Since April of 2013, Man and Ultraman has been on an indefinite hiatus. I’ve picked up shop and have been writing at Vietmeme.net, where I and a few colleagues regularly sift through the torrent of Vietnamese social media and online culture for a picture of what Vietnam’s online community is saying about the issues that are most on their minds at any given moment. Check it out.
Last week the Vietnamese Prime Minister surprised a lot of people by revealing a heretofore unknown soft spot for animal-welfare activism. On 15 January, his office announced that the threatened Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park would not be closed, as had been stated last fall by the director of the park and the Ministry of Defence, but would continue to operate as a sanctuary for bears freed from the all-too-commonplace Vietnamese torment of being caged, catheterised, and drained of bile for ‘medicinal’ purposes.*
The January announcement was the startling culmination of half a year’s worth of back-and-forth between the Rescue Centre’s operator — Hong Kong-based NGO Animals Asia — and a cabal of government-connected players who are accustomed to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it, with little to no public scrutiny. This time, for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out the way almost anyone expected, which is to say this story has a happy ending.
As far back as April 2012, the director of Tam Dao National Park, Do Dinh Tien, began inexplicably pressuring Animals Asia and lobbying the Vietnamese government to force the Bear Rescue Centre out of the park, despite a rock-solid commitment from the government dating back to 2005 that gave the Centre a 20-year lease in the park. When that didn’t work for him, Mr. Tien tried to convince the Ministry of Agriculture to stop further construction at the sanctuary on the grounds that it was polluting the local environment. This time, the Rescue Centre pointed to an exhaustive investigation by the Vinh Phuc Environmental Department that cleared the operation of all allegations.
Meanwhile, Animals Asia learned that Mr. Tien was having the site surveyed by local development companies. It was revealed that one such company, Truong Giang Tam Dao Joint Stock Company, had filed papers planning to develop an “ecotourism” hotel and resort on the property. A remarkable coincidence came to light upon further digging: Tien’s daughter is one of the four founding members and a 10-percent stockholder of Truong Giang Tam Dao Joint Stock Company.
The park director then pulled out the big guns in his jihad against the Rescue Centre, literally: he appears to have called up the Defense Ministry, which issued an order in July halting any further construction at the Centre. In October, the Ministry declared the park of critical significance to national defence and ordered the eviction of the Bear Rescue Centre. Meanwhile, backroom plans for commercial development of the property by Tien’s daughter’s company continued apace.
In the normal scheme of things, scenarios like this play out in a thousand different ways, every day, in various quarters not just of Vietnam but of every developing country. Such deals are sealed nearly always without anyone becoming wise to the scheme and certainly without it ever making international news. Conservation laws (and for that matter, most laws) in Vietnam exist mainly to serve as window dressing, and in a country where a single political party maintains absolute ironclad control over every aspect of society — from the legislative system to the courts to the police, the economy and the media — it’s usually a simple matter to hush up any news that might risk leaving a black mark on powerful interests, friends, or family.
But in this case, the standard trajectory for such stories was given a thwack by an institution that one doesn’t hear much about in Vietnam, and when one does, it’s usually to dismiss its existence: civil society. Questioning or criticising government policy — a fundamental aspect of civil society — is absolutely verboten in Vietnam under state subversion laws, and each year a handful of bloggers and other so-called reactionaries are chucked in prison for daring to suggest things aren’t perfect here. But with more than 34% of this developing nation’s residents online, a number that’s growing rapidly, open discussion of a laundry list of social topics has become not only easier but less stigmatized, if no less illegal.
After officials began talking of evicting the bears and shutting down the centre last October, the small staff at Hong Kong-based Animals Asia, the operator of the bear sanctuary, got busy and organised an aggressive PR campaign, reaching out to politicos, celebrities, and the online hive. British comedians and activists Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry both tweeted calls to action on behalf of the centre, using the hashtag #stoptheeviction. Celebrities such as Ali McGraw, Peter Egan, Karen Mok, Brian Blessed, Downton Abby’s Penelope Wilton, and even Jane Goodall lent their time and effort to promotional statements and videos.
At www.stoptheeviction.info, Animals Asia set up a website dedicated to providing information on the bears and rallying against the centre’s closure with an online petition and a chance for anyone to send a pre-written letter to Prime Minister Dung via email or post (the site notes that, “Letters by post are preferable as they are delivered to the Prime Minister’s office and documented.” The PM is still apparently getting the hang of this Internet thing.)
The site also encouraged visitors to get social with their activism, providing quick and easy tools, templates and instructions for sharing it on Facebook and Twitter (in both English and Vietnamese), customizing their avatars, and emailing their friends. International pressure was brought to bear on Vietnam, at both the uppermost levels and from the street.
The result was that the Centre’s closure, which would have been a foregone conclusion not long ago, became a very public albatross around the PM’s neck, and he made the only decision practicably available to him. For good measure, the PM also directed the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to investigate park director Tien for corruption.
There’s been plenty of speculation that the PM’s office saw the decision to spare the Bear Centre as a chance to deflect attention from recent economic and other scandals, and to burnish his civic credentials at a time when they seem to have been robbed of much of their lustre. But irrespective of the politics behind the decision to keep the bear centre open, it’s undeniable that it would not have happened at all but for the communicative potential of the Internet as an online public sphere, even in a nation that Reporters Without Borders has regularly listed as among the 10 least free digital spaces on earth. It’s gratifying to see that, in this increasingly connected era, local and international public scrutiny can force political transparency and hold public officials to account, even in a society where such scrutiny is vehemently discouraged.
*The agonizing, inhumane procedure of extracting bile from living bears is roughly equal to something you’d see in a ‘Saw’ movie, and while it’s technically illegal in Vietnam, it’s also big business. Keeping bears and other wild animals as ‘pets’ is legal, and there are no pet welfare laws in Vietnam. So bile farmers simply pay local officials to look the other way and operate as if said laws do not exist. The bile is used in traditional medicine, and it has about the same medicinal effectiveness as rhino horn, elephant tail hairs, ground tiger penis, and sugar pills, which is to say absolutely zero. But that doesn’t stop local men of a certain age from guzzling it by the pitcherful in vain hopes of relieving hangovers, curing cancer, and putting some lead back into their drooping pencils.
