Vietnamese police broke up anti-China protests in two cities yesterday and detained 20 people in the first such demonstrations since tensions between the communist neighbors flared up anew over rival claims to the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.
Any sign of popular anger in tightly controlled Vietnam causes unease among the leadership, but anti-Chinese sentiment is especially sensitive. The country has long-standing ideological and economic ties with its neighbor, but many of those criticizing China are also the ones calling for political, religious and social freedoms at home.
Police initially allowed about 200 protesters to march from Hanoi’s iconic Opera House through the streets, but ordered them to disperse after 30 minutes. When some continued, police pushed about 20 protesters onto a bus which drove away quickly from the scene. It was unclear where the demonstrators were taken, but in the past, people detained at such protests have been briefly held and released.
As foreign tourists and morning strollers looked on, protesters shouted “Down with China” and carried banners bearing the slogan “China’s military expansion threatens world peace and security.” Using loudspeakers, authorities urged them to disperse and tried to reassure them.
“The [Vietnamese] Communist Party and government are resolutely determined to defend our country’s sovereignty and territory through peaceful means based on international law,” it said. “Your gathering causes disorder and affects the party’s and government’s foreign policy.”
A smaller protest also took place in Ho Chi Minh city, blogger and activist Huynh Ngoc Chenh said.
He said he was ordered to leave by police, but about 100 people gathered for 10 minutes before being dispersed.
“I’m frustrated,” he said by telephone. “There’s nothing to ban, the government should allow people to express their patriotism peacefully.”
Vietnam and China have long sparred over who owns the South China Sea, a dispute that Taiwan the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are also party to. Over the past two years, the US’ diplomatic tilt to Southeast Asia and energy-hungry China’s growing assertiveness has focused international attention on the issue.
Vietnam alleged two weeks ago that Chinese shipping vessels sabotaged one of its seismic survey vessels in the South China Sea. Last week, the government warned Beijing not to do that again and presented a list of Chinese violations in the disputed sea.
China also recently issued new passports containing a map showing the sea as belonging to it, causing anger in Hanoi and other states.
In the summer of last year, there were two months of weekly protests in Hanoi, an unprecedented show of popular anger in the country. Earlier this year, there were also some demonstrations. Police dispersed them, gradually using more force as it become clear they were becoming a source of domestic opposition to the party.