Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Vietnamese workers riot against Chinese bosses; Sino-Vietnamese clashes in rocky islands: What is the connection?

by Michael Karadjis

(from June 2014; posted now due to similar disturbances four years later)
A number of key points need to be understood about recent Sino-Vietnamese clashes in the East Sea (also known as the "South China Sea") and the mass reactions of Vietnamese workers.

First, the "disputed " islands that China has placed its oil rig near - the Paracels - were not "disputed" before being seized by China from Vietnam in an act of armed aggression in 1974. At the time, China carried out this action in agreement with Kissinger. In 1988, in further naked armed aggression, China seized about a quarter of the Spratly Islands, which are much further south (and thus much further from China), which had also, till then, been simply Vietnamese sovereign territory.

I certainly don't support war, ie, I don't think any Vietnamese worker in uniform should have to get killed just to defend uninhabited islands. However, that is different to being "neutral" in low-level conflict that inevitably does occur. If leftists want to call the Paracel Islands "disputed", then they should call the Golan Heights, which Israel similarly seized from Syria via armed aggression during that era, "disputed." If they want to call the Paracels "Chinese" because after all, Americans/Australians etc speaking on behalf of the Vietnamese don't want to be "nationalists", then kindly be consistent and declare the Golan "Israeli."

The bigger picture, of course, is that China has claimed the entire East Sea as its own, with the famous "dotted line" going right up to the borders of neighbouring countries, including Vietnam, the new Monroe Doctrine of the new imperial colossus.

Second, regardless of the Paracels - for argument's sake let's call them (and the Golan) "disputed" - the oil rig has been placed in what is indisputably Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), based on what is indisputably Vietnamese territory on the mainland.

Third, the mass reaction against Chinese aggression by thousands of Vietnamese workers cannot be written off either as a chauvinist outburst (though it certainly has elements of that), as a government-orchestrated provocation, or as an act of mass ignorance (since so many attacked factories were Taiwanese rather than from the PRC). Rather we need to look at it in all its complexity.

Mass revulsion against the Chinese regime in Vietnam is widespread (and an obvious problem for "anti-imperialist" analysts). It has a historical aspect (not just 1000 years of Chinese rule, but the 1979 invasion, being knifed by Mao in late Vietnam war, including the seizure of the Paracels); it has economic aspects, with Chinese companies operating a gigantic environmentally destructive bauxite-aluminium operation in VN's Central Highlands, and seizing the lion's share of contracts for projects of similar size and of similar strategic importance; it has an aspect of moral revulsion and solidarity, as the Chinese navy regularly kidnaps large numbers of Vietnamese dirt-poor fisher-folk from around the two "disputed" island archipelagos, and holds them for massive ransoms for months at a time.

To blame the VCP government for "provoking nationalism" is a statement of ideology (whether Trotskyist or otherwise), based on the idea that as a Stalinist-turned capitalist regime it "must be" doing so. It is also a statement of breathtaking ignorance about the actual facts. The VCP government of course vigorously defends its own view of the islands. However, it also holds the view that only diplomatic means can be used, that war is out of the question. However, most of the Vietnamese dissident opposition (whether genuinely democratic, right-wing, Buddhist, Catholic etc) have found the idea of anti-China nationalism a good horse to ride on, *precisely because the VCP government is seen to have a "too moderate" strategy and opinion*. So they denounce the VCP government as being "communists betraying the nation to China" (which, while they don't often say so openly, can mean little more than advocating war, since the VCP does everything but this). In fact, anti-China, defend the islands, actions have become the most prominent issue in anti-VCP regime dissidence for some 5 years now.

The way the dissident movement pushes the issue is wrong, of course; but it cannot be denied that there is justice to the side overall which is resisting a new mega-capitalist superpower (whether one wants to call it imperialist or not at this stage is frankly besides the point in this instance).

Does this mean the nationalistic dissidents have secretly orchestrated the workers? Again, I think that is unlikely. Most of these dissidents are rabid supporters of foreign capital (curiously, they think there isn't enough in Vietnam!), and are horrified by the effects these riots will have on investors’ confidence; but more generally, workers are quite capable of leading themselves, both in good class struggle activities and also in making bad chauvinistic errors - no need to romanticise raw class struggle by having to explain its negative aspects by orchestration by the government, the opposition, or China itself (another theory floating around).

The simple facts of the matter are:

Workers have acted due to a mixture of mass revulsion against China's bullying actions and raw class hatred of bosses - Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and even Vietnamese factories have been attacked and burnt.

More have been Taiwanese than Chinese, because more Taiwanese investors invest in these sweatshops than Chinese. The Taiwanese, Chinese (often Hong Kongese) and Korean bosses are famous, not only in Vietnam, for running brutal capitalist regimes in their factories, which openly violate Vietnam's labour laws, and are generally much harsher than what is tolerated by workers from Vietnamese bosses (let alone Vietnamese state industries, where workers' conditions are far superior). Unleashing their class hatred against all these bosses, due to a pretext, is not difficult to understand at all.

But to understand the particular revulsion against the Taiwanese bosses, two things need to be considered.

First, China's claims to the Paracels and Spratleys were only made by the Kuomintang regime that ruled China in the late 1940s before the 1949 revolution (at the time both island groups were part of France's Vietnam colony and were thus handed over to Vietnam at the 1954 Geneva Accords, where *China* and the USSR betrayed Vietnam by agreeing to partition). The CCP simply inherited these chauvinistic claims against its smaller and weaker "brother" nation from the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang still rules in Taiwan, still supports these claims to the islands (like China, it claims all of them), and in practice has been supporting the PRC in the island issues (so far has the capitalist integration of Taiwan and the PRC gone).

Second, even more surprising (for "anti-imperialists", and those who see China as some kind of "socialist" state): As explained by Taiwanese researcher Wang Hongzen: "Almost all Taiwanese factories hire PRC people as "cadres” [Yes, that is also how Taiwanese call their supervisors: “cadres”]; inside the factories, there is a glass ceiling that blocks Vietnamese from being promoted. There is also everyday confrontation between Chinese supervisors with Vietnamese workers under the so-called suppressive management style with “Chinese characteristics” (Hongzen's article, "Beating up Taiwanese is not a Misunderstanding," for anyone who reads Chinese, is at http://www.appledaily.com.tw/realtimenews/article/new/20140516/398528/).

One needs to take this into account when we read reports of Vietnamese workers beating up Chinese workers, in some cases killing them. From where I am, I cannot tell how targeted these attacks are: are they specifically targeting these repressive Chinese supervisors and "cadres", or are these simply ugly chauvinist attacks on Chinese workers as a whole? I don't know, but I suspect there is probably a bit of both. However, to explain it as simply some kind of latent mindless chauvinism in Vietnamese workers coming out, rather than in the class terms as explained by Hongzen, is just plain wrong. That of course should not be read to mean any justification to the real chauvinist acts that may be occurring.

Of course, more generally, regarding labour, some have written that workers all around the world often attack foreign workers for "taking their jobs" etc. In my opinion, this again is too narrow. This usually refers to immigrants from poorer countries trying to get jobs in richer countries, being opposed by more privileged local workers. But here it is reversed, and I don't only mean the "joint-venture" CCP/KMT "cadres"; more generally, China tends to bring in masses of Chinese workers with its investments in Vietnam, as in Cambodia, Papua-NG, African countries etc. Bringing your workforce is not "immigration"; what it normally means is 2 things.

First, since the capitalist regime inside the factory is significantly harsher in China than in Vietnam, Chinese investors bring a workforce so as to not have to put up with too much "trouble;" they are well-known to see Vietnamese workers as more strike-prone and "lazy," ie, refusing to take as much shit. In any case, the Chinese workers often have no work visas; their jobs there are completely tied to their bosses.

Second, the Chinese investors use Chinese workers for better-skilled and higher paid positions (ie not only the supervisors), leaving Vietnamese with the least skilled and lowest paid positions. Just how different this is from the position of immigrant workers vis-a-vis locals in imperialist countries is rather obvious.

So all this also adds to the antipathy to Chinese workers.

Naturally, that does not mean that the attacks on Chinese workers are in any way justified, except perhaps in cases when there is an issue of clear class revulsion against slave-driving "cadres"; even in these cases, mob violence, up to and including lynching, will have the tendency to spread an atmosphere of terror among ordinary Chinese workers, even if they are not the target. Clearly, masses of Chinese workers see themselves as in danger, and have fled; the VCP has been able to use the outbreaks as a cover to crack down on other peaceful forms of protest and has made hundreds of arrests; the riots have allowed the opposition to claim that the chaos is an inevitable result of the VCP not being hard enough on China, of “abandoning the nation”; China has scored some propaganda points by pointing these events as Vietnamese anti-China aggression. Vietnamese and Chinese workers need to see each other as allies against intensified capitalism in both countries.

