Sep 12, 2009 - A crackdown on anti-China sentiment in Vietnam signals
factional politicking inside the ruling Communist Party ahead of the
next National Congress and has drawn critical attention to the
China-aligned General Department II (GD II), a controversial and
semi-autonomous intelligence unit tasked with monitoring threats to
authorities have in recent weeks arrested and detained a handful of
journalists and bloggers who have penned materials critical of China,
including articles related to Beijing's investment in a bauxite mining
venture in the geographically strategic Central Highlands region and on
the long-lasting controversy over the two sides' contested claims to
the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
crackdown tracks a growing tendency of authorities to suppress
activists and commentators who appeal to notions of Vietnamese
nationalism vis-a-vis China, with which Vietnam shares an often
antagonistic history. The repressive trend to protect China's public
image began soon after the 2007 Asia Pacific Economic Forum meeting
held in Hanoi, where world leaders gathered and commended Vietnam's
accession to the World Trade Organization earlier that year.
last year jailed blogger Dieu Cay on trumped up tax evasion charges
after he organized online a protest against an Olympic torch passing
ceremony in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. In the more recent
crackdown, journalist Pham Doan Trang was detained and interrogated for
her reporting on China-Vietnam territorial disputes; online access to
her articles was blocked soon after her arrest.
Free Journalists Network of Vietnam claimed that Trang was targeted
because she tipped other media off about a Chinese government advisor
who had reportedly put pressure on his Vietnamese counterparts to
"discipline" newspapers and blogs that had critically portrayed China.
Other bloggers have been detained and interrogated for merely posting
to the Internet pictures of themselves wearing t-shirts proclaiming
Vietnam's claim to the contested island chains.
competing theories about why Vietnamese authorities have rushed so
aggressively to China's defense. One political risk analyst who
requested anonymity believes that Vietnam nearly went bankrupt earlier
this year amid a liquidity crisis driven by perilously low foreign
currency reserves, and that in desperation it turned to cash-rich China
for a secret financial bailout. In return, according to the theory,
China was given preferential treatment in the large-scale bauxite
Others see the crackdown as a reflection of
internal politicking between broadly divided conservative and liberal
factions ahead of the Communist Party's 11th National Congress, where
major appointments and policy directions will be decided in early 2011.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, an economic reform champion and the
leader of a liberal party faction, is known to have irked certain
conservative elements who are now leveraging their connections to China
to their political advantage.
Some believe that Dung could be
marginalized by party conservatives ahead of the upcoming National
Congress, due partially to his perceived overzealous market reforms
(influenced by the US) that left the country dangerously exposed to
recent global economic and financial turmoil, as well as his
individualistic leadership style amid a party tradition of faceless
rule by committee.
But with past ideological debates over the
country's capitalist direction largely resolved, intra-party
competition is now driven more by competing factions' quest for power
and benefit. And the move away from ideology, some analysts suggest,
has brought China and US competition for regional influence to the fore
of Communist Party factional politics.
has complex ties to neighboring China, complicated by still fresh
memories of the short but bloody border war the two sides fought in
1979. More recently Vietnam has taken its reform cues from Beijing's
model mixing economic liberalism and political authoritarianism, where
fast economic growth is given policy priority and popular dissent
strictly forbidden, including in the media.
activists contend that China, which has recently expanded significantly
its commercial interests in Vietnam, has played a role in the recent
official repression of anti-China sentiment. They point to the role of
the hardline GD II intelligence arm, known locally as Tong Cuc 2, which
was upgraded with Chinese technical assistance in the 1990s to better
track perceived internal threats to national security.
has been known to conduct domestic spying - including on senior
Communist Party members - and has been instrumental in previous
crackdowns on pro-democracy and religious freedom activists. There is
speculation among many Vietnam watchers that China has recently
assisted GD II improve through new technology its Internet surveillance
"It is widely believed that [GD II] is one of the
primary means for China to assert influence in Vietnam," said Duy
Hoang, a senior member of the exiled Viet Tan party. "Beijing's
influence on decision-making in Hanoi is something that is highly
sensitive for the regime and strongly opposed in Vietnamese society."
Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh has long headed GD II, which some
critics claim he runs as a personal fiefdom. That's similar to how his
China-aligned father-in-law, Dung Vu Ching, ran the military's
intelligence agency he led at the height of the Cold War when Vietnam
juggled relations between Beijing and Moscow.
Vinh is a key
member of a pro-China faction inside the party led by conservatives To
Huy Rua, a recently elevated Politburo member and Central Committee
member, and Pham Quang Nghi, also a politburo member and former
minister of information and culture. Rua heads the Central Committee's
recently renamed Information and Training Commission and works closely
on ideological matters with China's Communist Party.
Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy,
correctly predicted in a January 2008 analysis that "Rua's elevation
[to the politburo] will mean a tightening of the ideological clamps on
Vietnamese intelligentsia, including intellectuals, academics,
journalists and computer-savvy youth." Rua is believed to have
ambitions -although by past conventions is too young - to become the
next party secretary general when incumbent Nong Duc Manh retires in
Some Vietnam watchers estimate that Vinh, a three-star
general poised to receive his fourth, could through factional lobbying
be promoted to the party's 160-member Central Committee and possibly
even to defense minister at the next National Congress, to which
conservatives are pushing to control the agenda. In 2006, he was
narrowly denied a promotion to the Central Committee, seen by some
party watchers then as a mild rebuke to his pro-China faction at a time
progressive reformers led by Prime Minister Dung were more clearly on
GD II has stirred intra-party controversy in the
past, including revelations aired in 2001 that the intelligence unit
had tapped the telephones of certain senior party officials. Some
political watchers now wonder with that history in mind whether GD II
has built a dossier on Dung and his progressive faction's alleged
commercial interests ahead of the next Congress to gain leverage for
the promotion of its pro-China members.
unconfirmed allegations posted on the Internet accuse Dung of receiving
personal benefit from the government tendered, China-invested bauxite
mining project. Other online criticisms have pointed towards a possible
conflict of interest in the Prime Minister's Office's lead role in
managing "equitization" of state-owned enterprises and his daughter's
and son-in-law's leading positions at local private equity firms that
specialize in privatization deals.
Secret power base
II has played politics in the past, despite repeated efforts to bring
the agency under neutral command. Former Communist Party secretary
general Le Kha Phieu used the dossiers complied by a specialized wire
tap unit known as A-10 contained within GD II to influence his
faction's position on the eve of the 9th National Congress, according
to research compiled by academic Thayer.
Charges that military
intelligence had used GD II to interfere in party politics and
manipulate party factions for its own partisan purposes arose in 2004
when two of the country's most respected retired generals, Vo Nguyen
Giap and Nguyen Nam Khanh, demanded an investigation into the secretive
unit. Khanh then accused the intelligence agency of "slandering,
intimidation, torture, and political assassination" by citing excerpts
from a classified GD II News Bulletin, according to Thayer's research.
II is also believed to have leaked a document naming several former and
current Communist Party leaders who have allegedly worked in paid
cooperation with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Popularly
known as the T-4 scandal, the allegations made big waves at the 10th
National Congress through GD II's implication of the late reformist
prime minister Vo Van Kiet and independence hero General Giap, among
others, as CIA collaborators.
Giap has strongly denied the
charges and in June made another appeal to the politburo, Central
Committee and the Secretariat Party Committee to re-open a special
investigation into the relationship between GD II and China. Party
stalwarts have repeatedly deferred any investigation into GD II's
operations, likely due to concerns the findings may spark instability
and strife inside the nominally unified party.
to bring security and intelligence agencies under legislative and
presidential control, including a 2004 law that outlined clearly the
duties and responsibilities of security agencies, many Vietnam watchers
believe that GD II still operates under Vinh's and his pro-China
In light of its competition with the US
for regional influence, some analysts believe China has a vested
strategic interest in playing one faction off another inside the
Communist Party. That analysis is predicated on Beijing's assumed fear
that a stable and unified party leadership might move to build a
strategic alliance with Washington which would allow US military forces
access to Vietnam's highly coveted deep water port at Cam Ranh Bay.
Communist Party leadership now meticulously and visibly balances its
diplomacy between the US and China. For instance, any time a US naval
ship is scheduled to visit a Vietnamese port Vietnam ensures that China
is also invited to dock. When Prime Minister Dung was scheduled to
visit Washington last year, Communist Party secretary general Nong Duc
Manh traveled to China for a goodwill visit the month prior.
ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak raised Washington's concerns
over the recent arrests and media crackdown, which he characterized as
an attempt to "criminalize free speech" but stopped short of commenting
on the pro-China dimension of the repression. Meanwhile, 16 US Congress
members co-sponsored a House of Representatives resolution this week
calling on the Vietnamese government to release imprisoned bloggers and
respect Internet freedom.
Yet with China's surging economic
power, including as an outward investor and potential lender of last
resort to Vietnam, and with increasingly assertive factional support
inside the Communist Party, future expressions of anti-China dissent in
Vietnam will likely be met with a similarly stern and pro-Beijing
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/KI12Ad04.html, Shawn W Crispin is
Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at