Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why do the Vietnamese dislike China?

I have just got back from a two week trip to Vietnam. I had already visited the country for a few days in 2009, but this time my stay was longer and I feel that I got a deeper impression of the place. One thing that I came to realize about Vietnam during my recent stay there is the extent to which China and the Chinese are unpopular in the country.

On my first day in Hanoi, the receptionist at my hotel noticed that my phone had Chinese writing on it, and I told her that I live in Beijing. After asking me to write my Chinese name down, and showing me how she could write 你好 (ni hao) in a 5 year old's handwriting, the woman asked me why on earth I chose to live in China. She told me that Chinese people are "not good", that China occupies Vietnam's Spratly Islands, and that many of the Chinese tourists she has met are rude and speak too loudly.

During the following two weeks in the country, I had various other such experiences. Once I was in the lobby of one of Hanoi's fanciest hotels, and I was fooling about with a Vietnamese girl I know who speaks a bit of Chinese, trying to have a basic conversation with her in Mandarin. A smartly dressed young man sitting next to us interrupted, asking why we were speaking Chinese, since the Chinese are "bad people who think they can conquer everything".

My good Vietnamese friend Hien, who used to be my roommate when I studied in Beijing, confirmed that his fellow countrymen tend to dislike the Chinese on principle. In fact, he claimed that despite the wars with the Americans and the French, the only foreigners the Vietnamese dislike nowadays are the Chinese (he himself doesn't share these feelings, having had mostly good experiences in Beijing).

        Above: Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi's own little Tiananmen Square

This widespread animosity towards China might seem puzzling at first, since Vietnam is clearly the most similar country to China on the face of the earth. Just like Korea and Japan, Vietnam has always belonged to the Chinese cultural sphere. As the Vietnamese like to remind people, they were ruled by China for a thousand years. As a result, they adopted the same mix of Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism as the Chinese, and took to writing their language in Chinese characters. Within South East Asia Vietnam represents an outpost of Chinese civilization, as opposed to its neighbours Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, whose culture is influenced mainly by India.

Vietnam's current political and social system is also very similar to China's, with a "Communist Party" presiding over a "Socialist-oriented market economy" in which the government does not exercise control over people's daily lives, but keeps a lid on political dissent. Vietnam's own "Reform and Opening Up", the "Doi Moi" Policy, was started in 1986. Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi even looks a bit like a small scale Tiananmen Square.

The lifestyle, food and mentality of the Vietnamese all bear a clear resemblance to China as well. Although Hanoi looks very different from a Chinese city, with narrow streets and old colonial buildings everywhere, the restaurants and shops look decidedly similar to the ones you might find in China. The people have a South-East Asian gentleness in their way which is unknown in China, and they thankfully don't share some of the Chinese bad habits which I referred to in my previous post, but otherwise their similarity to the Chinese is obvious. Even the Vietnamese language has borrowed about half its vocabulary from Chinese.

Why then this hostility towards China on the part of ordinary Vietnamese? The main reasons seem to lie in history and in the current dispute over the Spratly islands. The way the Vietnamese see it, their history has been one long struggle to rid themselves of Chinese domination. Most of Vietnam's national heroes are people who fought off the Chinese successfully. Then there was the 1979 war between China and Vietnam, started by China in retaliation for Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, and ending with the war-hardend Vietnamese giving their Northern neighbours a good bashing.

The ancient Chinese were apparently baffled by these Southerners who enjoyed the benefits of Chinese civilization but held on to their separate identity so stubbornly, rather than just become Chinese themselves. I have never heard of modern Chinese laying any claim to Vietnam, unlike Mongolia, which most Chinese see as rightly belonging to China. I suppose China's domination of Vietnam came to an end too long ago for it to remain in the Chinese collectively memory. Even the war in 1979 is rarely remembered or discussed in China. The Vietnamese have forgotten nothing however, and there is currently a dispute between the two countries which serves to keep the old resentment burning.

The Spratly Islands are an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea (known as the "East Sea" in Vietnam) whose sovereignty is contended by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. All of these countries except Brunei currently occupy some of the islands. The islands are uninhabited, but the real prize is the oil and gas reserves which the area contains. Although the islands are geographically closer to Vietnam and the Philippines, China claims that they have been part of Chinese territory for two thousand years, and that they are clearly marked as such on ancient Chinese maps. Archaeological findings of ancient Chinese pottery and coins on the islands is supposed to back this claim. Vietnam on the other hand contends that the islands were never part of China's territory, and that they have ruled over them since the 17th century, when they were not under the sovereignty of any state.

The dispute over the Spratly Islands is obviously very deeply felt in Vietnam, and contributes to the general ill will towards China. A British girl I met who lives in Saigon told me that in her opinion the Vietnamese media is also to blame, because it gives a distorted coverage of China. She said that various Vietnamese friends had told her that the Chinese eat babies after seeing stories to this effect in the media. She also pointed out that the Vietnamese have a rather selective memory, forgetting that Ho Chi Min received much help from the Chinese Communist Party. "Uncle Ho" actually spent years in China, married a Chinese woman and spoke fluent Chinese.