However, when Marxists analyse what causes events like this, it is also important to understand who is the oppressor, both the national oppressor in the big picture, and the class oppressor - including its "cadre" agents and screws - in the factories.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Extraordinary Petition to Vietnam government by 1000 "patriotic personalities"

Below is an extraordinary document initiated by some 20 prominent Vietnamese academics, former military, former officials, writers etc, who express great unease about the current situation for Vietnam, faced on the one hand by increasingly aggressive Chinese actions in the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea), and on the other by an economic situation characterized over the last few years by mounting crisis and severe inflation, which is hammering people’s living standards.

None of the people who launched this petition or have subsequently signed it (the list currently stands at 1088 people) can be characterized as in any way “anti-Party” people or even people with any history of stirring the pot. On contrary, they are of the kind referred to in the Vietnamese media as “patriotic personalities,” that is, people with a life-long pedigree of either involvement in the country’s historic struggle against US imperialism and/or involvement in the country’s reconstruction and development since then, strongly associated with, or members of, the ruling Communist Party (CPV), including former military leaders involved in the country’s liberation.

I am not posting this because I necessarily agree or disagree with the contents of their petition, but because, firstly, the document itself is quite extraordinary, and in today’s conditions in the country, brave, and secondly, because I believe the views expressed in it are currently widespread in Vietnam.

The petition protests, rightly in my view, against the aggressive actions of neighbouring China, which claims the entire East Sea as its own property, and whose actions aim to deliberately humiliate Vietnam so that it understands that the neighbouring rising imperial power is boss. These actions, mainly several years of brutal kidnaps of large numbers of impoverished Vietnamese fishermen, who are then held for ransom for weeks or months before being released for heists of many thousands of dollars, and more recently the cutting of cables of Vietnamese ships inside Vietnamese ships, twice, inside Vietnamese waters (not even near the disputed islands), have led to revulsion among ordinary Vietnamese, not so much out of misplaced “nationalism” as out of solidarity with the fishermen and their families.

However, the petitioners here discuss this issue in a very different way to the anti-communist (or at least anti-government) dissidents and foreign Vietnamese organisations, who in recent years have seized on Chinese aggression, and the Vietnamese government’s preference for dialogue and diplomacy, to launch a blatantly nationalistic campaign (which mirrors China’s own rhetoric, leaving aside the immense power difference etc). Their campaign centres on the idea that the CPV is a puppet of China and is therefore deliberately selling the country out. The problem being that the Vietnamese government has never given an inch on the question of its sovereignty over the islands, and continually protests China’s actions, through various fora, including via multilateral channels in ASEAN etc. The only thing the Vietnamese government says it will not do is allow the conflict over uninhabited islands to lead to war. Which leads to the conclusion that the right-wing protest, in demanding “tougher” action, can in effect only be advocating that – without actually saying so. The way they campaign is thoroughly opportunist.

By contrast, the petitioners here continually stress that they want to have good peaceful relations with China. For example, they call on the government, among other things, to “Affirm consistently our goodwill regarding building and preserving friendly and cooperative relations with China” and they stress “We must make a distinction between a power group within the Chinese government that harbors unethical and illegal plans and actions against Vietnam, and the friendly attitude of the majority of Chinese people toward the Vietnamese people.”
What then are they demanding from the government? When it is read carefully, there are two main aspects to this. The first, and overriding aspect to the whole document, is the demand for more transparency, for more information to the Vietnamese public. The unfortunate reality is that the CPV’s long history of “war communism” due to decades of imperialist siege still has a massive effect on its everyday behaviour, and so this ends up clouding issues and creating misunderstandings, even when issues are straight forward. They demand the public be informed openly about the nature of the ongoing diplomacy with China over these issues, that more information be made available to the public about the facts about the dispute, and that people be allowed to peacefully protest. This last point is one of its own: on many days, the regime allows people to publicly protest China’s actions, then on other days it breaks up demonstrations and arrests people.

There is simply no justification for such action. The government does this not because it is a “puppet” of China, but because it sees public protest as embarrassing while it persists with diplomacy, it wants to limit any nationalistic inflammation of the situation. It also fears exploitation of such rallies by anti-government groups, including foreign Vietnamese organisations. However, legitimate protest against violent actions against Vietnamese fisherfolk and Vietnamese boats and ships is not in and of itself nationalistic inflammation; on the contrary, the latter may become a threat precisely when legitimate protest is crushed for no reason, as people suspect the government is “covering up,” or “trying to protect China” when it arrests people. This is combined with the lack of overall transparency noted above: if people feel the whole truth is not coming out, if issues and clouded, precisely this gives space to those on the right who want to exploit the situation and raise nationalistic slogans.

An example of the difference is where the petitioners here demand the government “Explain the background, content, and legal validity of the message that Premier Pham Van Dong sent to China’s Premier Chu An Lai in 1958 regarding the East Sea, in order to conclusively do away with intentional misinterpretation by China.” This refers to a letter in which Dong supported China’s then decision to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles, in the context of US aggressiveness against China at that time; the letter makes no mention of the disputed Paracel and Spratley island chains, yet not only has China deliberately misinterpreted this to suggest Dong was submitting to China’s claims to the islands, but so have the foreign Vietnamese organisations and their supporters in Vietnam claimed for many years that this was the ultimate “communist sell-out” of the nation to China. This claim is sheer demagoguery, and the way the petitioners here handle it is quite the opposite to this.

However, the second aspect to this is their view – and that of increasing numbers of Vietnamese people – that the massive economic penetration of Vietnam by Chinese business is having many negative impacts on Vietnam, and threatens to entangle Vietnam in a neo-colonial relationship under the new Chinese superpower. Of particular concern is where they note that:

“China has won as much as 90% of all engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contracts in Vietnam in areas such as electric power plants, metal and nonmetallic refining facilities, chemical plants, and bauxite and titanium mining facilities. In contrast, China has imported from Vietnam agricultural products and raw minerals the extraction of which leaves behind environmental problems with long-term consequences.”

Moreover, they place this reality – which does indeed mirror classic relations between an imperialist power and a neo-colony – within a context of what they describe as China essentially morphing into a new imperialist power, without using this exact word:

“China, in the role of being “the manufacturing factory of the world” and the biggest money lender, aspires to become a world superpower. Under the cloak of “peaceful rise,” China is projecting its power in multiple forms to infiltrate and dominate other countries on all continents. A number of world analysts are of the opinion that China has surpassed all accomplishments of neo-colonialists after World War II.”

While most of the western left remain unconvinced that China is becoming a fully imperialist power (regardless of their other views on China and its actions), in my view this is something open to interpretation, and it may be that many are simply refusing to see the bleeding obvious due to a certain rigid view of what constitutes an “imperialist” power. That does not mean I am necessarily convinced either; sometimes what looks like the bleeding obvious may be quite different to what it seems. However, I am open to the idea, and I do not think these Vietnamese veterans are being “nationalistic” for simply expressing this opinion, which may well be correct.

Despite the obviously genuine concerns of these Vietnamese petitioners, however, are they unwittingly allowing themselves to become the vanguard of a new Vietnamese nationalist movement, which may at some point replace the official socialist ideology as the new ideology of capitalist Vietnam? As I have written elsewhere (http://links.org.au/node/2145), I believe that precisely this is occurring in China, where capitalist relations have developed more rapidly than in Vietnam; and that is also what I think of the openly nationalist ideology of the more right-wing Vietnamese oppositionists described above.

I don’t think this is a correct way to describe this current development at this stage. It is not out of the question that such a movement could evolve that way, but at this stage, we need to distinguish between the development of a narrow and confrontational nationalism, centred around exploiting traditional and historical anti-China sentiments, on the one hand, and the entirely legitimate protests of Vietnamese people against the brutal and shabby treatment of their impoverished fisherfolk by the naval forces of a mighty superpower, against the increasingly aggressive actions of the Chinese navy against Vietnamese ships in Vietnam’s territorial waters as part of its entirely illegitimate claim on the entire East Sea, and against mercenary Chinese business interests in Vietnam which have tended to be exploitative, corrupt and environmentally destructive. While some western leftists react in a concerned way to the very idea of any conflict between what they view as “two socialist countries” (and thus view the Vietnamese reaction as equally dangerous to the Chinese aggression), many of these same people would have an entirely different view if the country kidnapping hundreds of Vietnamese fisherfolk over many years and ramming Vietnamese ships while grabbing most contracts in strategic areas of the economy was a western imperialist power (especially given that many of those who fought western imperialism in the past are the same people as those now protesting China's aggressiveness). Clearly, reaction by a small and poor country against national oppression by a mighty superpower cannot simply be brushed aside as “nationalism.”

