Vietnam: Two new bills spark protests, but wide-spread unrest unlikely
Two recent bills – one on special economic zones (SEZs) and the other on cyber-security – which were discussed by Vietnam’s National Assembly (NA) in June, generated widespread public interest and nation-wide protests. This latest round of unrest is indicative of heightened political and social activism in Vietnam. However, Access Asia has held a long-time view that the greatest risk to political stability stems from Vietnam’s economic performance and that protests over specific issues, such as these latest protests, have little chance of boiling over into wide-spread unrest without a significant down-turn in the country’s economy.
The initial unrest in June was provoked by the government’s announcement that it planned to establish three SEZs that would attract additional investment into areas across the country. The protestors’ concerns focused on the plans to offer 99‑year leases for foreign companies operating in the zones. Although the legislation made no specific mention of Chinese investment, the lengthy lease period, combined with the plan to locate the Quang Ninh zone near the Chinese border, led to alarm that the SEZs could be taken advantage of by Chinese investors, amid a potential greater escalation of current territorial disputes between the two countries over disputes in the South China Sea. Demonstrations over the SEZ proposal were held in cities across the country, and were amongst the largest seen in Vietnam in decades.
As a result of the unrest, the National Assembly rowed back on it plans to approve the SEZ legislation in the current sitting, instead postponing the vote until its next session in October 2018. Given the government’s stance on China and important economic ties, any specific exclusion of Chinese investors and companies in the final draft is unlikely. This would probably spur sporadic protests between now and October as well as immediately following the legislation’s passage, though their disruptive effects will be limited, as the government will now be more aware of the unpopularity of the SEZ law and will prepare accordingly, for example by ensuring security forces are prepared to crack down on further signs of unrest.
The authorities’ different approaches to the SEZ law and the cyber-security law, which was overwhelmingly passed in June, are likely due to their different implications for domestic political stability. Although the legislation on SEZs stirred up anti-Chinese sentiment in the country and was unpopular, it posed an actual risk to the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) power base, and this is not the first time that the government has shown a willingness to adjust policy in order to placate protesters. The fact that many deputies of the National Assembly, Vietnam’s normally pliant legislature, spoke out against both laws is a sign of the NA continuing gradually to become a more effective and transparent law-making institution, though not a genuinely independent branch of government.
Meanwhile, the passage of the cyber-security law underlines reducing available avenues for the expression of public discontent as an important goal to the CPV. This will play a key role in the Party’s ability to maintain its influence over the political and economic scene in the years ahead, which is essential for shoring up its power base. Foreign companies providing internet or telecommunications services will have to set up offices and servers within Vietnam, as well as removing content that the government deems inappropriate within 24 hours. According to a government relations source, law-makers had been able to insert a “back-door” clause in the draft law that could open the possibility of revising the data-storing requirement after the passage of the law. That clause, however, got erased once SEZ-linked protests broke out. But the possibility was there, and it could come back again (for example under pressure from free-trade agreements).
As evidenced by the relatively modest scale of protests following the passage of the cyber-security law, concerns over loss of sovereignty, linked to anti-Chinese sentiment, and environmental degradation remain two key themes that could rally opposition across the Vietnamese public and spur heightened unrest (in addition to economic downturns that significantly reduce living standards, which is unlikely over 2018-2023).
Large-scale demonstrations over those two issues will increasingly become the new norm in Vietnam, as despite the cyber-security law, dissidents will find other channels to get their message across and online activism continues to mature. That said, the authorities will continue to clamp down on signs of unrest that could threaten their hold on power, and they would most likely be able to do so as long as Vietnam does not suffer significant economic downturns.