Two weeks ago I had the fairly awesome pleasure of being invited to the new CeDEM Asia conference in Singapore by the organizers to present a workshop panel discussion on Vietnam. CeDEM — otherwise known as the Conference on e-Democracy and Open Government — is an annual shindig at Danube University in Krems, Austria, focusing on the impact of social media on governance around the world. The Asia ticket — their first here — was co-presented by Nanyang Technological University and the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC). The Singapore setting reflected the conference’s slightly tighter focus: the myriad influences social media are having upon governance in Asia, where there seems to be a rather higher density of authoritarian-leaning states than in the European wilderness of Krems.
At last spring’s annual ICA Conference in Phoenix, where I’d presented my research on Vietnamese conceptions of online personal privacy, a couple of fellow presenters mentioned their involvement in organizing the Singapore event and asked if I’d be willing to put together a group that could talk about the impact of social media on Vietnam’s political and governance landscape. Oblivious to the overwhelming challenges that lay in that seemingly modest request, I agreed on the spot. So on November 15 (my birthday, as it happens) I took to the stage at the Orchard Parade Hotel together with Hanoi-based journalism and DPA bureau chief Marianne Brown, Saigon-based sociologist and market researcher Christophe Robert, and the Vietnamese director and legal counsel of RED Communication in Hanoi, an NGO and pioneer in development communication in Vietnam.
Our thrilling presentation is now, sadly, lost to history. But I’m pleased to be able to include here a copy of the paper I wrangled together for the conference proceedings, and upon which most of our presentation was based.
Maintaining Face(book): How Blogs, Online Forums, and a Blocked Social Network Breathe Life into Vietnam’s Public Sphere
Earlier this fall, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, made an unusual public announcement. In an official statement on the government’s website and, later, in a speech broadcast on state-run television, Dung took issue with three weblogs that he accused of ‘agitating against the state’ with claims and commentary regarding graft and willful financial mismanagement within the Vietnam government, extending even to the top of the Communist Party and the Prime Minister himself.
Dung denounced the contents of the blogs—which included the popular Dan Lam Bao (‘People Doing Journalism’) and Quan Lam Bao (‘Officials Doing Journalism’)—as lies and fabrications, ‘villainous ploys of hostile forces’ overseas whom he asserted were using the Internet to ‘slander’ the Vietnamese government and its officials. He called for those behind the blogs to be arrested and severely punished, and ordered civil servants not to read the blogs.
While it’s not at all unusual for bloggers and other users of social media to be detained, arrested or imprisoned for alleged anti-state propaganda in this authoritarian, single-party Communist nation, rarely does the Prime Minister himself take to the airways to inveigh against them, to say nothing of issuing a warning to citizens not to read the offending materials.
In a post following the announcement, one of the targeted blogs wrote, ‘Dan Lam Bao and its companions are prepared to be repressed and imprisoned rather than leading the life of a dumb dog that dares not to bark, subservient to those who abuse their power.’ Dan Lam Bao also revealed that their site recorded a record 32,000 hits in the hour immediately following the televised announcement.
A month later, on October 22, in remarks at the opening of the national assembly in Hanoi, the Prime Minister stood before the assembled parliamentarians and foreign ambassadors and conceded that he had mismanaged the country’s wilting economy, and he promised to push forward with reforms of bloated state-owned enterprises and the fight against corruption. ‘There are enormous challenges,’ he said. ‘Public dissatisfaction persists.’ In a his own speech at the event, Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong acknowledged that the government had failed to curb corruption in its top ranks (Alpert, 2012).
Much has been written recently about the capacity of the Internet and social media platforms to mobilize political action. Last year’s remarkable string of grassroots-led uprisings across the Middle East, collectively known as the Arab Spring, has been attributed in no small part to the unique capabilities of social media platforms such as text messaging, email, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook in inciting, publicizing, and coordinating those popular movements.
Other commentators have been less sanguine about the usefulness of social media in effecting political change, especially in authoritarian states with strict controls over online communications (Morozov, 2012; Gladwell, 2011). They note that social media-fueled protests have failed at least as often as they have succeeded—consider the Belarus protests against President Aleksandr Lukasheko’s alleged vote rigging in 2006, Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, Thailand’s lengthy but ultimately ineffectual 2010 Red Shirt uprising—and that just as social media empower individuals, they also empower states to surveil their citizens to unprecedented degrees.
Numerous observers have even suggested that Internet-based social media platforms may undermine real political engagement, nurturing instead a generation of “slacktivists” more concerned with self-gratification and social presentation than with actually addressing important political and social matters via substantive action. (Morozov, 2012; Christensen, 2011; Hindman, 2009; Shulman, 2005, Skoric, 2012).
But none of these arguments fully captures the way Vietnamese Netizens increasingly utilize online social media outlets and platforms as tools of expressing and debating sentiment on issues of direct and indirect political relevance, in ways that have subtle but distinct influences upon politics and governance in this tightly controlled Asian nation. In Vietnam, where one of the 20th century’s bloodiest conflicts raged just over a generation ago and where, today, some 70% of the population is under the age of 35, citizens are far more interested in taking advantage of recent economic reforms to build individual prosperity than they are in fomenting revolution. Yet as the nation and its population of 90 million awaken to the picture of the modern world they view on their laptops, televisions, mobile phones, tablets and cinema screens, they are becoming increasingly hungry for political agency. Very few people have uprising on their mind in Vietnam, but they do have opinions, and—more and more—they want to share them.
Scholars and Internet commentators such as Manuel Castells and Clay Shirky have asserted that the real power of the Internet and social media does not always lend itself to TV-friendly demonstrations and the felling of grizzled despots. Rather, they say, it is to be seen in the way these open, networked tools empower people and organizations to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views throughout society. According to this view, social media matters most not in the streets but in the myriad spaces of what Jurgen Habermas termed the public sphere (Castells, 2997; Shirky, 2011).