The entire issue of the massive Chinese investment in the bauxite-aluminium venture in the Central Highlands is only the most extreme case regarding Chinese business interests. Whether true or not, the perception that many of these ventures mainly exist due to large-scale bribery of officials by Chinese big business is very widespread; certainly, the fact that Chinese companies are developing the kind of monopoly of contracts in so many crucial areas as described above can not be explained either as mere coincidence or by “traditional friendship” or by geographic proximity. Chinese foreign investment is in general no better or worse than that from other capitalist and imperialist countries (though many argue that it is in some respects, especially regarding issues such as the environment, food safety and labour), but the growth of this kind of monopoly in such important areas does threaten a neo-colonial relationship with one power, leaving Vietnam less bargaining room among investors from a variety of countries.

There is a difference however between a threat and a reality. Vietnam is far from being a neo-colony of China or of anyone, yet. The level of independence achieved by the revolution is not something that can easily be given away for cash, no matter how much corruption and dealing goes on between Vietnamese elites and Chinese big business. While the petitioners are also not saying it is a neo-colony, in my view the danger lies in exaggerating the current relationship to the extent of starting to blame all the rot in the country on the foreign power. While the concerns about Chinese aggression and economic penetration are legitimate, the entanglement of a democratic movement with a “national” issue against a foreign power (when that foreign power is not directly colonizing or invading you) does pose difficult problems from the outset, which does give it the potential to develop in a negative nationalistic way. Even in the case of bauxite, it must be remembered that the Chinese company is in a joint venture with the Vietnamese state minerals corporation. Are they just engaging in this environmentally disastrous venture due to being “bought out by the Chinese,” or are they not doing it themselves to make money?

The final thing I want to say here is that there are clearly a wide variety of people with a range of views on other issues involved here. This accounts for the fact that while they describe a drastic economic situation, the rising rich-poor gap and so on, and call for action on this, they do not put forward any specific demands in relation to the economic system. While I noticed two names in the extended list (one of which was in the original list of 20) who are known to be in favour of a greater development of capitalism, many others are life-long communists who hold no such views, and likely the opposite in many cases. Indeed their description of the situation:

“The disparity between rich and poor is widening, and the distribution of income has become more and more unjust. Injustices in the distribution and accumulation of assets, land lease and use, implementation of laws, and formation of new power groups and monopolies are major issues that run contrary to the nation’s goal of building “a well-to-do citizenry, a strong country, and a society that is democratic, just, and civilized.”

is a description of none other than capitalism, and the slogan at the end which they say is being eluded is precisely the CPV’s current euphemism for a socialist country.

Thus there are no clear economic demands in either a more capitalist or more socialist direction. What they are agreed on, however, is once again, more openness, more transparency, more democracy. Whether their views bend left or right on economic policy, they all agree that such increased transparency can only help the economy, can only help root out the cancer of corruption. Whatever the reasons for decades of war-communism, caused by being occupied, invaded and bombed for decades by the world’s mightiest imperialist powers, this era is long over. Now as capitalism rapidly develops in Vietnam – including within the ruling CPV which officially invited capitalist membership at its 11th Congress earlier this year (a decade later than the Chinese CP did) – the continuation of an undemocratic status quo where the state can use all kinds of arbitrary powers can now increasingly become little more than a repressive cover for those among the ruling elite who use their power to amass fortunes.

Now more than ever, if there is any chance of holding back the onslaught of open capitalism and retaining some elements of the socialist orientation which generations of Vietnamese shed their blood for, it can only come via greater openness, genuine involvement of the ordinary people in decision making, advancing socialist democracy. Such open discussion is also the only way that the genuine grievances many Vietnamese people today have with the aggressive and destructive actions of the neighbouring imperial giant to their north can be disentangled from the rabid nationalism being pushed by an array of anti-regime dissidents and overseas Vietnamese anti-communists.

Therefore, whatever my reservations with some of the formulations and some of the potential of this movement, on the whole I think the initiative of these “patriotic personalities” is not only very brave and very praiseworthy in its forthrightness, but also generally a welcome development. I hope the Party leadership finds the wisdom to respond with dialogue rather than more arrests.

Michael Karadjis

Long time friend of Vietnam

Petition to The National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
and The Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Vietnam

On the Defense and Development of the Country In the Current Situation


We, the undersigned, respectfully send to your Excellencies this petition regarding the defense and development of the country in the current situation.

I. The independence, self-determination, and territorial integrity of the country are under serious threat

1. China claims 80% of the East Sea (Southeast Asia Sea) to be its property
China, in the role of being “the manufacturing factory of the world” and the biggest money lender, aspires to become a world superpower. Under the cloak of “peaceful rise,” China is projecting its power in multiple forms to infiltrate and dominate other countries on all continents. A number of world analysts are of the opinion that China has surpassed all accomplishments of neo-colonialists after World War II.
More recently, China has seriously intensified its ambition to control and own the East Sea (the Southeast Asian Sea) through actions that violate international laws and the sovereign rights of the countries bordering it. China has unilaterally drawn a nine-line and dot, U-shaped border on the East Sea, also known as the “cow-tongue line,” that encompasses 80% of the East Sea surface area. China has repeatedly declared that it has indisputable sovereignty over everything within that cow-tongue line and has carried out illegal activities there within to affirm this claim in violation of international laws.

China is actively strengthening its naval forces, preparing to move in large oil extraction platforms, and carrying out military and non-military incursions into areas that are within the maritime territory of Southeast Asian countries. At the same time, China pursues actions aiming to create disunity among countries within ASEAN.

2. China has used military forces to occupy Vietnam’s territories in the East Sea and is prepared to do that again regarding the remaining Vietnam’s territories in the Spratly Islands.

In the maritime area on which Vietnam has sovereignty and sovereign rights, China occupied by military actions in 1974 the Paracels that were at that time under the control of South Vietnam. In 1988, China took by force seven islets and rocks in the Spratlys that were also under the control of our country. Since then, China has regularly carried out actions to threaten and violate our maritime sovereign rights. For example, China has unilaterally imposed an annual fishing ban on the East Sea during which it chased away our fishing boats, arrested them, detained them, and/or confiscated their catches and properties for ransom. China has pressured foreign oil companies to not sign or to nullify contracts for oil exploration on the maritime economic zone of Vietnam. China has repeatedly sent Chinese Naval Surveillance Force vessels to carry out surveillances in the East Sea as if the sea belongs to its own. Only last month, Chinese ships deliberately cut the oil exploration cables of two Vietnamese ships—the BinhMinh02 and Viking II—while these ships were in operation within the Vietnamese exclusive economic zone. These are among a series of escalating actions by China that are designed to threaten and seriously encroach on Vietnamese maritime territory.

Vietnam’s geography, geo-political, and economic position vis-a-vis the world today appears to be an obstacle to the Chinese ambition to expand southward on the way to become a world superpower. China has applied all covert and overt means, including military actions, to seduce, infiltrate, manipulate, threaten, and interfere with Vietnam’s internal affairs in its design to weaken Vietnam and ultimately make us China’s subordinate.

Vietnam has appeased and tried in multiple attempts to accommodate China in order to establish cooperative bilateral relations. However, to date, the more Vietnam tries to cooperate, the more aggressively China behaves.

3. China has accomplished important steps in its plan to dominate Vietnam
Reviewing the China-Vietnam bilateral situation, we clearly observe that China has accomplished important steps in its strategic plan to dominate Vietnam. Below are some main observations:

Economically, Vietnam’s import from China has increased dramatically, by 280% from 2006 to 2010. Since 2009, Vietnam’s trade deficit with China has equaled the deficit with the rest of the world. Currently, we have to import from China 80% to 90% of the needed materials for our processing and service industries. This includes a significant volume of petroleum, electricity, and industrial inputs. One fifth of imports from China are consumer goods, and this does not include an equivalent amount that enters the country clandestinely from China. Of particular concern is the fact that recently China has won as much as 90% of all engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contracts in Vietnam in areas such as electric power plants, metal and nonmetallic refining facilities, chemical plants, and bauxite and titanium mining facilities. In contrast, China has imported from Vietnam agricultural products and raw minerals the extraction of which leaves behind environmental problems with long-term consequences. In addition, we have allowed China to rent industrial and forest land near the common border, and have been unable to control counterfeit money entering the country from China. Our weak economy has been a fertile ground for China to infiltrate, control, and disrupt. And China has constructed huge dams upstream of our two largest rivers, causing consequences that we are not yet able to assess. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that China has similarly infiltrated and controlled the economy and policies of our neighboring countries.

If China succeeds in its strategy to own the East Sea, Vietnam’s routes to the world will be blocked.

Politically, given the fact that Chinese infiltration and control of our economy has taken place over a number of years and is being continued, we should wonder what has China done to Vietnam, and to what extent has Chinese soft power influenced Vietnamese leaders? And to what extent has China been involved in the rampant corruption and social degradation in our society?

Our leaders have been too timid to make transparent the factual relationship between Vietnam and China for the Vietnamese people to be informed and to participate in seeking solutions. We, the people, are discontented and unable to comprehend our leaders’ behavior. The Party and the Government seem to be confused and alienated from the populace. International friends are worried and hesitant to support Vietnam’s just cause.

