Many times I have heard intellectuals critical of Vietnam's system of Communist Party rule say, "This country's political system will change in a few years."
I do not know in how many years exactly, but some experts among those demanding the enactment of civil rights--such as free elections with multiple parties, freedom of speech, expression and assembly and so on--who portray the near future as seeing the destruction of the Communist Party system. What is certain is that little by little, Vietnamese citizens are taking more action and yearning more for political democratization--even if they are not dramatic as the changes in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
Anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam were first independently organized due to disputes concerning the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea in recent years, and the criticism has also turned toward the government over its China policy. Along with the South China Sea issue, Chinese companies' exploitation of bauxite resources in Vietnam's south-central highlands have also prompted citizens to raise objections. The south-central highlands are a strategic area said to hold the key to control over all of Indo-China. Since the influx of Chinese capital here was a backroom deal agreed on between the leadership of the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties, the criticism against the government has intensified, first from senior military officers wary of China, followed by civilians.
This summer I visited the development sites in Nhan Co, Dak Nong province, and Tan Rai, Lam Dong province, for the first time in more than two years. Bauxite extraction, alumina production plant construction, and road repairs and expansions to transport alumina are more than two years behind the initial plan's schedule. Intellectuals critical of the project are reporting the current situation on the Internet. However, local farmers who have made a livelihood out of cultivating coffee and tea plants see the problem differently from urban intellectuals.
DIRTY WATER, FOUL STENCH
The noise is incessant and a foul stench wafts through the air around the alumina production plant in Tan Rai that commenced operations in 2013. I heard stories from residents who said parents do not let their children play outside due to the bad air and that many fish have died in ponds with polluted water. I had already heard on my first visit two years ago that people have pleaded in vain with government agencies and companies to act. Even now, nothing seems to have fundamentally changed. The dust on the road for transporting alumina, kicked up by the growing number of large trucks and the expansion work, was awful, and nearly everywhere I looked was pure white. My heart sank as I watched children riding their bicycles to and from school alongside the trucks that frequently come and go.
When I ask intellectuals in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City about bauxite development problems, I know that their concern is on more than the economic results: the threats to national defense and order by the influx of Chinese laborers and the adverse effects exerted on the environment by Chinese methods.
When I asked a Vietnamese journalist what it would be like if a Japanese company had picked up the contract for the project, the reply was, "The Vietnamese people would probably be more comfortable with that." At the moment it seems the perception of a Chinese menace is on their minds more than what is happening at the site.
On the other hand, when I ask residents in the development zone about the Chinese laborers, they do not seem too bothered. They say "there are very few" of the workers and that there has been "no effect on the surrounding area." While city dwellers are criticizing the development as a core component of their anti-Chinese nationalism, local residents' first-hand experience has led to concerns over environmental pollution that directly affects their lives.
PEOPLE DEMAND ANSWERS
The government of the Communist Party of Vietnam is trying to maintain the legitimacy of one-party rule founded on a record of economic growth and nationalism under the slogan "National Great Solidarity." However, large-scale development for the sake of growth has produced problems Vietnam has never experienced before, such as the pollution of the environment--and now the people are demanding that the government provide explanations. In addition, since Vietnam's present nationalism and anti-Chinese sentiment are two sides of the same coin, development projects involving China are, like the South China Sea dispute, generating greater criticism of the government's China policy.
However, civil action seeking democratic reforms also has limits. As the bauxite development issue has made clear, it is not easy for urban residents connected to the world through the Internet to share information with less-privileged residents of farming villages and work with them to resolve an issue. Furthermore, while opposition to China resonates with many people, it will likely take more time before assorted entities band together behind universal themes like democracy, human rights or environmental issues. Those who advocate democratic reforms must conquer the information gap--defined primarily by whether one has Internet access or not--and the limits of anti-Chinese nationalism.
As I stated at the beginning, I do not know how many years "in a few years" is, but I can predict that more people will acquire a certain level of financial resources, knowledge and skills due to economic growth, and the gap between the cities and the farming villages will also gradually narrow. People who have gained the power to act autonomously are likely to demand that the government make policy decisions transparent and take the responsibility to explain them.
Meanwhile, the large-scale development could possibly create yet new risks and threaten people's lives and property. I believe this will produce an array of problems that the conventional thinking of the Communist Party leadership cannot deal with. Rather than making the citizenry out to be its foe, the Vietnamese government within "a few years" will probably have to establish a system that can bring them into the fold in solving problems.