‘The potential of social media,’ Shirky has written, ‘lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere—change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months’ (Shirky, 2011).
Shirky calls this the ‘environmental view’ of social media, contrasting it with an ‘instrumental view’ that places more importance upon the capacity of such tools to enable citizen access to restricted information from outside the country. A slowly developing public sphere, where public opinion relies on both media and conversation, he observes, is the core of the environmental view of Internet freedom. In this perspective, access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation. Every revolution and popular uprising, he says, is preceded by active public debate of state policy, governance, and their alternatives in this sphere (Shirky, 2011). Before anyone can walk the walk, in other words, they must talk the talk.
Social media in Vietnam is emerging as a powerful tool in this regard, offering a voice for a citizenry who otherwise are unable to express in public their views and opinions on many topics considered ‘sensitive’ by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and government officials. To the extent that commentators skirt directly criticizing government policy, the CPV or individual high-level officials, there is an active discussion among the population on blogs and web forums and other social networks such as Facebook and YouTube.
Social Media and the Public Sphere
In his seminal work The Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas articulated the notion of the public sphere as a broad variety of discursive arenas in which news and matters of common concern could be freely exchanged and discussed by ordinary citizens—‘a realm of social life in which public opinion can be formed’ and thereby influence political action and matters of state (Asan, 1999; Habermas, 1991).
Although traditional mass media may be considered part of the public sphere, it is also a powerfully regulated forum of low-participatory communication which systematically privileges powerful and institutionalized actors, excludes smaller institutions and civil society, and essentially circumvents public debate: a primary point of Habermas’ writing on the subject (Habermas, 1991). Nowhere is this more true than in authoritarian societies like Vietnam, in which all media outlets are either fully or partly owned, and therefore controlled, by the government.
Yet numerous political scientists and communication scholars have found that the decentralized, networked, many-to-many communication capabilities that characterize the Internet give it the potential to fundamentally alter societal communication. The Internet would seem to provide for a significantly more effective public sphere than traditional mass media, returning to ordinary citizens the power of wide public debate and the formation of public opinion. In societies where the traditional media is in partial or total thrall to state control, the Internet and social media platforms can become powerful arenas in the process of allowing public opinion to form from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, and thereby exerting a powerful influence upon affairs of state.
Although theories of the public sphere are most often associated with democratic political participation and traditions of state legitimacy which derives from the people, numerous scholars and observers have identified public spheres in operation within distinctly non-democratic states.
In examining the nature of the political impact of China’s estimated 200 million blogs, for example, Xiao (2011) has pointed to the role of bloggers there in the emergence of a quasi-public sphere in which state control is criticized and collective action can be mobilized. Like-minded observers claim the Internet, and in particular the explosive popularity of Twitter-like ‘weibo’ platforms there, has made it more difficult for the Chinese state to control the free flow of information and is thus creating an open, democratic forum that challenges state-supported views of power and authority (Xiao, 2011; Yang, 2009; Zheng, 2008). MacKinnon (2008) claims that blogs in China ‘serve as a “safety valve” by allowing enough room for a sufficiently wide range of subjects that people can let off steam about government corruption or incompetence … before considering taking their gripes to the streets.’
The Communist-controlled government in Vietnam takes a similar position toward the free flow of information online, though the mechanisms it has in place to control content are significantly less sophisticated and ubiquitous than in China. The fine-grained, nearly instantaneous oversight that characterizes China’s so-called ‘Great Firewall’ does not exist in Vietnam. Instead, there is a watchful and often heavy-handed Propaganda Department, the chilling effect instilled by periodic arrests and imprisonments of outspoken commentators, and—perhaps most powerful of all—a carefully nurtured ideology among citizens that places national development, political stability, and social harmony above all individual interests and concerns. Yet these controls, while powerful, are not keeping up with the explosive rate of Internet penetration in the country’s urban areas nor with the people’s interest in making use of the newest Western tools and platforms available to them there.
Vietnam’s Social Media Landscape
Vietnam has a unique social media landscape and a singular population of Internet users. With approximately 90 million citizens, Vietnam is the 13th largest nation, by population, on earth. Of that population, roughly 31 million are Internet users, representing a penetration of 34%, putting the country on the same playing field as neighboring China, Thailand, and Philippines (Cimigo, 2012). Importantly, nearly all of these netizens have appeared in just over a decade; Vietnam’s Internet penetration growth has been a staggering 12,000% since 2000 (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2011). Vietnam claims more than 8.5 million social media users, representing a penetration of just 9% of the total population. Yet there are also 129 million mobile subscriptions in the country, making for a penetration of 139%, and 19 million mobile internet users, equating to penetration of around 21% (Cimigo, 2012; WeAreSocial, 2012).
Since November 2009, the online social network Facebook has been subject to an unofficial technical block at the DNS level in Vietnam. The government has taken pains never to directly acknowledge any responsibility for the site’s inaccessibility, but neither has it ever disavowed involvement. Despite this, Facebook presently has 8.5 million active members inside the country using technical workarounds to access the service (up from just 2.9 million a year ago, suggesting those restrictions may be loosening) (WeAreSocial, 2012). That makes it the single largest social network in the nation, larger even than local Vietnamese language clone Zing.me and far larger than the government-backed Go.vn, which requires national ID authentication and whose mostly inactive members number in the few hundreds of thousands.
While Twitter remains accessible in the country, and a variety of similarly functioning Vietnamese clones have been introduced, microblogs remain a negligible force in Vietnam’s social media ecosystem. Where an estimated 75% of China’s Internet population uses one or more weibo platforms there, Vietnam netizens have not yet fastened themselves to microblogs as a conversational platform.
Authoritarian governments restrict mediated communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight (Shirky, 2012). As many have observed, the most convincing practical reason to believe that social media can effect change in the spheres of politics and governance is that both citizens and governments believe they can do so. The best illustration of social media’s potential impact, in other words, is states’ reaction to it (Shirky, 2011; Safranek, 2012; Etling, Faris & Palfrey, 2010). By this measure, Vietnam is well aware of the potential impact unrestricted use of social media could have in the nation upon politics and governance, and consequently takes measures to mitigate and suppress it.
