ministers. Activists and bloggers who challenge the legitimacy of the party and government can be jailed - there are currently 169 activists in prison, according to US Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who has held hearings on Vietnam.

To be sure, citizens have benefited greatly by the communist government’s aggressive moves to open the economy up to the world.

Vietnam has averaged economic growth of 6.3 per cent between 2005 and 2017, multiplying its per capita income six fold to $2,385 last year from $396 in 2000, according to data from General Statistics Office in Hanoi. The economy grew 7.4 per cent in the first quarter and the World Bank revised its forecast on Vietnam’s 2018 economic growth to 6.8 per cent from 6.5 per cent. The booming economy is being driven by investments from foreign companies such as Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and Nestle that have made the country a manufacturing powerhouse.

Still, a level of distrust of the government exists among average citizens, whose concerns are amplified on social media.

One flashpoint is the nation’s fraught relations with its powerful neighbor, China, with which it fought a brief border war in 1979. A Pew opinion poll released last year found just 10 per cent of Vietnamese view China favourably. Territorial tensions have picked up between Vietnam and China since China dragged an exploration oil rig into contested waters in mid-2014. The move led to deadly anti-China protests in Vietnam and clashes at sea between coast guard boats.


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Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said anti-China sentiment "is toxic" in Vietnam.

Thousands of protesters, fearing a proposed law on special economic zones would allow Chinese to gain influence over the nation with 99-year leases, demonstrated from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City on June 10. In all, about 300 people were detained, including US citizen Will Nguyen, who was accused of causing public disorder, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said at a Hanoi press briefing Thursday.

Vietnamese are also inflamed about a cybersecurity law approved by the National Assembly last week that requires companies such as Facebook  and Alphabet’s Google to store data of local users within the country. The law, which goes into effect January 1, also bans internet users from organising, encouraging or training other people for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, creating difficulties for authorities and damaging socioeconomic activity.

Unlike previous protests such as those in 2016 against an environmental disaster tied to Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics, the recent demonstrations involved more ordinary citizens and fewer well-known activists, Mr Vuving said.

An undercurrent of anger is swelling among average Vietnamese because of “massive corruption and extreme lack of transparency in provincial governments”, said Le Dang Doanh, a Hanoi-based economist and former government adviser. He said it was important that the government talk more to people to relieve problems before they become big issues among citizens.

For now, the discontentment won’t deter investors in Vietnam, which depends on foreign investment for growth, said Bernard Lapointe, Ho Chi Minh City-based head of research at Viet Dragon Securities JSC. The biggest risk for Vietnam, in case of an escalation of social discontent, would be a drop in FDI, he said.

Political leaders are working to tamp down the anger. The National Assembly postponed voting on the special economic zones legislation until later this year and removed the 99-year lease provision.

Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong called on citizens to trust the party’s leaders and remain calm, according to a statement posted on the government’s website Monday.

The party, he added, has no other purpose other than being for the country and for its people.