The Vietnamese leadership’s conduct regarding Vietnam–China bilateral relations is reflected in the joint press release following the meeting between the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries. This press release, made public by the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry on 26 June 2011, contains vagueness that is unfathomable and gives rise to worries for many Vietnamese inside and outside of Vietnam. For example:

• The press release completely ignored the aggressive actions on the East Sea taken by China in violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and sovereign rights. Instead, it stated: “The two sides held that the relationship between Vietnam and China has developed in a healthy and stable manner, meeting the common aspirations and fundamental interests of the Vietnamese and Chinese people, and benefiting peace, stability and development in the region.” If this sentence is aimed at describing the current bilateral relationship between the two countries, then it is not correct, contrary to reality, and therefore dangerous to Vietnam. What has happened is the opposite of the statement. The Vietnamese leaders should demand that the Chinese leaders honor the guidelines coined by themselves; namely the “16 Golden Words” (i.e., friendly neighborliness, comprehensive cooperation, long-lasting stability, and future-looking) and “Four Goods” (i.e., good neighbors, good friends, good comrades, and good partners). We should not irresponsibly join in the refrain of “the two sides underlined the need to persist on directing the Vietnam-China comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership to develop exactly in line with the motto of “16 Golden Words” and the spirit of “Four Goods.”

• The press release further stated: “The two sides emphasized the necessity to actively implement the common perception of the two countries’ leaders, peacefully solving the disputes at sea through negotiation and friendly economic activities”. What is “common perception,” which in Vietnamese should be correctly understood as “common agreement”? To date, the Vietnamese leaders have not made it clear. However, the Chinese side has interpreted the “common perception” to its favor. The Spokesman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on 29 June 2011, that “The Vietnam side should implement the common perception of the leaders of the two countries to solve the dispute at sea,” and that “Both countries oppose the intervention regarding the South China Sea by countries outside the region.” Chinese politicians and press have repeatedly stated the reason for the dangerous flare-ups in the East Sea is the provocative actions of Vietnam and other countries in the region. These statements sometimes added that Chinese public has been prepared and ready for a war to occupy the “series of pearls,” the term China uses to refer to the islets and rocks in the Spratlys that are more than 1000 kilometers from the southernmost land point of China. The vagueness in the joint press release is favorable to China and detrimental to our country, including our relations with the third parties.

• The press release also stated: “[The two sides] stress the need to steer public opinions along the correct direction, avoiding comments and deeds that harm the friendship and trust among the people of the two countries.” China has used this statement to pressure Vietnam to restrain public opinion in our country, while allowing the Chinese press to publish slanderous and anti-Vietnam articles. We need to affirm that public opinion is needed to interprete Chinese actions and public statements that slander Vietnam and its people. Public opinion should play a support role to government political and diplomatic activities and should not be seen as “undermining the friendship and trust between the peoples of the two countries.” The Vietnamese people have the tradition and historic will, at all times, to sacrifice to maintain independence and to actively seek ways to build friendly relations with China. Vietnam has never attacked China, but has risen in arms to repulse China from its incursions and occupation in the past.

II. In the meantime, the nation is faced with multiple difficulties and risks

1. Our economy is in a state of under-development, with low quality, little effectiveness, and prolonged crises:

Most of economic efforts during the past few years were focused on “putting out fires,” e.g., trying to getting the economy out of immediate difficulties such as inflation. Since 2007, inflation has been ongoing at two digits (except in 2009), and estimates for 2011 are also at the high two digits. While internal and external resources have been mobilized at a high level that is heretofore unseen, their economic effectiveness is low. Our ICOR index, which has an inverse relationship with investment effectiveness, has been highest ever, and is also the highest in the region. The import-export imbalance is high. Our budget deficit has crossed the alarm threshold (5% of GDP in accordance with international standards). Our economy continues to rely on poor infrastructures, resulting in low effectiveness and competitiveness. Our growth has been based mostly on investment and low-skill, inexpensive labor, as well as exploitation of natural resources to the point of exhaustion. Our natural environment has been gravely damaged. The disparity between rich and poor is widening, and the distribution of income has become more and more unjust. Injustices in the distribution and accumulation of assets, land lease and use, implementation of laws, and formation of new power groups and monopolies are major issues that run contrary to the nation’s goal of building “a well-to-do citizenry, a strong country, and a society that is democratic, just, and civilized.” The ultimate result is a situation where the nominal income per capita has increased but the quality of life has decreased in multiple facets, including increased human insecurity and worsened quality of life for peasants and the majority of workers and salary earners.

2. Vietnam is experiencing worsened cultural and social conditions

New values and progressive values cannot keep up with national development needs nor can they overcome unbecoming conditions and antiquated social behavior. Social justice is seriously compromised. People, the most valuable national asset, are not truly liberated.

Of the many areas of concern that need to be addressed is the state of national education. Our educational system is backwards in many aspects compared to other nations in the region, in spite of the fact that we have one of the region’s highest share of income expensed on education (from both the viewpoint of the nation and of the individual).

Our educational curricula, management, teaching and learning processes are quite backwards, sometimes even erroneous. We have a relatively high percentage of population with a general education, and the percentage of academic diplomas at every level attained by the citizenry is relatively high compared to countries at an equivalent level of income. However, in reality, the quality of human resources and the effectiveness of our labor are lower than those of many other countries—far lower than what is needed to lift the nation to modern time. The fundamental reason is that the national educational system in the existing socio-political system does not aim at developing free and creative citizens who are empowered to be leaders. It is an education system that aims at developing people who race for trophies and quantities irrespective of value.

Our people recognize and condemn the tolerance of falsehood and degradation in the national cultural and spiritual life. These poor social conditions, coupled with rampant corruption, create new types of injustices that eat into our traditional values. The absence of transparency in all aspects of life is fertile ground for corruption and negative values. This reality has become a serious barrier to the development of a healthy and civilized society, and has created an environment of lawlessness that is conducive to mediocrity in the political system.

3. The political system is rampant with contradictions and is a barrier to the national development

The current national economic, cultural, and social conditions clearly reflect increased contradictions within and degradation of our socio-political system and government. Faced with urgent needs, it is necessary to transform the structure of our national economy and to implement an economic model that focuses on quality rather quantity.

Modern times require changes in the political system that erases barriers to renovation and economic development and promote the full and effective use of all resources. While the need for political changes has been raised by the leadership, goals, plans, and methods have not been devised for implementation. We are particularly concerned with increasing corruption in the administrative and political system; and with the dubious behavior and unethical conduct of government personnel and party cadres. This system has been increasing in size, thus aggravating further the scale of contradiction and corruption, causing ever increasing losses for the nation. This situation, coupled with errors in organization and personnel deployment, renders ineffective efforts to renovate the political system in spite of much cost and effort. Many projects are for show, with falsities in both format and content. Democracy continues to be seriously violated. Running for and election to offices of power have not been accorded true democracy. Many citizens’ rights that are spelled out in the Constitution are not allowed nor protected in daily life; of these, are the rights to free speech, free access to information, freedom to establish groups, and freedom to demonstrate.

We can state that our nation is faced with the contradiction between the people’s desire to live in a country that is “peaceful, unified, independent, democratic, and prosperous” on the one hand, and a political system that is more and more degraded and ineffective, on the other hand. This contradiction becomes more and more dangerous to the future of the nation as we face the threat from China in its design to infiltrate Vietnam.

Geographically we cannot move our country to another location far from China. Realities force us to take a turn that is decisive to our nation’s future. Being a neighbor to ambitious China that is on the way to become a world superpower, Vietnam needs to sustainably protect our independence and sovereignty; to command respect from China; and to develop a bilateral relationship that is truly for peace, friendship, cooperation and development. This objective is very critical on numerous fronts, including the protection of our islands, special economic zones, and sea and sky in the East Sea in the face of Chinese claims that have become more and more ominous. China has conducted direct military attacks and is preparing more attacks. The most dangerous front in which China has concentrated power and influence is the infiltration and/or disruption of our economic, political, and cultural life. On this front, China carries out threats and inducements at the same time, in the name of the mutual safeguard of socialism, in order to sow division between our people and our political system. It infiltrates our leadership, weakens our national unity, and lessens our capability to maintain our national security and defense. If it defeats us on this front, China will defeat us on all fronts.

We are now in a new situation in international relations as China rises to become a superpower with plans and actions that sometimes ignore international laws, conventions, and stability. Most countries in the world, with perhaps the exception of China, want Vietnam to be independent, self-governing, prosperous, and developed, with the ability to contribute to peace and stability in the region. They want Vietnam to have friendly and cooperative relations with its neighbors and the world, and to pursue mutual peace and prosperity. This new world attitude towards Vietnam is a tremendous opportunity for our country to deploy resources that have heretofore been neglected, in order to lift the nation to a position it deserves in the community of nations. To seize this opportunity and avoid the risk of isolation, the Vietnamese people and its leaders need to become involved in the struggle to preserve values that constitute the foundation of a progressive world; that is peace, democracy, freedom, protection of human rights, and protection of the environment.