The Communist-controlled Vietnamese government has always imposed tight restrictions upon media content—all media outlets in the country are state-run and controlled—but it has traditionally taken a more ad hoc approach in doing so. A few websites are sporadically blocked—CNN, BBC Vietnamese, and other irregularly offending news outlets, as well as a handful of pornography sites—but apart from the Facebook block, which is easily circumvented, there’s been little effort to constrain Internet activity in the Chinese vein.
Authorities have, however, taken a much stricter stance against any sort of online expression critical of the Communist Party in Vietnam, government policy, or individual officials. Bloggers and other users of social media who tread willfully and regularly into ‘sensitive’ territory are harassed, threatened, beaten, detained, arrested, and imprisoned. This year has seen a marked uptick in arrests for activities against the state, in all likelihood a result of the nation’s worsening economic situation.
This summer saw a significant escalation in tensions between Vietnam and China over the sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea. The Vietnam government cracked down on dozens of prominent bloggers for writing about the situation, for criticizing Vietnam’s policy toward China regarding the islands, for participating in demonstrations against China, and for speaking to foreign media.
In July the mother of a jailed blogger died after setting fire to herself outside the headquarters of the People’s Committee in Bac Lieu in an act of protest toward her daughter’s pending trial for criticizing corruption and injustice in her blog. In August, two bloggers were convicted of anti-government propaganda under article 88 of the criminal code, one of them a former military officer. In early September, a reporter for the Tuoi Tre daily newspaper was convicted of giving bribes to police officers after writing two stories about police corruption for which he posed as a traffic offender and paid a policeman several hundred dollars to release an impounded car. He was arrested only after his articles appeared in print and on the newspaper’s website.
In late September, Vietnam tried and jailed three bloggers accused of spreading anti-government propaganda. The three were accused of posting political articles on a long-banned website called Free Journalists’ Club, as well as articles critical of the government on their personal blogs. Former policewoman Ta Phong Tan, who wrote a blog called Justice and Truth and whose mother immolated herself in protest earlier this summer, received a sentence of 10 years.
And in October, two prominent Vietnamese musicians became the latest activists to be jailed, for posting songs critical of the Chinese government on YouTube and a website operated by an overseas Vietnamese opposition group.
The Beginnings of an Active Online Public Sphere
Yet while openly criticizing the state, the Party, or government policy is an invitation to a lengthy prison term in Vietnam, that’s not to say social media there do not support a wide-ranging and robust discussion of such topics, nor that social media users restrict themselves only to the most innocuous of smalltalk.
Reacting to changes that have occurred online, particularly in blogging and citizen journalism sites, new types of more professional journalists and marketers have developed what might be deemed a new state press in Vietnam. This has created opportunities as well as challenges for various factions in government and in the CPV. The emergence of new online media outlets has accelerated this process, with market forces playing a key role. Editors and journalists have increasingly been driven more by pragmatic economic forces to make news more relevant, interesting, and professional, thereby also expanding the range of topics that can be reported. Feedback from online engagement further drives this process and reinforces it. The readers’ comments sections of Vietnamese online publications are surprisingly lively areas of debate, for instance.
It is common for readers of the high-circulation, state-controlled dailies, such as Thanh Nien, to post comments on articles on corruption, crime, or land rights issues that are laced with biting irony and harsh criticism of official incompetence or graft. It’s possible to view this as simply an innocuous ‘safety valve,’ as MacKinnon terms it, that allows citizens to vent grievances without taking further action. Yet considered collectively, these thousands of daily comments create multiple foci, widely broadcast, for hashing over the public secrets of governance breakdowns and corruption, as well as grievances by victims. These forms of commentary may not appear overtly political, in the sense of challenges to the existing political regime. But they directly impinge upon key political problems in today’s Vietnam: lack of transparency and accountability of often incompetent local officials and civil servants; nepotism; massive and systemic corruption; police brutality and abuses; land seizures and real estate speculation; the absence of an independent judiciary; growing socioeconomic inequalities; and the lack of access for many to decent education and health care.
An example: In January, a fish farmer named Doan Van Vuon opened fire on more than 100 police officers and soldiers trying to evict him and others from their homes in the Tien Lang district, in the northern port city of Haiphong. He was being pushed off his state-owned plot a year before his lease was set to end. Vuon and three relatives were quickly charged with attempted murder. In a nation where economic decentralization has lent more political power to local and provincial officials, and where unchecked land evictions are therefore increasing, the story at first did not receive much coverage. Vietnam’s state-run press published quick reports based on police sources, which stuck to the narrative that Vuon was a criminal who had used illegal firearms (Brown, 2012).
A month later, however, the situation went from a hushed skirmish to a national imbroglio when two newspapers, Nông Thôn Ngày Nay (Countryside Today) and Pháp Luật Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Law), unearthed their own findings that district officials broke an earlier agreement reached in court and lied about statements made by witnesses (Brown, 2012; McKinley, 2012).
The Tien Lang affair, as the case was called, released a torrent of popular grievances over corruption in local police departments, much of which could be found in the comments sections of these newspapers’ online reportage. Yet rather than end the controversial and potentially damaging coverage, as might be expected in a one-party state, the Party permitted the reporting to continue, albeit grudgingly. The online commentary continued as well, although Internet journalists and media executives involved in that coverage have admitted that they continued to be pressured by the Ministry of Information and Communications to remove critical reader comments from their websites (Cain, 2012a).
In February, relentless online and offline media criticism against district officials prompted Prime Minister Dung to issue a statement announcing that several of the officials would be punished for their malfeasance. The prime minister’s spokesman publicly praised the two newspapers involved for providing ‘timely reports [that had] helped the central government agencies see the matter clearly and proceed to deal with it in an appropriate way’. Newspapers, he said, did good work ‘serving the nation’ and ‘orienting public opinion’ (Cain, 2012a). He made no mention of the active online civil society that had sprung up around the controversy and had made all of this possible, but its impact was clear.
