A Vietnam "War" in the Blogosphere

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Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP / Getty

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung answers screened online questions in his first Internet dialogue with the public, Hanoi, February 2007.

Determined to show Vietnam's tech-savvy youth a suave and forward-looking image of the ruling Communist Party, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has shown remarkable enthusiasm for the Internet. In June, his government set up an online form through which corrupt officials could be reported. In February, the Prime Minister had reached out personally through an online chat viewed by at least 1 million people, during which he answered carefully screened questions ranging from government control of media (necessary, he said, to protect the nation) to personal career tips. To one youth who asked how he, too, could someday be Prime Minister, Dung, 57, gave this advice: "Throughout my time following the Party and the Revolution, I always obeyed the assignments of the organization."

There was a new flurry of attention online this month when it seemed that Dung, along with other top officials, had launched his own web logs. The official "Blog of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung" debuted in late July, and by this week had accumulated more than 140 "friends" — including, apparently, Nong Duc Manh, the Communist Party general-secretary. The blog offered the Prime Minister's thoughts, insights and even a personal poem. Vietnamese netizens were amazed at the gesture of openness. "Can this really be the prime minister?" asked one poster.

As it turns out, the answer is no. Vietnamese officials revealed Thursday that the site is actually the work of a clever impostor. "The Prime Minister doesn't blog. He has too much other work to do," Dung's spokesman Nguyen Kinh Quoc told TIME. Separate blogs purportedly run by Manh, the Party leader, and President Nguyen Minh Triet, the official head of state, are also fakes. The government only became aware of the faux blogs this week, and vowed to track down the impersonators.

Clearly, the Communist Party isn't alone in using the internet to court support in Vietnamese cyberspace — in the past year, Vietnamese dissidents opposed to one-party rule have been communicating through Skype and recruiting via text message and voice-over-Internet chat rooms. And exiled Vietnamese advocacy groups have been sending bulk e-mail messages to accounts with Vietnamese-sounding names. These e-mails typically decry government corruption and urge ordinary citizens to rise up and demand multi-party elections.

Vietnam's post-war generation is increasingly wired, as the Communist Party attempts to foster economic growth and high-tech skills while at the same time clinging to power. The country currently has an estimated 16 million Internet users — one in five of the population — compared with just 200,000 who were online seven years ago. Three million of them are bloggers, most on foreign-hosted clients including Yahoo, which is where the fake government blogs appeared. Internet access in Vietnam is growing more than 10 times faster than the rate in China.

Like China, Vietnam uses a firewall to block access to pornography and political websites, and is talking about censoring blogs — although that is more difficult because most are posted on foreign-based websites. But the impostor blog campaign could well be an innovation in the ongoing battle between the Party and its opponents for the hearts and minds of Vietnamese Internet users. The identity of the fake bloggers remains a mystery. The rhetoric of their postings mimics official jargon, but is subtly peppered with anti-communist barbs. The fake "Nong Duc Manh blog," for instance, features a post on corruption that states: "Corruption is the desire of Vietnamese officials." Similarly the blog attributed to "Nguyen Minh Triet" on July 6 posts an entry chastizing state-controlled media for "not reporting the truth" of a month-long land-rights protest of hundreds of people in Ho Chi Minh City last month and "ordering" government censors to lift blocks on anti-communist websites.

Even more confusing is the fake blog for Prime Minister Dung. The impostor "Nguyen Tan Dung" sounds less like a dissident than a Communist fanboy, posting items including "Have a Strong Belief in Communist Party" and most recently warning against attempts to "sway" the population against the government and also criticizing several jailed dissidents by name. The same post also featured nine-line poem praising the late communist independence leader Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnamese web forums are hotly debating the fake blogs, with some participants appearing to take the postings at face value. On the "Nguyen Tan Dung" blog, one of the first comments is from a spiky-haired Vietnamese (from his photo) calling himself "Romeo" who enthuses " I know our country has a lot of difficulties, but the Party and State are still paying attention to the younger generation." Another poster called Nguyen Tuan Kien, identified as a student, says "I totally support the prime minister." If the fake blogs are indeed a dissident ruse, it may have been a little too subtle for some.