By Shawn W Crispin
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 domestic security.
Vietnamese 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.
The 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.
Authorities 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.
The exile-run 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.
There are 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 mining deal.
Others see the crackdown as a reflection of internal politicking between broadly divided conservative and liberal factions ahead of the Communist Party’s 11thNational 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.
Vietnam 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.
Pro-democracy 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.
GD II 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 throughnew technology its Internet surveillance operations.
“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.”
Vice 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.
Carlyle 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 2011.
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 the ascent.
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.
Widespread but 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.
GD 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.
GD 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.
Despite moves 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 faction’s influence.
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.
The 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.
US 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 response.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at email@example.com.