A few months later, after a similar incident outside Hanoi in Hung Yen Province, images of hundreds of police in riot gear facing residents of Van Giang village were posted on blogs, going viral instantly. The protesters were demanding higher compensation for land taken by local authorities to build a satellite city on the outskirts of Hanoi. Local newspapers remained silent on the incident, as directed by the Propaganda Department, until video was released online of two local journalists being beaten by police at the site. At that point, state media jumped on the coverage (Brown, 2012).
In authoritarian regimes, bloggers, online forums, and other forms of new media provide alternative sources of news and information (Etling, Faris & Palfrey, 2010). Increasingly, both journalists and the Vietnamese public are relying on blogs and social networks to discuss events like this. Etling (2010) has observed that the Internet accommodates the rise of a new public sphere even in authoritarian nations by reducing the influence of gatekeepers and by making it possible for citizen journalists to engage in previously expensive journalistic, transparency, or fact-checking endeavours. Once in the public forum, it is easier for mainstream reporters to cover those events for their news organisations, and even to use them to push a different agenda. In an increasing number of cases, Vietnamese bloggers are doing the heavy lifting with unauthorized investigative journalism that, once made public, provides political cover for the traditional state-owned press to pursue the story. Some journalists, frustrated by the restrictions imposed by their editors, even post on blogs under pen names to circumvent censorship.
More than just information sources, blogs and other social media platforms have become rallying points for ersatz civil society groups representing different causes: land use, religious rights, and anti-China sentiment, for example. Many journalists use blogs to get information on public protests, and some readers use blogs and other social media to call for their own protests. During this summer’s escalation in tensions between Vietnam and China over the sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, tens of thousands of young Vietnamese changed their Facebook avatars to images of the Vietnamese flag as visible displays of their patriotism and solidarity against China (Figure 1). When Chinese search giant Baidu began exploring a business expansion into Vietnam called Baidu Trà đá Quán, Vietnamese youth promptly created an anti-Baidu Trà đá Quán page on Facebook, using it as a forum to register their unhappiness with the move and galvanizing supporters to speak out against it. During the same several months, Facebook also served as a coordinating tool for several anti-China street protests that took place in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. [i]
But as Shirky notes, governments jeopardize more than their own legitimacy when they seek to stifle online public communication on matters of social interest; they also threaten economic growth when they ban technologies that can be used for both political and economic coordination (Shirky, 2012).
In the first part of this year, the Vietnam National Assembly introduced draft legislation that would require Google, Facebook and all other non-local social networks to locate data servers inside the country and to establish local offices, both of which would presumably be under local control. They would additionally be required by law to cooperate with local authorities in identifying any user who engages in activities prohibited by the decree or other relevant laws. The same legislation called for mandating the use of real names and verifiable online identities for all Vietnamese citizens (Hookway, 2012).
At the beginning of the year, however, Vietnam was in a somewhat different economic position. As 2012 has progressed, it’s become clear that Vietnam’s anointment as the next Asian success story may have been premature. At the end of 2012, Vietnam is struggling with a weak currency, high inflation, paralysing bureaucracy, and endemic corruption that has led to billions of dollars of waste. Many of these problems stem from a credit boom in 2009 and 2010; much of the money lent is now considered bad debt, and a lack of transparency throughout the banking system is sending foreign investors looking elsewhere (Cain, 2012b). At the end of September, Moody’s downgraded the country’s credit rating, citing weaknesses in its banks and a stuttering economy (AP, 2012).
While public officials may wish to impose tight internal controls on social media platforms like Facebook, Google, WordPress and the rest, and thereby prevent the public discussion of its dirty laundry in places like Quan Lam Bao, they likely also realize that doing so may well jeopardize the one way they have out of the current economic mess.
The Asia Internet Coalition, a lobby group founded by some of the world’s biggest technology companies, has urged authorities to tone down the content of the draft law, pointing out that it would stifle the growth of Internet-driven businesses here. Authorities have also been warned about the side effects of blocking sites such as Facebook, which would significantly hinder Vietnamese entrepreneurs from building connections with potential partners both inside the country and around the world (Hookway, 2012). To date, the decree has yet to be implemented in legislative form and there is talk that the government is in discussions with Facebook to reach an agreement that would satisfy both parties’ interests.
As elsewhere, popular culture in Vietnam provides cover for political uses of social media. Blogs and social networks like Facebook are fashionable sites for the posting of mashups that discreetly satirize a wide variety of Vietnamese social issues. A preferred source for such mashups is the Japanese manga comic Doraemon, hugely popular in Vietnam (Figure 2). Dozens of Facebook pages and personal blogs are devoted to the posting of mashed-up, remixed versions of Doraemon manga, often including other images, in which the original Japanese language has been removed and replaced with Vietnamese-language dialogue. These remixed comics are used as a form of social expression, often subtly coded, but providing insightful commentary on modern Vietnamese society nonetheless.
The CPV has not historically been known for its keen sense of humour, and typically takes the same restrictive attitude toward satire and parody as it does straightforward criticism. But once a year, during the annual Tet New Year celebration, it allows a single television broadcast of a live program called “Gặp nhau cuối năm.” The show presents an evening of satirical sketch-comedy acts in which the events of the previous year in Vietnam are sent up in tongue-in-cheek fashion. For years, millions of Vietnamese gathered around the television to enjoy the one occasion each year in which they could legally enjoy mockery of government policies and failures, knowing there’d not be another opportunity until the following Tet.
But in recent years, clips from the program have been uploaded to YouTube, where they’re available for viewing—and, crucially, commenting upon and sharing—any time. In one popular clip from 2009, for instance, three “kitchen gods” perform a satirical song-and-dance number to the well-known melody of a post-war patriotic song whose original lyrics praised the development of the country and the many blessings the government brought to the people under post-war Communism (Figure 3). As can be seen in the YouTube clip from the program, however, the performers have transformed the traditional lyrics into an ironic paean about the massive flooding that inundates Hanoi each time it rains. The same patriotic song now has become a gently satirical mockery of the woeful condition of Vietnamese state infrastructure, corruption, and official ineptitude.
