In U-Turn, Anti-China Protesters Are Told to Go Home in Hanoi

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Kham / Reuters

Vietnamese policemen watch as protesters hold a Chinese flag with a picture of a pirate skull during an anti-China demonstration in Hanoi on July 3, 2011

Tensions between Vietnam and China have risen higher than they've been in years, thanks to a series of incidents in the South China Sea, an area believed by both nations to be rich in oil and gas as well as home to important global shipping routes. On Sunday, anti-China protests in the Vietnamese capital were shut down by police for the second week in a row. Many people were prevented from attending at all, while others were loaded onto buses with dark windows and one man was beaten, according to the Associated Press. It was the seventh consecutive Sunday that Vietnamese demonstrators have gathered near the Chinese embassy in Hanoi to express anger at Beijing ramping up its claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea. Chinese military ships have reportedly harassed Vietnamese survey ships and detained Vietnamese fishermen.

Despite their relatively small number — 300 people at most — the anti-China protesters, carrying signs and banners, have been an unusual sight on the streets of Hanoi these past weeks. Political protests and gatherings, frowned upon by the government, are not common in Vietnam. When they do occur, they are usually to air grievances about more local affairs like land grabs, factory wages or police brutality. And, indeed, tolerance for this wave of demonstrations has finished. Earlier protests were allowed as a way to send a message to Beijing and allow people some outlet to express anger. But after the fourth week, Hanoi and Beijing released a joint press release that emphasized "the need to steer public opinions along the correct direction, avoiding comments and deeds that harm the friendship and trust of the two countries." A fifth demonstration went ahead in the following week, but it was already clear patience was wearing thin, and both China and Vietnam had no wish to upset diplomatic relations further.

Now the nations' united front may be slipping. On July 14, it was reported that in a July 5 incident, Vietnamese fishermen had been harassed and attacked by Chinese soldiers in the South China Sea. The beating and detention of fishermen working off the coast of central Vietnam has been reported by the state-run media in the past and has long been an incendiary issue for the wider public. It's also been one of the bones of contention of the protesters, who have held signs captioned in English: "Justice for Vietnamese Fishermen" and "Chinese Government: Peace in Speech, Violence in Action." (However, as the state media have never reported the protests, the affected fishing communities in central Vietnam are likely to have little idea that people are taking to the streets on their behalf.)

Until last week, party officials may have found a strategic advantage to tolerating this unusual display on the capital's streets. Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, says the protests had served the interests of the government and attracted support from some elements of the political elite. The government is at times divided between pro-China and pro-U.S. factions. It has also found a way to send a message to Beijing: allowing protests in the authoritarian nation indicated Hanoi's tacit concordance with protesters' claims. Since Friday, the U.S. and Vietnam have been conducting joint naval exercises off the coast of Vietnam, which China has called "poor timing" that could fan tensions in the region. Both sides allege the exercises, which do not include live-fire drills, were planned long in advance.

The mood of tolerance, however, is changing. Last week Thayer predicted that anyone joining Sunday's protest would "almost certainly" be detained. Though not every protester was detained, many were. Plainclothes policemen have been filming demonstrators at the protests, gathering evidence they could use to put pressure on employers, universities or families to dissuade them from engaging in further demonstrations, he says.

One of the government's concerns about the demonstrations is that they could be hijacked by groups that are hostile to the regime. Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, a dissident recently released from Vietnamese prison who is now in the U.S., told the Agence France-Presse in Washington that she hoped the demonstrations would evolve into a direct threat to the government. In past years, democracy activists and the banned overseas democracy group Viet Tan have tied Hanoi's handling of China and the South China Sea, which they say has been overly acquiescent to China, into their wider questioning of the government's legitimacy.

Though Beijing and Hanoi's joint statement sought to rein in rhetoric on both sides of the border, some sections of the Vietnamese media are still pushing the South China Sea issue. On July 13, some 20 "patriotic personalities," as the news website VietNamNet dubbed them, signed a petition that said, in part, "China is trying to spread its power in all forms, in order to infiltrate and corner many countries in all continents." Petitions signed by notable figures — in this case, one was a former ambassador to China — are not uncommon, and sometimes seen as a "correct" way to voice opinion

An average protester, however, was avoiding calls for political reform. "I think it is O.K. to protest if we do this in peace," said one man on a recent Sunday who declined to give his name.

It was O.K. — for a limited time. Now things are back to normal.