Sep 10th 2009 | HANOI
IN A country as fiercely patriotic as Vietnam, you would expect the government to cheer a plan by citizens to distribute T-shirts bearing nationalistic slogans. However, the T-shirts in question carried messages of hostility towards China, Vietnam’s biggest trading partner. Worse, their pedlars were popular and sometimes critical bloggers.
Two well-known bloggers and an online reporter have been detained after the police uncovered an apparent attempt to print T-shirts opposing Chinese investment in a controversial new bauxite-mining project in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and casting doubt on China’s claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The trio, who had all written critically about Vietnam-China relations on the internet, were detained on suspicion of “abusing democratic freedoms” to undermine the state. By the middle of this week Bui Thanh Hieu, a blogger who used the pen name Nguoi Buon Gio (“Wind Trader”), and Pham Doan Trang, a journalist who works for VietnamNet, a news site, had been freed without charge after several days in detention. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who blogged as Me Nam (“Mother Mushroom”), was still in custody.
These are the latest arrests in a continuing crackdown against bloggers and journalists. Ahead of a congress of the ruling Communist Party in 2011, when the country’s top three political posts will be up for grabs, the government is keen to rein in more outspoken commentators. Last December it imposed new restrictions on bloggers, making it illegal for them to publish under a pseudonym or to write about politics. Policing these rules will be hard.
More than 21m people, a quarter of the population, use the internet, according to government figures. Estimates of the number producing blogs range from a low of 1m to as many as 4m. The vast majority are personal diarists, not sociopolitical activists, but the spectacular growth of blogs and the difficulty of regulating them make the government, used to exercising total control of the media, twitchy.
Bloggers who have found themselves in the dock include some who have exposed government corruption or made negative remarks about the former Soviet Union. But the government seems particularly anxious about criticism of China.
Many Vietnamese remain hostile to their northern neighbour, after 1,000 years of imperial domination and a bloody border war in 1979. But the country runs a large trade deficit with China and needs its investment more than ever. This explains the government’s eagerness to push ahead with the Chinese bauxite-mining project, despite widespread criticism from scientists and generals (as well as bloggers). They have questioned Chinese companies’ environmental records and expressed their fears for national security.
International press-freedom groups, which often rank Vietnam alongside China and Myanmar as among the riskiest countries for bloggers, have condemned the latest arrests. Foreign diplomats fear that the clampdown will harm the fight against corruption. The new rules may cow bloggers, and journalists may be too scared to cover anything even vaguely risky—the law is unclear about what they can and cannot report.
But not everyone is deterred. “They only ever go after the big fish,” says one young Hanoi blogger, who has also openly criticised China many times. Besides, he adds, the government may be shooting itself in the foot. When bloggers are arrested, their readership usually takes off.