III. Our petition

With the above, we earnestly present the following petition to the Congress and the Politbureau of the Vietnamese Communist Party:

1. Make transparent before the Vietnamese people and the world community the real relationship between China and Vietnam:

Provide facts and reasons to support Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands and exclusive economic zones in the East Sea in a manner that is convincing and compliant with international laws. Affirm consistently our goodwill regarding building and preserving friendly and cooperative relations with China. State unequivocally our resolve to protect our independence, sovereignty, and integrity of our land and water. Explain the background, content, and legal validity of the message that North Vietnam’s Premier Pham Van Dong sent to China’s Premier Chu An Lai in 1958 regarding the East Sea, in order to conclusively do away with intentional misinterpretation by China.

We must make a distinction between a power group within the Chinese government that harbors unethical and illegal plans and actions against Vietnam, and the friendly attitude of the majority of Chinese people toward the Vietnamese people. We should be ever ready to be friends and trusted partners of all nations. We should have particular respect for friendly and cooperative relations with nations in Southeast Asia, major nations, and all nations who are concerned with the peaceful resolution of the competing claims in the East Sea.

2. Inform the Vietnamese people of today’s national reality

Inform the people of risks to the future of the nation. Seek unity. Assemble spiritual, mental, and physical resources to develop and protect the country. Renovate comprehensively the education and economic systems. Raise the people’s levels of consciousness, unity, and well being that are required for the protection and development of the country.

In order to do so, we need to overcome the misdirection of the national educational and economic systems caused by ideological fundamentalism. Political reforms, therefore, are a precondition for all other reforms.

3. Implement by all means citizen’s rights regarding freedom and democracy that have been defined by the Constitution:

Liberate and promote people’s desire and efforts to build and protect the nation. Take advantage of new opportunities. Respond to the challenges and needs of today’s world.

In the process of implementing the rights to freedom and democracy that are spelled out in the Constitution, it is necessary to seriously implement the rights to free speech, free publication, free expression of political views by peaceful demonstrations, free association, and transparency in all national activities.

4. Call upon all citizens, Vietnamese inside and outside of Vietnam, to support the task of collaboration, cooperation, conflict resolution, and unity:

This is to be done in the spirit of reconciliation and compassion, without any distinction as to political belief, religion, ethnicity, and social positions. All citizens shall close the page on our past differences in the interest of the national good. All citizens shall have the common goal of building and protecting the nation with all of our hearts, minds, and creativity.

5. Leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the only power that exists in Vietnam, shall be totally responsible for today’s national condition

They shall commit to the national interest above all others. They shall carry the flag of democracy to push for political reforms and the liberation of the people’s potential for the task of nation building and protection. They shall push back on corruption and social degradation. They shall bring the country out of today’s weaknesses and dependencies. They shall lead the nation to sustainable development. They shall lead the nation to walk side by side with the progressive world in the interest of peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, and environmental protection.
Finally, we earnestly invite our compatriots, inside and outside of Vietnam, to support and sign this petition. By doing so with factual deeds, we Vietnamese will have demonstrated our iron will to arrest and push back plans and actions that infringe on Vietnam’s independence, self-determination, and sovereignty. By doing so, we are resolved to eradicate injustice, poverty, and backwardness in our country. By doing so, we are building and preserving the nation, and we are upholding the Vietnamese tradition of standing up for our independence. By doing so, we will be proud to stand before the people of the world and our children and grandchildren.

Seizing the opportunity to lead our nation out of danger and to build a sustainable society in peace is the sacred responsibility of all of us, the Vietnamese.
Made in Hanoi, July 10, 2011
Signature blocks are attached

Friday, February 11, 2011

China, Vietnam and the islands dispute: Behind the rise of Chinese nationalism?

China, Vietnam and the islands dispute: What is behind the rise of Chinese nationalism?

By Michael Karadjis

February 2, 2011 -- Over the last year or so, tensions have been heightened in the dispute over two island groups in the South China Sea (also known as the East Sea in Vietnam), involving rival claims to some or all of the islands by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and even Brunei. The first three of these countries claim all of both island groups.

The islands in question are known in English as the Paracels and the Spratlys, in Vietnamese as the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, and in Chinese as the Xisha and the Nansha. Both island groups are uninhabited rocky islands and reefs; there is neither a Vietnamese population oppressed by the current Chinese occupation of the Hoang Sa nor a Chinese population oppressed by Vietnamese rule over most of the Truong Sa. Thus there are no questions of self-determination of actual peoples. Therefore, international law would seem to be the best way to judge the status question, unless further negotiations settle things differently.

Since international law is on the side of Vietnamese sovereignty, as will be shown below, this article will use the Vietnamese terms Hoang Sa and Truong Sa for the sake of simplicity. The Hoang Sa are the more northerly group, approximately equidistant from the central coast of Vietnam to their west and the far south Chinese island of Hai Nam to their north (hundreds of kilometres from both); the Truong Sa are far south of this, nowhere near China, off the south central coast of Vietnam but also a similar distance to the closest points in Malaysia in the south and the Philippines in the east.

At the outset, however, I wish to stress that the actual question of sovereignty is less important than the differing ways that China and Vietnam have treated the issue. Indeed, if someone were to say to me, “What does it matter who legally owns a bunch of rocky, uninhabited islands? Surely the dispute is about potential oil deposits underneath. The surrounding countries should jointly exploit them and share the potential wealth if it is shown to exist, or perhaps leave the regional environment alone”, I would say, “I agree completely.”

But I believe the Vietnamese government has a better stance, separate to my own sympathies, and its correctness is based on international law. Because the Vietnamese government is opposed to the militarisation of the conflict, believes that the defence of uninhabited islands can only be carried out diplomatically and that it is not worth a single soldier’s life. Vietnam clearly lacks the military power to enforce its rights anyway.

By contrast, the Chinese government does have the means to militarily enforce its imperial designs and is doing so aggressively. Its policy has consisted of military aggression, in 1956, 1974 and 1988, to seize the islands, and in recent years its growing militarisation of the dispute and aggressive actions towards Vietnamese people, mostly poor fisherfolk, on these seas, is pushing a confrontation regardless of what one thinks of the worth of fighting over the islands’ status. In the last few years, China has:

• moved its war fleet into both groups of islands as a permanent fixture, with activities that include mass kidnapping of Vietnamese fisherfolk for ransom
• declared that the two island groups now occupy the same strategic position in China’s international affairs as do Taiwan and Tibet, that is, something close to a declaration of war on Vietnam
• created a new province in southern China incorporating the two island groups.

To make this clear, it is well worth examining the gravity of this situation. In 2010, Chinese society was mobilised in a nationalistic paroxysm against Japan when just one Chinese captain was detained by the Japanese navy in another island group that is disputed between China and Japan. The nature of China’s aggression in the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa – and the extraordinary level of double standards shown by Beijing – was captured vividly in this piece by Greg Torode in the South China Morning Post (http://www.viet-studies.info/kinhte/DoubleStandards.htm) in reference to this other issue with Japan:

“With apologies to John Lennon, imagine that the Chinese fishing trawler captain now in detention in Japan was not a lone individual, but one of several hundred fishermen captured and held over the past 18 months or so. Imagine, too, that some of their boats had been rammed and sunk by Japanese patrols; others, meanwhile, had their catches seized.

“Or that once in detention, at times for months, Japan had offered their release only after the payment of thousands of dollars per head. Their government objected to the payment of ransoms, but some families were so desperate to see their fathers, sons and husbands that they quietly paid up. Rumours spread that some had been shot.

“I put such a scenario to a mainland student friend. He was shocked. ‘I cannot even imagine the outcome’, he said. ‘There would be such anger against the Japanese government that I cannot believe that ordinary Japanese would be safe in China.’ Certainly it does not bear thinking about, given the feverish pitch to the diplomatic and social pressure now building on Tokyo over the continued detention of the captain.

“Yet this scenario has happened, but not involving Japanese patrols against Chinese fishing boats over the disputed islets of the East China Sea. Instead, it represents the actions taken by Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea against Vietnamese fishermen. Instead of the Diaoyu Islands, most of the detentions have taken place in waters surrounding the Paracel archipelago – claimed by both countries but occupied by China since 1974.

“Vietnam's Foreign Ministry has lodged formal protests while its state press, a less sophisticated but equally unsubtle variant of the mainland model, has churned out tales of woe from grieving relatives waiting for news. Under pressure from annoyed Chinese diplomats, Vietnamese government officials have tried to keep nationalistic tensions from spilling over into street protests.”