At other times, the uses of online popular culture to make political statements are more overt, and consequently riskier. After Vietnamese police used violence to break up anti-China protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City—protests that were largely promoted and coordinated using social media—34-year-old musician Viet Khang wrote two songs about it and uploaded them onto YouTube. The songs, entitled ‘Where is My Country?’ and ‘Who are You?’, soon went viral, attracting about 1 million hits in total. A few months later, Khang was arrested and on October 30 was sentenced to four years in prison for conducting ‘propaganda against the state.’ Despite strict censorship spanning decades, composers in Vietnam have rarely been prosecuted for the content of their music. However, with lyrics like ‘Where is your nationalism? Why consciously take orders from China? … Your hands will be stained with the blood of our people,’ directed at security forces, Khang’s songs hit a nerve with CPV officials.
Bloggers also commonly publish online translated stories from the foreign press, making them available to a wider Vietnamese audience. Similarly, writers and journalists inside Vietnam translate foreign literature, often short stories and authors for which Vietnamese language editions do not exist or which are not well known in the country (Vietnam strictly restricts foreign titles brought into the country and sold at bookstores). Translations often include books and articles from mainstream outlets: David Lodge’s Art of Fiction or features and interviews from The Paris Review or The New Yorker, for instance. In doing so the translators make widely available new authors and, more importantly, new ideas and viewpoints on such topics as feminism, sexuality, the environment, history, critical theory, and many others. They work in part because they self-consciously want to raise the quality of writing, literary criticism, and intellectual debates in Vietnam overall. They also want to introduce new ways of writing literature in Vietnam, and therefore new ways of thinking about possible ways of being Vietnamese and communicating in Vietnamese with fellow citizens. Some of these literary blogs have tens of thousands of hits and hundreds of visitors. The information and texts from these blogs are relayed in social media, re-posted in personal Facebook pages, and disseminated further by photocopying, thus blending old and new media.
The political nature of this project, like other uses of popular culture in Vietnam, is rarely foregrounded, and yet it is never far from the minds of those who create literary blogging and digital projects in the arts. This is a subtle, muted form of political engagement, but no less significant for it. Despite that nothing apparently political is taking place in these hundreds of pages of online translations from English, French or German literature, the capacity of Kafka, Camus, or Orwell to comment on contemporary politics in any part of the world is obvious. On one hand, most of the translators who act as cultural brokers in this fashion eschew such well-known targets. Yet by translating Nabokov’s Lolita, or short stories by Alice Munro or Virginia Woolf, they contribute indirect but powerful commentary on a key tension in Vietnamese society today: the inability of the creaky educational and political system to address or engage productively with evolving gender roles and new attitudes toward sexuality, marriage, and the family.
The rapid rise of Internet penetration in Vietnam and the subsequent growth of social media have made possible a vast extension of the range of public debate and discussion. This is rarely overtly political in an open, confrontational sense, but it is gradually expanding Vietnam’s public sphere and creating a more informed, engaged citizenry. New ideas that would or could never have originated from state media or state political apparatuses are in circulation, especially among younger, more educated, disenfranchised, and disenchanted Vietnamese. The infusion of new ideas about society and the state—and powerful new conversational capabilities for a growing population that’s increasingly comfortable with open, robust dialogue and debate—portend a fundamental shift in the relationship between individuals and the state as Vietnam moves into the 21st century.
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About the Authors
Patrick E. Sharbaugh
Patrick Sharbaugh teaches and conducts research into new media technologies and practices at RMIT International University in Saigon, Vietnam. His most recent research is on Vietnamese conceptions of online personal privacy.
Christophe Robert is a cultural anthropologist (PhD, Cornell University, 2005). He taught at Princeton PIIRS, Yale CSEAS, and City University of Hong Kong. He is currently conducting ethnographic research in Saigon on media, youth, and criminality. He is Director of Online Qualitative Research at Cimigo, a consultancy firm, and lectures in anthropology at Loyola University Chicago – Vietnam Center.
Marianne S. Brown
Marianne Brown is a British multimedia journalist who has written on the impact of blogs on Vietnam’s state-controlled media. She has worked for local and foreign news agencies in Vietnam for four years.
Earlier this week, I received a Twitter message from a reporter at ABC Radio Australia in Sydney who wanted to interview me for a report on Chinese search giant Baidu’s recent low-profile but still rather bumpy entry into the Vietnam market over the past few weeks. (You can find the full audio segment here.) The report was prompted by Baidu’s opening last week of a new research office in Singapore dedicated to better understanding natural language search in Vietnamese, Thai, Malay and Indonesian — all markets the Beijing-based Internet giant would like to crack as it moves beyond the 500 million netizens in China. But in Vietnam, at least, their hopes may have to be placed on the back burner for a while.
In my comments for the ABC piece, I note that although Google.com.vn remains the most trafficked website for Vietnamese Internet users, authorities here have expressed dissatisfaction with their inability to filter search results and control content on Google, a skillset that Baidu has shown itself to be remarkably amendable to in China, where Baidu has been only too happy to be a self-censoring government lapdog. Vietnam officials, who’ve been ineffectively blocking Facebook for nearly three years (and, more recently, WordPress and Blogger) would surely like to have more fine-grained control over what their citizens can see and say, as is the way with all authoritarian governments.
Yet at the same time, there’s that mettlesome ongoing diplomatic disagreement with China to consider, which is pitching a spanner into everything. Yesterday Thanh Nien news — a government mouthpiece through and through — latched onto the Baidu incursion with a sharp-edged takedown piece. Entitled “Concern with Social Network Baidu Teiba,” the piece argues that the new Vietnamese site should not be trusted for several reasons.
What really rankles, however, seems to be the fact that Baidu Teiba claims to be “a playground where everyone can freely share his opinion,” says the author of the Thanh Nien piece, “but it does not allow users to set the topics related to Vietnam’s sovereignty” — a direct reference to the current heated dispute with China over the ownership of the Spratly and Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea (or as they call it here in Vietnam, the “East Sea”). Indeed, searching Baidu Teiba for the Vietnamese names of the Spratly and Paracel Islands yields a rejection message worded, “Sorry! Search has been disabled for violation of laws or inappropriate content.” The irony here is peanut-butter thick: Vietnam is objecting to censorship and propaganda on the grounds that it’s the wrong censorship and propaganda. “This hidden risk in Baidu Tieba is a means of spreading misinformation and violating Vietnam’s sovereignty.”
