China's Vietnam Problem

Even China’s Internet savvy microbloggers had trouble gathering information on riots in Vietnam that everywhere else in Asia were top-of-the-fold news. 
Riot damage in Vietnam. Photographer: Jason Folkmanis/Bloomberg

Yesterday morning news broke that anti-Chinese protests had turned violent overnight, resulting in the deaths of at least two (and perhaps as many as 16) Chinese workers, injuries to at least 100 others, and significant damage to Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean factories. Yet in China, ostensible target of the violence, the mayhem wasn't news at all. In fact, even China's Internet savvy microbloggers had trouble gathering information on an event that everywhere else in Asia was top-of-the-fold news. Frustration, insofar as it could be expressed, appeared on Chinese social networks - and then was quickly censored.

"Large-scale anti-Chinese riots took place in Vietnam and any shop with a Chinese sign was trashed," reported a Beijing-based Sina Weibo blogger in a tweet that was subsequently deleted (the text survives in other places). "Foreign media fall all over themselves to report it while the domestic media focuses on peace and prosperity while running headlines about the military's first female honor guard." Such silence, clearly intentional, suggests only one conclusion: "China, when will you really care about your citizens?"

It's a bold question, and one that the Chinese authorities don't want to hear, much less answer, as they pursue a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the Vietnamese navy in a disputed area of the South China Sea. So far, at least, the most dangerous weapons to be fired in that dispute are water hoses. In all likelihood, that's as far as the Chinese government would - for now - like the dispute to go. But China's leaders are surely aware that their public is far more hawkish than they are, especially when it comes to matters dealing with Chinese sovereignty.

In late summer 2012, for example, tensions with Japan over a set of rocky Islands -- the Chinese call them the Diaoyu, and the Japanese refer to them as the Senkakus -- set off social media tempers and eventually, anti-Japanese riots. Yet one of the most striking features of that dark episode was how much of the anger was directed at the Chinese authorities and their perceived weakness in the face of what was widely viewed as Japanese aggression. "With many Chinese voicing doubts about whether the Party is capable of protecting the disputed islands," I wrote at the time. "China's foreign policy is facing a crisis of legitimacy." Sure enough, anti-Japanese sentiment, initially allowed and welcomed in Chinese media and on the streets of Chinese cities, was soon censored and the riots quelled. By early 2013, even the most hawkish of China's state-owned media outlets -- the Global Times newspaper -- was counseling against a martial response to the Japanese:

"But for China, if a war over the Diaoyu Islands dispute erupts, even if China wins the war, its modernization process would be broken for a third time, with solutions to existing problems delayed infinitely rather than solved."

Probably, censorship and policework played a far more crucial role in quelling anti-Japanese riots than level-headed editorializing. Either way, though, the Party succeeded in getting its people off the streets and the microblogs, and engaged in other, less delegitimizing activities and discussions.

Needless to say, Vietnam and its sovereignty conflicts with China are neither the military nor political equivalent of China's dispute with Japan. They lack both the deep-seeded racial enmity that defines so much of the Chinese-Japanese conflict and -- perhaps more important -- Vietnam lacks Japan's U.S. backing. Were there to be military conflict between the two countries, China would certainly win, though likely with the same costs that a war over the Diaoyu Islands would incur. Nonetheless, having recently experienced the unpredictability of nationalist protests, China has no interest in setting off a new round of riots designed to force its hand. Whatever the plan, goal, and policy may be in regard to Vietnam, Xi Jinping and his government are clearly keen to pursue them unencumbered by angry public sentiment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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