I’m really saddened by the turbulent events that happened in Vietnam last week. I’m also puzzled, despite the frequent media coverage.
I’m referring to the violent factory protests in which Vietnamese workers attacked mostly Taiwan-owned factories, as well as mainland Chinese and even Korean and Singaporean ones, in industrial parks, and Chinese workers in these factories. At least two deaths were reported while over a hundred Chinese were wounded. Thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese have left or are leaving Vietnam, while their respective governments have issued stern warnings against the nation.
The protests have been widely reported as anti-China, with the attacks on Taiwan factories a case of mistaken identity, stemming from China’s recent placement of an offshore oil rig in disputed waters near the Spratly islands that are claimed by both China and Vietnam. There’ve been anti-China protests in cities across Vietnam in the past weeks, and resentment and mistrust of China has long existed, even going back hundreds of years.
Yet the issue is not as black and white as it seems. There have been some strange developments that I think haven’t been reported accurately.
First, the violent protests all took place in the industrial parks, while the urban protests were small and peaceful. That the workers attacked their own factories and others within the industrial parks where they work seems strange, since they’re basically putting their own jobs at risk, not to mention harming their country’s economy and reputation. However, the situation in most parts of the country, especially the major cities, is relatively stable, with absolutely no reports of mainland Chinese visitors or immigrants being attacked.
This leads to the second issue – that the main motive for the protests may not be what is being widely reported. Both Western and mainland Chinese and Taiwan media have reported these protests as being anti-China and fueled by China’s oil rig placement.
A colleague of mine, who’s rather knowledgeable about China and a lot of international affairs, said the protests were due to a mix of issues, and that workers in these factories are treated less favorably than mainland Chinese workers, who get paid more and work under better conditions.
Then, the BBC also raises the same points with this article that says the protests might be more about economic issues than regional politics. It makes some convincing points – there’s been “growing discontent” among Vietnamese workers over perceived poor treatment, resulting in dozens of strikes in recent years at foreign-owned plants over poor pay and treatment, and most recently there’s resentment over the use of mainland workers brought in by Taiwan plants. This is why despite many factories being owned by Taiwan companies, many of the workers attacked were mainland Chinese.
It doesn’t mean the workers don’t also have some anti-Chinese sentiment and anger, but it’s a fair bet that anger towards perceived unfair treatment and pay is probably what mainly drove their actions.
Third, most of the factories that have been attacked are not Chinese. They’re actually owned by Taiwanese companies, as well as South Korean, Malaysian and Singaporean.
The media has described the attacks on Taiwan factories as being due to the Vietnamese workers mistaking them for Chinese since Taiwan companies also have Chinese names and Taiwanese are also ethnic Chinese. This is especially convenient for Taiwan, since many of the attacked companies were Taiwanese and thus bear the brunt of allegations of poor working conditions and pay.
And this might be wrong, as the BBC article says. The Wall Street Journal article that I linked to above mentions possible resentment against foreigners in general, due to increasing socioeconomic gaps in Vietnam and stagnant wage increases for workers. Another factor is that Taiwan companies have been in Vietnam for a number of years, and Vietnamese workers will likely know that the plant owners are Taiwanese and not mainland China (whether they understand the complexity China-Taiwan relations is another matter). As such, it is very unlikely that the workers would mistake the Taiwan factories for being mainland Chinese. It is ironic that I saw this reason being put forth by a noted pro-Taiwan blogger on his blog.
I feel very sad because I visited Vietnam and I got to like the place and respect the people for their culture and the hardship they’ve endured since French colonisation. I’d heard of Vietnam’s rocky relations with China after the Vietnam War, but I learned that this animosity dates back hundreds of years. If there’s one country with which China might perceive as a foe who I feel sympathy and respect for, it’s Vietnam. The Vietnamese are a tough, formidable people, but they’ve got to be careful as well.
Vietnam is also very much a developing country and the protests dealt a serious blow to its industrial capability (over a hundred factories have been damaged and hundreds have stopped production), its trading relations, and its viability as a place to invest in and do business.
It’s good that the violence seems to have stopped and the government has taken firm steps to curb China protests, even small ones in the cities. I hope that they can get to the bottom of why the protests happened because I feel there’s much more to it than what much of the foreign press have reported.