There’s also been something of a local kerfuffle over the fact that while Baidu had initially planned to register a Vietnamese domain under the name Baidu Tra Da Caphe (“Baidu Teahouse”), the Chinese owners have instead registered it as a .com and changed the name to Baidu Teiba, effectively precluding the ability of Vietnamese authorities to exert any kind of local control over the site or its contents at all — exactly the same problem they have with Google, Facebook, WordPress, Blogger and every other popular network not hosted in Vietnam, which is essentially everything but the Vietnam-only SNS Zing.me (a situation not made more tractable by the so-far unsubstantiated rumors circulating recently that Zing.me has been bought by Baidu).
On Facebook, Vietnamese users (who’ve worked around the government’s DNS block) have created at least two anti-Baidu pages, one of which has attracted more than 1400 likes. Anecdotally speaking, Baidu Teiba seems about as popular in Vietnam right now as a full litter box.
So while the Vietnam government would very probably like to see Baidu enter the local market and offer a more pliable, censorship-friendly alternative to the Googles and Facebooks of the Western world here, they are handcuffed by the diplomatic squabble that has whipped up the Vietnam population into a nationalistic frenzy.
Or is handcuffed the right word? The officials of the Vietnamese government may be behind the times, but they are a practical and often savvy bunch. It’s entirely possible that what we see playing out in public are the feints, lunges and overtures of a backroom scuffle, in which local officials are fanning nationalistic flames and tweaking unfavorable media coverage as a way of increasing its bargaining power and wringing greater concessions out of Baidu for entering the local market. This would explain the bizarre name change (from Baidu Tra Da Caphe to Baidu Teiba) and the overtly insulting move to forego registering as a Vietnamese domain and keep the .com address — as counter-tactics by which Baidu demonstrates it can enter the Vietnam market with impunity and will not be treated as a bit player doing the Vietnam authorities’ bidding.
This may all be part of a grand, behind-the-scenes negotiating game among giants, an Asian Game of Thrones. The tricky part for the rest of us is figuring out which one is Ned Stark.
In his startling preface to the independent report on the causes of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster released late last week, panel chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa cited “ingrained conventions” of Japanese culture as the cause behind many of the missteps that led to the meltdown at the plant following the tsunami in March last year.
Yet nearly all the supposedly Japanese cultural characteristics he cites as contributing to the catastrophe — “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme'; our groupism; and our insularity’ — are qualities that are fundamental to many or most Asian cultures whose roots lie in Confucian traditions. The “made in Japan” label he stuck on the disaster might just as easily read “Made in Asia”; there’s nothing inherently Japanese about any of these traits, insofar as they actually were at the root of the problem. Kurokawa may as well have said the meltdown was caused by Asian values.
It’s hard to overstate what an enormous, and enormously unexpected, mea culpa this is for the panel and for Japan. In essence, what the report said was that many of the foundational social principles that have informed Japanese — and Asian — culture for thousands of years are flawed tools for the governance of modern societies.
Let me put this another way. It’s as if, after the levee failures in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the chairman of the independent U.C. Berkeley investigation into that disaster suggested that the root causes were basic principles of American social organization: self-reliance, individual autonomy, a distrust of unchecked government and its officials, our willingness to question authority, and a flawed notion of American exceptionalism. Can you imagine the reaction such a report would have received? The riots that resulted might well have been more disruptive than the hurricane.
This, in essence, is what Kurokawa said. That everything the Japanese believe about how society should be ordered and run is wrong. And while he was ostensibly speaking only about Japan, it’s frankly inconceivable that Kurokawa is ignorant regarding the degree to which these values permeate much of pan-Asian culture. As unique a nation as Japan is (even many Asians don’t truly consider Japan part of Asia, sort of the way American Southerners don’t truly consider Florida part of the South) its social bedrock lies in the same traditions that comprise Chinese and Indian and Singaporean and Malaysian and Vietnamese and even many Arab cultures.
When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yeuw made the case for an authoritarian style of government in that newly birthed nation state, he famously cited “Asian values” as the justification. The premise being that, because of their shared history and cultural ideology, many Asian societies are fundamentally different from liberal Western traditions, and as such are more comfortable with single-party rule rather than political pluralism, among a host of other differences. Those same Asian values, it was understood, implied a preference for social harmony rather than the rough-and-tumble mix of dissent and conflict commonly known as the “marketplace of ideas” elsewhere and, crucially, an unquestioning trust and respect for authority and the necessity of rigid hierarchies. The implication was that the developed nations of the West should refrain from meddling with (i.e. imposing their own cultural and political values upon) Asian nations whose most fundamental social values — ingrained into every citizen, bureaucrat, and ministry official from birth — can be traced back not to the white-wigged figures of the European Enlightenment but to an altogether different source: the scholar and teacher Confucius, who lived more than two millennia ago.
These values, Confucian and therefore Asian, are as unquestionable and as essential to most Asian citizens as the ideas of individual liberty, free speech, personal autonomy, and checks and balances are to us. They certainly include things like reflexive obedience, a reluctance to question authority, groupism, and insularity, and have done so since the time of Han-era China. For Kiyoshi Kurokawa to lay the blame for the Fukushima disaster upon these “ingrained conventions” of Japanese culture was a rejection of the very values that bind much of Asian society together and articulate the proper role of the individual, the family, the community and, not least, the government. It was a stunning acknowledgement, and it will be interesting to see how it’s received across the continent. (I suspect Lee Kwan Yeuw, at the very least, choked on his tea upon reading the news.)