This description is accurate in all respects – indeed, the ransoms demanded can be US$10,000 for one person. It goes without saying that the Chinese war fleet does not really feel so threatened by dirt-poor Vietnamese fisherfolk that such military action would be required, even if the islands in question were indisputably Chinese; it further goes without question that the mighty Chinese navy does not need these ransoms as a fundraiser. There is one reason for these actions: to humiliate, to show who is boss. And that is the kind of action that becomes necessary when a large capitalist power, such as China, begins to develop into a new imperial power in its own right. While that is another more complex issue, it is clearly related and ultimately is a question that will need to be confronted.

In any case, there is clearly going to be no “sharing” of any resources as long as China has its way, because that is a socialist concept, utterly foreign to the current Chinese leadership.

Now all that does not mean – to knock out a red herring – that socialists in the West should start launching public campaigns against “Chinese imperialism”, that we should be putting “Down with China!” on the front pages of our newspapers and campaigning in the streets. Our main enemy is at home, and in as much as Australia is connected to US imperialism, our key focus will always be – as it always has been – denouncing and exposing US imperialism. Note, of course, that in Australia’s case, our ruling class is somewhat more equidistant between the US and China, so it’s not that simple, but still is basically with the US. And all this also assumes some great clash between the US and China, which in my opinion is also overstated – there is clearly rivalry, but also a great deal of cooperation.

Nevertheless, the main point remains – denouncing China is hardly our main public concern. And for the record, though China may be morphing into an emerging imperial power in its own right, I would still strongly defend China from any direct attack by US imperialism.


However, socialists are allowed to discuss our views on things that do not go on the front covers of our campaign material, in order to understand the world. Yet there has been a certain reaction from some quarters of the left to even discussing the issue; simply to do so can be greeted with accusations of “Sinophobia” (in the same way that any criticism of Israel is labelled by Zionists “anti-Semitism”) or of being unwitting servants of US imperialism. This way of thinking is often referred to as “Manichean”, that is, a biblical view whereby the world is divided into Good and Bad, so if it happens that some tyrannical capitalist regime falls out of favour with US imperialism for reasons having nothing to do with anything progressive, then such a regime is seen as having a silver lining, and criticism of it is henceforth banned. Such views are an embarrassment to those spouting them and an affront to socialism, and reflect an inability to cope with “complex” ideas such as Marxist analysis.

However, Manicheans can often get away with it by posing as thus being “anti-imperialist holier-than-thou” in an attempt to shut up their critics (e.g., “How dare you criticise Milosevic or Mugabe or the Burmese junta when US imperialism is also against them” etc., and other such arguments). But the problem for them in this case is that, since they have now decided that China’s current rivalry with the US makes everything China does Good, they find themselves in a most uncomfortable situation of being in direct opposition to the martyr socialist nation Vietnam, which waged the longest anti-imperialist war in history; a nation that they would also prefer not to criticise. Because it is none other than Vietnam – not capitalist Indonesia, Malaysia or elsewhere – that is in the front of the firing line of the implications of capitalist China’s growing emergence as an imperial power.

It must be a rather uncomfortable position to be in to feel forced to choose between two countries that many of these people consider to be socialist, let alone siding with the position of the one that is far richer, far more powerful on a world scale, and the one that has violated Vietnam’s sovereignty numerous times in the past, usually in open collaboration with imperialism. Indeed, China invaded Vietnam in the recent past with the direct support of US imperialism. China is currently moving its capital all over the developing world and replicating typically exploitative patterns well-worn by the imperialist powers before it. It must also be a rather uncomfortable position to be to stand with China against the position of a weak, bombed-back-to-the-stone-age, developing socialist country, even though Beijing is the first to militarise the conflict and push greater-power nationalism, while Vietnam is opposed to such militarisation and is trying to contain the partially justified local nationalism rising over the issue.

So keep this context in mind as we now analyse the actual issue in dispute.


One way of dealing with this problem is to pretend it does not exist and hope it goes away. A more unique way was recently presented on the Green Left discussion list (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/GreenLeft_discussion/). This was to openly take China’s position in the dispute, but in order to avoid the Vietnam elephant in the room, to also pretend that the Vietnamese government agrees with China’s view! While one particular post to a discussion list may be of little consequence, it is useful to quote it as an example of the problem while introducing some of the propaganda put out by the Chinese regime. The post read in part:

“As for all your smoke and mirrors and pretend concern for the ‘poor Vietnamese fishermen’ it would be more useful if you had looked for the views of the Vietnamese government itself on the subject of the Xisha and Nansha Islands.
“Nhan Dan of Viet Nam reported in great detail on September 6, 1958, the Chinese Government’s Declaration of September 4, 1958, that the breadth of the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China should be 12 nautical miles and that this provision should apply to all territories of the People’s Republic of China, including all islands on the South China Sea. On September 14 the same year, Premier Pham Van Dong of the Vietnamese Government solemnly stated in his note to Premier Zhou Enlai that Viet Nam ‘recognizes and supports the Declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China on China's territorial sea’.”

It is somewhat extraordinary that in order to “prove” such an absurd proposition, someone would quote what they think a Vietnamese prime minister said in 1958, 52 years ago, as evidence of the Vietnamese government’s view. But it is not so absurd when we consider that the poster got this quote from a Chinese propaganda site, and the reason the Chinese site needs to go back to 1958 is that there is simply nothing else in the intervening years to quote.

I will spare readers even a single quote from any Vietnamese government or Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) declaration from 2010, or 2000, or 1990, or 1980, or 1970 or any other time, because anyone who wants to know Vietnam’s view on the two island groups only has to Google for a minute or so to understand why the poster in question had to go back as far as 1958 to find a quote he thought justified his assertion.

But anyway, let’s now look at the propaganda itself, as an introduction to the development of the issue in the modern era.

Yes, China did make that declaration on September 4, 1958. Yes, Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong did make that diplomatic reply 10 days later. I have the whole text of the reply. Yes, it supports China extending its territorial waters to 12 miles. But the reply studiously avoids saying anything about that part of the contents of the Chinese declaration which defines China’s territory as including the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. For the sake of clarity, the islands are hundreds of miles away from China, so are not covered by China’s 12-mile territorial water boundaries, that is a separate issue; it just happens that the Chinese government used this declaration to push both issues. The non-mention of this part of China’s declaration in Pham Van Dong’s letter is very significant.

Nevertheless, why would Pham Van Dong write this diplomatic letter in such a way that has enabled both Chinese, and as we will see below, Vietnamese chauvinists and reactionaries to use it against Vietnam and the CPV? First we need to understand the context.


In 1954, under massive Soviet and Chinese pressure, the CPV government in Hanoi signed the Geneva Accords, temporarily dividing Vietnam into north and south, with the proviso that elections would be held in 1956 to reunify the country. If the division had been drawn at where the actual forces on the ground had stopped fighting, the CPV-led (Vietminh) forces would have had about three-quarters of the country, not half. By 1956, the US and the puppet Diem regime installed in the south had cancelled the elections because it knew it would have resulted in an overwhelming vote for the CPV across both north and south.

These Geneva Accords defined Vietnamese territory as including both the Hoang Sa and the Truong Sa island groups. These accords were signed by China. Thus the last actual international treaty signed by both Vietnam and China on this issue clearly defined these island groups as Vietnamese. This is thus the standing international law. The reason both island groups were declared part of Vietnam’s territory was because they were part of the Vietnam colony of French imperialism, which had just been defeated by the Vietminh in 1954. The reason they were part of the French colony of Vietnam was not because France had conquered them from some mythical Chinese rule in the 19th century but, on the contrary, because the two island groups were a well-established part of Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty long before the arrival of the French, and the islands’ resources had been exploited by Vietnam’s Hoang Sa company since the 18th century. So France naturally got them by invading Vietnam. This is the modern history of the islands. As for whether Chinese maritime expeditions in the islands from the time of the “Song Dynasty” some 1000 years ago can be said to constitute some mythical prior Chinese “sovereignty” will be touched on in the section below on nationalism.

Getting back to the 20th century, the two archipelagos were put under the temporary control of “south Vietnam” in 1954. Once the US/Saigon cancelled the elections and launched barbarous attacks on the CPV-led Vietminh forces in the south, forcing the latter to re-launch the struggle some years later, the new CPV-led formations (in the south), the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) and National Liberation Front (NLF), declared their aim to be the liberation of the whole territory of “south Vietnam” as defined in Geneva. They never said anything about giving part of their territory to China.

However, in the late 1950s, just as the US/Diem regime was resuming its aggression in the south, backed by US arms and “advisors”, China sent its navy to seize the eastern part of the Hoang Sa, despite its signature at Geneva. Incidentally, at the same time Taiwan also laid claim to the islands and moved in and seized one of the larger islands in the Truong Sa – China and Taiwan may have been enemies, but preying on a weakened Vietnam was something they had in common.

Under this two-pronged pressure, Vietnam, seeing imperialism as its main enemy, wanted to soften things with China by not openly confronting it over its seizure of these islands; thus Dong’s letter simply avoided the issue.

