The protests in Vietnam against the Chinese oil-rig operations near the Paracel Islands are not just jingoism, suggests Bill Hayton, of the BBC Media Action organization. Industrial relations, too, play a role, and conflicts with Chinese bosses or investors (or bosses mistaken for Chinese nationals) are among the currents of anger running underneath the demonstrations’ and riots’ official label:
What we are witnessing in Vietnam is an inchoate sense of anger – partly against China but more urgently against bad employers. This is a nightmare scenario for the Communist Party of Vietnam.
It will be easy for protestors to paint it as betraying the national interest out in the South China Sea (by failing to stand up strongly enough to China) and weak at home for failing to ensure that foreign companies treat their workers fairly.
Probably mot quite beside the point – either Canada Home, an overseas-Chinese paper from Ontario, or Huanqiu Shibao, a Chinese newspaper, or both, warned Vietnam in June 2011 that it shouldn’t manufacture a hostile Sino-Vietnamese atmosphere based on low-class (or vulgar) nationalism. This conflict doesn’t look new at all. Most, if not the majority*) of the Vietnamese citizens who became known as “boat people” in the 1970s, after South Vietnam had been conquered by Hanoi, were ethnic Chinese people, or Hoa people. The current Wikipedia’s article suggests that Hoa population dropped from 1.2 million in 1976 to 935,000 three years later.
But many Vietnamese seem to see their country as a mere victim to China. This probably dates back centuries. Even the country’s name – “Viet” – appears to be of Chinese origin. There were four periods of Chinese domination of Vietnam, between 111 BC to 1427.
Even today, obedience may be what is expected of the southern neighbor (or from a wife from Vietnam, anyway) – and an easy military target for China, at least from the view of the Sunday drivers among the armchair generals. And as recently as in 1979, Deng Xiaoping dispatched Chinese troops into Vietnam, reportedly to teach them some necessary lessons.
On last year’s tomb-sweeping day, Huanqiu Shibao remembered Chinese soldiers buried on Vietnamese soil, and in July 2010, Yazhou Zhoukan, a Malaysian/Hong Kong weekly, suggested that neither China nor Vietnam wanted to get back to history.
*) Most probably not a majority – the numbers make that implausible. The total estimated number of boat people was 1.6 million or more.