Of course, the Japanese are different. They have a history of being capable, as an entire society, of utterly transforming themselves and their most basic principles at the drop of a hat. They did it in 1868, when they collectively decided to abandon the samurai culture known as bushido that had ordered every aspect of Japanese society since before the Edo period hundreds of years previously, ended the shogunate, and embraced Western industrialism in the Meiji Restoration. They did it again after World War II, when they abandoned the militaristic nationalism that had plunged the nation into an unwinnable conflict that left its back broken and its people humiliated, diverting the underlying tenets of bushido — stoicism, honor, loyalty, strength — into industry and technological innovation. So it wouldn’t be the first time the Japanese have turned their backs on bedrock values and beliefs in the face of failure or disaster.
Is Kurokawa right? Are Japanese, i.e. Asian, values to blame for the human error behind tragedies like that at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant a year ago? You’re not going to hear me disagree with him, but if there’s one thing all Asian nations tend to have in common besides geography, it’s a tendency to conservatism. That din you hear? It’s not agreement, you can be sure, but it translates roughly from about 100 different Asian languages into “Speak for yourself.” Anyway, everyone knows Japan isn’t really part of Asia — perhaps never more so than now.
A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times observed that Singapore appears recently to have been lightening up on political expression, thanks partly to the influence of online communities.
Though one of the most economically developed states in the region, Singapore has long been known as a warm and fuzzy police state (“Disneyland with the death penalty,” as author William Gibson once famously called it) where the ruling People’s Action Party has kept a fierce grip on its hold over the nominally democratic nation by discouraging political activism and dissent via technological, legislative, and ideological means. The Times article noted that over the past year or so, “a burst of civic activism has been sweeping this crowded flyspeck of an island.” The PAP seems to be relaxing, slightly, its historically strict controls on both offline and online political expression and, yes, even dissent. In a country that has long been known for its notorious “OB” markers — purposefully invisible boundaries beyond which acceptable political discourse must not stray — such changes are surprising, to say the last.
The Times article lays much of the impetus for the changes upon Singapore’s social media landscape, which has opened up as local leaders have clued into the notion that luring foreign investment and talent, and continuing Singapore’s rocketing evolution into one of Asia’s most powerful economic hubs, means “softening Singapore’s reputation as a gum-banning, rules-obsessed nation.”
It’s encouraging, no doubt. But whether or not social media is behind the shift is another question. People have been blogging and using Facebook, Twitter, and similar social tools in Singapore for years before now with no such movement on government policy. And it remains to be seen whether this represents an actual sea change in the government’s approach to online discourse or is merely a passing experiment. Indeed, just Monday Singapore officials arrested two youths for “threatening social harmony” in the nation-state by posting what was termed “racist” remarks on Facebook and Twitter.
But even if it represents only a modest change in the Lion City’s contentious relationship with the Internet and new media, it still sets Singapore apart from most of the rest of Southeast Asia, which seems hellbent on moving in the other direction. This is perhaps more true in Vietnam than anywhere else, as the influence social media seems to exert there also has the government pushing for change, but toward less, rather than more, openness and freedom.
It’s no secret that Vietnam regularly clocks in near the bottom of most international indexes of free speech, online and off, and no nation except China currently has more of its citizens behind bars for expressing unpopular political views online. Like many developing nations in the region, Vietnam is desperate to improve its economic circumstances by encouraging foreign investment and stemming the flow of talent out of the country. Yet rather than relaxing its grip on online expression as in Singapore, officials here appear to be doubling down on restrictions and controls.
Facebook, for example, has been subjected to an unofficial technical block in Vietnam since November 2009 (despite this, there are still almost 4 million local users circumventing the block). Several months ago, the National Assembly introduced legislation to require Google and all non-local social networks (i.e. Facebook) to locate data servers inside the country and to open local offices, both of which would presumably be under local control (this appears to be modeled on similar demands made by India earlier this year). The same legislation would criminalize the use of pseudonyms online for Vietnamese citizens.
In recent weeks, there have been reports that WordPress and Blogger seem to be sporadically unavailable throughout the country, which would suggest another unofficial technical block from ISPs at the government’s direction.
Despite a high 32% internet penetration in Vietnam, Twitter has a low profile here (possibly due in part to the lack of support for Vietnamese mobile phone numbers and the relatively low number of web-enabled smartphones). It’s available and unblocked so far, but there’s no local clone like China’s Sina Weibo (though there are indications that Sina and Tencent are trying to get into the local market).
That’s not to say social media has no impact at all on governance in Vietnam, only that, unlike China, it’s not happening on microblogs yet. Last year, for example, the ongoing dispute with China over the ownership of the Spratly and Paracelle Islands in the East Sea flared up online, particularly on blogs and Facebook, resulting in a rash of anti-China protests in Hanoi and Saigon. Interestingly, the Vietnamese government allowed the online activity to continue for several weeks, as it seemed politically efficacious. But then they shut it all down and arrested the most vocal among the online inciters.
Earlier this year, the government tried to quietly seize back land from longtime resident-owners who had outstayed their welcome. While state-controlled media outlets ignored the stories, bloggers got the word out and swelled public support for the landowners, thus opening room for local media to begin covering the seizures and forcing the government to react when they would probably have preferred to bury the whole thing. Examples like this might be why WordPress and Blogger seem to be increasingly unavailable inside the country in recent months.
So it’s still unclear which direction the Vietnam government will ultimately take in its engagement with social media: toward increasingly more freedom, as in Singapore, or toward increasingly less, as in China. But the smart money’s on local officials taking their cue from Big Brother to the north. Culturally, historically, politically, and economically, Vietnam has much more in common with China than Singapore — or Malaysia, or Thailand or Burma, where a variety of online restrictions are being eased (albeit slowly and not without a fight).
It’s possible that the only reason Google and Twitter are still available here is that there’s not yet a local clone — a Baidu or a Sina or a Tencent — to step into the gap if those two were to disappear (and Google remains among the most-visited websites in Vietnam). Yet as was reported in May, Baudu seems to be making noises about moving into the Vietnam market with its heavily filtered search solution, something Vietnam officials might cotton to, as long as they can regulate it. “Social harmony” is one of those so-called Asian values in the name of which almost anything can and has been justified by East and Southeast Asian nations. Too often it’s a euphemism for clamping down on open expression in situations where the best solution is not enforced silence, as Justice Warren Brandeis eloquently wrote in 1927, but more speech.