But since US imperialism was also confronting China in this period, the Vietnamese government was completely sincere in agreeing with China’s extension of its territorial waters to 12 miles as a protective measure – thus Dong’s letter was not just diplomatic, but an act of solidarity, despite China’s clear lack of solidarity in seizing the islands while Vietnam was at war with imperialism and putting its renewed claim to the islands into this same declaration. Vietnam refused to play by the rules of anti-solidaristic Maoist tradition.

US-China anti-Vietnam alliance

China’s military conquest of the western part of the Hoang Sa in 1974 was even worse. Just as the most barbarous war against any country in history was coming to a close, and following US President Richard Nixon’s famous trip to Beijing at the height of the US genocide against Vietnam to announce the Maoist regime’s cynical betrayal, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with China’s leaders. Given that by late 1974 it was clear to the US that Saigon would fall, and socialist Vietnam would thus inherit the islands, Kissinger gave the green light to “socialist” China to launch a full-scale military attack on the positions of his capitalist Saigon allies in the western Hoang Sa. So Chinese and Vietnamese troops were killed as part of a Machiavellian plan to prevent the coming unified socialist Vietnam from controlling the islands, and to kick sand in Hanoi’s face.

This US-China anti-Vietnam alliance stepped up in the second half of the 1970s and 1980s (including China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam and joint US-Chinese backing of the genocidal Khmer Rouge’s war against Vietnam and the Cambodian people), and it incorporated all the US-backed capitalist military dictatorships of South-East Asia in an effort to strangle the Vietnamese revolution. In this context, first the Philippines in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then Malaysia in the mid-1980s, also militarily seized eight islands and three islands respectively of the Truong Sa (Spratleys) from Vietnam, while Taiwan also re-stated its claims. Then, in 1988, China again launched a full-scale naval attack against socialist Vietnam and seized six islands of the Truong Sa.

At present, the whole of the Hoang Sa is under Chinese occupation, while Vietnam controls most of the Truong Sa (21 islands), China controls six islands, the Philippines eight, Malaysia three and Taiwan one.

Vietnam’s reaction: Stand firm, but avoid nationalism

What then of Vietnam’s reaction to all this? Is Vietnam similarly just beating nationalist drums over a bunch of rocks? In fact, if we go back to the last paragraph quoted above from the Greg Torode article on the Chinese navy’s kidnapping of Vietnamese fisherfolk, we read:

“Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has lodged formal protests while its state press, a less sophisticated but equally unsubtle variant of the mainland model, has churned out tales of woe from grieving relatives waiting for news. Under pressure from annoyed Chinese diplomats, Vietnamese government officials have tried to keep nationalistic tensions from spilling over into street protests.”

The indicates how differently Vietnam reacts – trying to keep down the nationalistic reaction – despite the massively greater provocation compared with the detention of a single Chinese captain by Japan, which produced a highly nationalistic response from the Chinese government. This difference regarding nationalism is a class difference.

And that is why I also oppose the “dissident” Vietnamese opposition. Indeed, going back to the famous Pham Van Dong letter of 1958, the distortion of this letter by Chinese propaganda mirrors the exact same distortion of it by right-wing Vietnamese “dissidents” and overseas reactionaries, who for years now have been campaigning for Vietnam to take a “tougher line” with China over the islands, and claim that the CPV is a “puppet” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and a betrayer of Vietnam (wow, they should talk). They also seize on this letter to justify their views on alleged CPV treachery.

But since the CPV in fact continually and unambiguously claims the islands are Vietnamese, the only thing the right wing can really be objecting to is the Vietnamese government’s other view, that there is no military solution. The “dissidents” have thus turned themselves into the national chauvinist camp and are essentially advocating war with China. The difference between China and Vietnam on this issue is not so much who is right or wrong on the legal issues, but rather the fact that the equivalent of these Vietnamese chauvinists are already in power in Beijing.

They are playing the nationalist card because it is now available. Some sections of the “dissidents” are even ridiculously calling for a boycott of Chinese goods! However, this nationalist sentiment is being made available to the “dissidents” by China’s actions, as well as many of its exploitative investment practices inside Vietnam and other issues. It is not only the islands. China has become a major investor in Vietnam, and like other foreign capitalist investors, many investments show little regard for any social or environmental concerns. Like other investors, Chinese businesses develop special financial relations with certain politicians and sections of the state and government to push their business interests. That makes them no different to any other, but the fact that China is a giant neighbour with a history of aggression against Vietnam and a current bad policy on the islands tends to make Vietnamese more leery of the Chinese variety, however “unfair” that may seem to some well-meaning Western anti-imperialists.

In terms of labour, Chinese investors, like elsewhere in the Third World, import an army of skilled Chinese workers, leaving only jobs like sweepers for the Vietnamese, thus even the usual “employment gains” or skills development associated with foreign investment are largely missing. Chinese bosses in Vietnam openly say they prefer their own workers – who they can keep barrack-style away from Vietnamese labour laws – to “lazy” and “undisciplined” Vietnamese workers, i.e., workers who are more likely to strike and less likely to take shit from the boss than the imported workers, who are totally dependent on the bosses.

Also China’s massive damming of the upper reaches of the Mekong River in China itself, and also in Laos, Burma and Cambodia, is having a dramatic effect on downstream agriculture, and the most downstream is Vietnam’s Mekong rice bowl.

In a recent conversation with a friend who has a relative in the border police, a marked change of attitude of Chinese police in recent years was reported. A big problem in Vietnam is the smuggling of women and children to China. The guard reports a markedly reduced level of cooperation – Vietnam tells the Chinese police exactly which village a girl has been taken to, but the Chinese side at best brings back the girl but does nothing about the criminals responsible, who are sometimes found trying to re-enter Vietnam; at worst Chinese police do not even rescue the girl. Exaggerations? Perhaps? Anecdotal? Perhaps? But we need to recognise in such stories real feelings and beliefs among Vietnamese that are not entirely baseless. My friend’s point was not that Chinese police are evil and approve of this horrible trade. It was that this marked change of attitude to any honest and equal cooperation with Vietnamese police – like the deliberate and pointless humiliation at sea – was an attitude that reflects the rise of an imperial power that needs to demonstrate who is boss.

Ecological destruction fuels hostility

A major issue now is the massive bauxite-aluminium development in Vietnam’s central highlands, which is set to destroy the ecology of this region and wreck the lives of the ethnic minorities who live there. There is massive opposition in Vietnam to this development, including from many prominent scientists, from many in the National Assembly, from sections of the army and CPV, and from people more generally. No less than General Vo Nguyen Giap has written three open letters to the Vietnamese government protesting this development. Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, of 1972 Paris negotiations fame, has also signed one of the many petitions against it.

The foreign investor responsible is a huge Chinese company. In my opinion, that in itself should be irrelevant. The objection is environmental; it matters not which foreign investors are involved, and the Vietnamese state mining company is the local partner in any case. However, the nature of Chinese company labour practices described above has given an extra “security” angle to all this – the central highlands have vast strategic significance, being the region where the US-backed southern regime was decisively defeated in 1974-75. With China’s generally aggressive stance, having thousands of Chinese skilled workers barracked in the region under Chinese bosses with little or no reference to Vietnamese authorities has raised alarm bells.

Now I have something of a problem with this; it bends a little in the nationalist direction I am opposed to; and the “dissident” right wing is exploiting the issue. However, General Giap is not someone who can easily be classified as a simple-minded anti-China nationalist – his main objection is environmental, having been a strong partisan of the environment since the 1980s – but he has also spoken out on the “security” aspect, reflecting a widespread apprehension among war veterans, and the fact of his opinion is reason enough to at least take it seriously.

It is the Vietnamese government that is trying to contain all the popular nationalism associated with all these issues, which has some justice as its basis due to China’s actions, but which also has an ugly and reactionary potential of its own, like the kind now ruling China. Far from using the islands to promote an opposing nationalism, the Vietnamese government has, if anything, tended to overreact against this current, arresting countless bloggers and the like who peacefully spread their anti-China views, rather than confronting them politically. The government has also prevented anti-China demonstrations (in contrast to the weeks of anti-US demonstrations at the outset of the invasion of Iraq), and is still going out of its way to cultivate close political, economic, military and ideological relations with its powerful northern neighbour despite China’s open cynicism in these relations.

For example, when another poster on the Green Left discussion list tried to paint the recent visit by a US warship to Vietnam as the beginning of a US-Vietnam anti-China alliance, I was able to point to the absurdity of this by showing that, despite China’s aggressiveness, Vietnam has carried out nine full-scale sets of military naval manoeuvres with the Chinese navy in the region in recent years, all much more fully military exercises than the symbolic search and rescue exercise (and bi-cultural cooking lessons) on the US ship. Vietnam certainly has the right to manoeuvre, but the US ship visit was but one minor aspect of this; its far greater relations with China itself are also a necessary manoeuvre in its own way; and buying advanced military submarines from Russia, giving Russia the contract to build Vietnam’s first nuclear plant, and choosing Russian consultants and Russian technology to develop the former US base of Cam Ranh Bay into a service centre to repair submarines and civil and military vessels, represent another angle, that are likewise inconsistent with becoming a US ally.

