The Delicate Art of Managing an Authoritarian Protest

Ever since China planted an oil rig in a disputed area of the South China Sea in early May, the leaders of Vietnam have been searching for leverage against their giant northern neighbor, which shows no signs of retreating. One sign that they may be getting fed up? Over the weekend, they loosed their populace ...

Photo by LE QUANG NHAT/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by LE QUANG NHAT/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since China planted an oil rig in a disputed area of the South China Sea in early May, the leaders of Vietnam have been searching for leverage against their giant northern neighbor, which shows no signs of retreating. One sign that they may be getting fed up? Over the weekend, they loosed their populace upon the country’s streets to stage anti-China protests.

At first blush, the protests may appear an organic outburst of nationalist sentiment, but in Vietnam — a communist country run by an authoritarian government that harbors little tolerance for freedom of speech or of the press — a large-scale street protest remains a big deal. On Sunday, May 10, as many as 1,000 people gathered in Ho Chi Minh City to stage noisy rallies raging against China for hijacking what they see as their country’s natural resources. Another 3,000 assembled in the central city of Da Nang to broadcast a similar message.

The protests continued into the week. On Tuesday, several thousand people in Hanoi, the capital, protested at Chinese-owned factories, even vandalizing some facilities that had refused to stop work.

That these demonstrations occurred at all is a measure of the government’s approval — and perhaps even encouragement. Similar anti-China protests in July and December of 2012, for example, were quickly broken up by the government, and at least 20 participants in the December protests were detained. Today, by contrast, not only is the government allowing the protests to take place, but state-run media is also covering them.

But protesters aren’t playing along entirely. According to Bloomberg, protesters at an anti-China march in Hanoi on Sunday ever so briefly unfurled a banner that read "Freedom for Those Who Love Their Country" — a reference to bloggers recently arrested.

Call it the tricky art of managing an authoritarian protest. While putting on a sufficient show of anger to demonstrate to another country the sort of pressures building at home, the government must also ensure that such protests don’t spiral out of control. Let a protest go too far, and the government could back itself into a corner and wind up unable to negotiate with a country its citizens have been riled up to hate. Then there’s the threat that protests expand to include issues that the authorities would rather not discuss: pesky, imprisoned bloggers, for example.

Vietnam has grappled with this issue since 2007, when anti-China sentiments over disputed claims in the South China Sea first hit a peak. China faces a similar conundrum and has struggled with when and where to unleash anti-Japanese sentiments associated with the ongoing dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

In managing popular protests born of nationalist sentiment, authoritarian governments must strike a delicate balance: giving protests a green light while also avoiding the appearance of being overeager, which might turn some would-be protesters off. In the case of Sunday’s protests in Vietnam, there were clear signs of government approval — and maybe even assistance. The Associated Press reports that state television was on hand to record the event, while men handed out banners reading, "We entirely trust the party, the government and the people’s army."

But that was nothing compared with the heavy-handedness on display China in 2012, when anti-Japanese demonstrations spiked and some protesters reported being directed by police to protest sites. Some even speculated that the government might have been busing farmers in from surrounding Hebei province for the demonstrations, prompting the artist and veteran dissident Ai Weiwei to scoff: "It is obvious that this was planned."

But in planning such outbursts, authorities must also guard against the danger that the passions they helped stoke become too hot. When 2012’s anti-Japan protests in China turned violent, Japanese cars were vandalized, and Panasonic and Toyota buildings were set on fire. In one particularly ugly episode, a Chinese man was dragged out of his car and beaten by a mob for driving a Japanese vehicle.

On Tuesday, the protests in Vietnam showed signs of taking a dark turn. According to the Associated Press, photos circulating online showed crowds breaking windows at a Chinese-owned factory, while the Asahi Shimbun reported that some hotels and bars had begun banning Chinese customers. AFP reported that the protesters even mistakenly damaged a factory that was, in fact, Taiwanese, not Chinese.

Putting the genie back in the bottle isn’t easy. In 2011, for example, the government allowed protests to take place after Chinese patrol ships cut the cables belonging to two Vietnamese survey ships. But the protests, which began in June, took on a life of their own. The government couldn’t get them under control until August, even though Vietnam and China had by then engaged in talks that had led to several diplomatic breakthroughs. Authorities eventually arrested dozens of protesters and until now had seemed wary of unleashing the same forces. As recently as February 2014, authorities blocked an attempt to commemorate the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War by arranging, protesters claimed, for their route to be blocked by aerobics and ballroom dance clubs.

It’s impossible to say how long the current round of protests will be allowed to go on. The progression from protest to vandalism — and vandalism against foreign investment — probably doesn’t bode well for their future. But for the moment, the protesters themselves remain full-throated as ever: "Hoang Sa [Paracels] and Truong Sa [Spratlys] are Vietnam’s flesh," one banner read at a rally Sunday. "Young Vietnamese people are willing to sacrifice for national defense," read another — just the sort of message the Vietnamese government hopes will find its way to Chinese ears.

Thanks to Jessica Chen Weiss, an assistant professor at Yale University, for her help with this post.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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