DA NANG, Vietnam – A mystery pervades this part of the world.
In the Middle East, Africa, Russia, parts of Europe — even the United States — thousands of angry citizens have stood up to challenge their governments over the last two years. In several cases, of course, they have thrown dictators out of office.
But here in Asia, home to some of the world’s most authoritarian nations, we’ve seen none of that at all. Vietnam, however, may be setting a path for other Asian states. Late last month, the state’s communist government arrested Le Quoc Quan, a well-known dissident lawyer who had been writing an anti-government blog.
His was just the latest in a rash of dissident arrests. Last fall the government sentenced three bloggers to between four and 12 years in prison for spreading what prosecutors called “anti-government propaganda.” That’s a relatively new phenomenon here.
In China, Cambodia and several other regional states, people stand up and stage loud, angry protests about land seizures, local-government corruption, illegal logging, pollution and other abuses that directly affect their lives. But nowhere in Asia recently have we seen large protests challenging the governments’ legitimacy.
Even in Burma, where the leaders are making a careful, tentative transition to a more open, democratic society, the impetus for change is the government’s own self-interest — primarily the need to wean itself from near-total economic dependence on China.
Regional experts offer a broad range of explanations for this anomaly — cultural, religious, economic … there doesn’t seem to be a single, consensus view. And the sudden rash of arrests here in Vietnam may turn out to be nothing more than a few lonely dissidents who get in trouble for challenging the government, like those in China. It’s too early to know for sure.
But Vietnam is different from its neighbors. Born of China, a province of its northern neighbor until winning independence in 938 A.D., it’s had to fight for survival ever since. The Khmer kingdom of Cambodia occupied southern Vietnam shortly after China withdrew. China has invaded this country 17 times, most recently in 1979. The French occupied Vietnam for six decades, followed by the Japanese during World War II. Then, of course, came the Vietnam War.
Look at historical sites where Vietnamese characterize their own history in drawings and friezes, and you’ll see a bellicose people wielding swords, shooting arrows, firing slings — slaughtering their varied enemies. That has been the nation’s fate for millennia, helping to form its character.
So should it be a surprise that a people dominated and abused by invading and occupying forces for almost their entire history should resent a richly corrupt government that sometimes abuses them even now?
An almost invariable rule governs debates like this. Significant social change in authoritarian states results from economic development. As people become more prosperous, with travel, television, the Internet, social media, they begin to better understand how the rest of the world lives and what they are lacking. That’s when people grow dissatisfied. And that’s what is happening here now.
Visit Ho Chi Minh City (still widely known here as Saigon) and you’ll see dozens of high-end Western stores — Dior, Piaget, Louis Vuitton. On Jan. 3, Starbucks announced it would open its first Vietnam outlet, in Saigon. Much of this new Western retail business is for the fast-growing tourist industry — more than 6 million visitors a year. But all of that also brings jobs and greater prosperity to one of Asia’s most educated countries.
The closed, dictatorial government doesn’t permit public dissent, but it’s looser than many neighboring states. You can’t write blogs, stage public protests or give speeches broadcasting your anti-government views. The press is not free. But otherwise the government largely leaves its people alone. And these ambitious, aggressive people prosper, just like their kin to the north — in China.
Government health and education expenditures are among the highest in the region. Literacy is almost universal. Seventy percent of the population still lives in the countryside, growing rice, but at a rate of about 3 percent a year the rural young are moving to the cities, primarily Saigon, looking for better jobs.
Ironically enough, the United States is one of Vietnam’s new best friends — mostly as a counterweight to its historical and current-day enemy, China. To that end, Hanoi is also befriending Japan, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan and others — understanding that making alliances, not war, is the most effective way to proceed today.
In my view, this is a country to watch — and perhaps, one day soon, to admire.
– Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.