There is plenty to criticise the Vietnamese government for, but its stance on this issue is not one of them.

Nationalism and class: National chauvinism of a rising imperial power

Which leads to me to a point about nationalism and class. Nationalism, in my admittedly harsh opinion, is the ideology of the bourgeoisie, and is essentially anti-working class and anti-internationalist, except when there is a genuine national struggle against oppression and only in as much as such “nationalism of the oppressed” temporarily aids that struggle and no further.
Internationalism is the ideology compatible with socialism. We have seen time and again that when nations have thrown off their failed bureaucratic state socialist projects, the emergent bourgeoisie has tended to adopt nationalism as its ideology, feeling the need for an ideology to preserve some kind of cross-class “national unity” when the old socialist and internationalist ideology is no longer relevant, and their class interests can no longer be contained even with the pretense of official socialist ideology. As 20 years of market socialism were coming to an end in the Yugoslav federation in the mid-1980s, we saw first the rise of a primitive, aggressive bourgeois national chauvinism in the dominant nation, Serbia, and soon after in the second most dominant nation, Croatia, both being expressions of the capitalist class that had arisen out of market socialism.

The fact that China is more advanced along the capitalist path than Vietnam is, in my opinion, reflected in this more aggressive nationalist position of the Chinese leadership, in sharp contrast to the Vietnamese CP’s attempt to battle this nationalism in Vietnam.

In 2006, this need to build a reactionary nationalism to replace socialism as a unifying ideology – when socialism has become irrelevant – was explained in unusually stark terms in an official Chinese journal, China and World Affairs, by Lin Zhibo, a deputy director of the commentary department of the official People’s Daily. This is from the WSWS site (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/mar2006/cha2-m10_prn.shtml), which I wouldn’t usually quote, but as this is direct from the Chinese journal, it speaks for itself. First, regarding the paroxysm of chauvinism in both China and Japan in 2005, when Chinese mobs attacked Japanese civilian property in China in response to Japan’s fascistic revisionism about WWII in its textbooks, he wrote:

Our one-sided efforts at friendship [with Japan] have been totally useless. Chinese-Japanese relations will be better handled only if China’s stance is tougher than now. It’s not a totally bad thing to have an enemy country. Mencius [the ancient Chinese philosopher] said, “Without foes and external threats, a state will surely perish”. Having an enemy country and external peril forces us to strengthen ourselves.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, Lin Zhibo got even more theoretical about it, noting that, in the context of growing social inequality and the fact that the Communist Party can no longer claim to be socialist:

“Today in China an ideological vacuum is emerging. What can China rely on for cohesion? I believe that apart from nationalism, there is no other recourse.”

This rising bourgeois nationalism was evident not only in that conflict with Japan, but also, several months ago, in a similar mass event, over -- ironically enough -- the Japanese capture of one Chinese national in other islands disputed between Japan and China discussed above, and especially in the anti-Tibetan hysteria over the issue of the Olympic torch, when the whole of the bourgeois Chinese “dissident” blogosphere, which would normally be anti-CCP, swung into full “national” mood right behind the CCP.

Before concluding, I just want to extend the discussion of nationalism a little. The Chinese propaganda quoted above, apart from referring to the famous Pham Van Dong letter of 1958, also made the following claim:

“Vice Foreign Minister Dung Van Khiem of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam received Mr. Li Zhimin, charge d'affaires ad interim of the Chinese Embassy in Viet Nam and told him that "according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands are historically part of Chinese territory." Mr. Le Doc, Acting Director of the Asian Department of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, who was present then, added that "judging from history, these islands were already part of China at the time of the Song Dynasty."

Now I can find no references to judge whether this is even true, and nor is there any reference to which decade these alleged statements were made. However, the reference to the “Democratic Republic if Vietnam” suggests this was during the war years, when Vietnamese diplomats may have felt the need to be over-diplomatic to China at times. So let’s just assume the statements did in fact happen.

First, being “historically” part of Chinese territory has no meaning. Southern Vietnam was “historically” part of Cambodia, the empire of Angkor, in the 13th century. Vietnam itself was “historically” part of China, for a cool 1000 years up to around 1000 AD. Thus that diplomatic nicety was in fact saying nothing. Moreover, the second statement further stresses this point; by referring to the Song Dynasty, of some 1000 years ago, Le Doc was able to trivialise the Chinese claim while appearing to be diplomatic about it.

Let’s be clear: even in the Song Dynasty, the main evidence is Chinese maritime expeditions in the islands. That tells us nothing about any “sovereignty” of the Chinese empire at the time. Clearly, Chinese people never settled the islands. In any case, there are many Chinese maps over the last 1000 years which show the southern end of China’s border to be the large Chinese island of Hai Nam, and not including either island archipelago. Even the vague Chinese references that could be interpreted as showing a Chinese claim cease in the second half of the last millennium.

But in the end, so what? If Chinese maritime expeditions, or even maps, from the Song Dynasty of 1000 years ago make the islands part of China today, and if Chinese rule over Tibet for several hundred years over the last millennium mean Tibet must be subjugated forever, does not this also mean that 1000 years of Chinese rule over Vietnam gives China a claim to sovereignty over Vietnam? And that is precisely the problem with “historical” nonsense being dredged up to justify territorial claims, aggression and occupation today: they are irrational and obscurantist, and are generally only used by right-wing nationalist regimes to justify rule in regions where they have no business.

Thus references to the “Song Dynasty” remind one of Mussolini’s references to the Roman Empire to justify fascist aggression around the Mediterranean, of the Zionist movement’s references to the Kingdom of David and Solomon to justify the occupation of Palestine, of the Greek nationalist obsession with the empire of Alexander the Great to deny the rights of Macedonians today, of the Serbian nationalists’ obsession with a battle waged by a brief Serbian empire in the 1300s against the Ottomans to justify the occupation of Kosovo, of the Khmer Rouge’s raising of the ghost of Angkor to justify its claims and aggression against Vietnam’s Mekong region, of Hindu fanatics’ obsession with some temple that was turned into a mosque hundreds of years ago, which they destroyed in the 1990s with catastrophic consequences for all. The list is only short. So much for the “Song Dynasty” argument.

The big picture

There is of course a bigger picture to all this, which includes the fact that there is likely to be oil in the region of these islands; and US-China rivalry in the Asian region, which includes the question of who dominates the seaways of the region, though at this stage it is important to understand that no one is actually blocking anyone else in what are mostly international waters. Even if China’s claim to both island groups as a whole were acted upon, it would not block any ship beyond the 12 miles of territorial waters around them. US imperialism undoubtedly has an interest in trying to contain China’s rise, and as such is maneuvering with the ASEAN states, including Vietnam. Socialists and anti-imperialists oppose any US intervention into this conflict, which can only heighten tensions, and which is only motivated by its own imperialist interests. Indeed, it would tend to heighten tensions precisely by inflaming Chinese nationalism, whose first victim would be Vietnam.

However, there is a big difference between opposing US intervention in the conflict and taking a reflexive “pro-China” position on the issues that divide China from other countries in South-East Asia, especially Vietnam. This is where Manichean “anti-imperialism” has ended up: as China is now seen as a balance to US imperialism, even if its main conflict is not with pro-US regimes in the region but with socialist martyr Vietnam, a tendency emerges to “support China”, whatever that means, in this conflict.

This is a very wrong and anti-internationalist way of viewing the issue. However, beyond this, if there really is such significant rivalry between the US and China, as many now describe – and while real, I tend to find it exaggerated – then that begs the question of the nature of this rivalry: is this just the US trying to contain a large capitalist power, to keep it in its place, as we see elsewhere (e.g., Iran), or is it incipient inter-imperialist rivalry? It is well to remember how rapidly imperialist states rose in the past: it would have been inconceivable in 1870, when Germany and Italy had only just been unified, when Japan had only just emerged from a long sleep with the Meiji restoration, when feudal Russia had only just freed the serfs, that by 1900 these would all be major imperialist powers (and in Russia’s case, with a peasant population bigger than that still existing in China today). I have no firm opinion on this, but I believe signs exist that suggest such a scenario is not out of the question and should not be out of bounds of left discussion.

Here are a few articles worth considering in this context of my final remarks:

“Made in China”, http://www.newint.org/features/2009/06/01/keynote-china/, about what appears to be exploitation in Papua New Guinea of a typically imperialist nature.
“China and Rio Tinto in Guinea: A Wild Courtship”,
“Dam building equates to neo colonialism”,
“Chinas billions reap rewards in Cambodia”,
“Zambia Uneasily Balances Chinese Investment and Workers Resentment”,
“China Squeezes Foreigners for Share of Global Riches”,