By J Frank Parnell


On May 2nd 2014, National China Offshore Oil Corporation dispatched the Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil platform to disputed waters off the southern edge of the Paracel Island chain, 120 nautical miles east of Vietnam. From May3rd to the 5th, twenty-nine Vietnamese Coast Guard ships were sent to intercept and disrupt the rig, but were blocked by an air-supported eighty-ship Chinese escort, resulting in six injuries and significant damage to Vietnamese vessels. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the violation of its sovereign exclusive economic zone. In Vietnam, widespread popular anger met with rare, but short-lived, acquiescence on the part of the party-state. Perhaps in an effort to provide an ostentatious display of national unity against perceived foreign aggression, uncommon public protests were allowed to take place in the largest cities across the country.

However, perceived parallels with other party-mobilized nationalist spectacles break down under scrutiny. State acquiescence was immediately preceded by the May5th arrest of the country’s most famous dissident blogger Nguyễn Hữu Vinh (Anh Ba Sàm).[1] A former police officer and son of the late ambassador to the Soviet Union, Nguyễn Hữu Vinh, wrote a blog that was among the most popular in the country. This was in no small part because of its relatable, humorous prose and trenchant criticism of the party’s corruption and supposed collaboration with Chinese expansionist plots. Indeed, human rights activists have long paired demands for intellectual freedom with conspiratorial propaganda portraying the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) as traitors who have “sold out the nation” (bán nước) to the Chinese.[2]

These disaffected liberals wasted no time framing the current crisis in similar terms. Later that day, independent blogs and news sources recognized an oppurtunity and called for expanded protests. Independent news website Dân Luận (Public Opinion) rhetorically asked,

People are asking Dân Luận, should we ‘reactionaries’ participate even though the state is now encouraging, and even organizing people to go protest. [… Our] response is: YES. Why not? First, this is an opportunity for us to hit the streets and express our opinions, to actually become citizens of a democratic society. We must take advantage of every chance we get. Second, we’ve hit the streets before when the Fatherland was in danger, so why should we refuse now that the Fatherland needs us? Third, they’ve invited us to hit the streets with their own plans in mind, but we have the right to bring whichever message we choose. So then bring the message of FREEDOM, DEMOCRACY, and HUMAN RIGHTS! Hit the streets with portraits of the patriots they’ve imprisoned![3]

An attached letter, signed by “twenty civil society organizations” and addressed to “All Patriotic Vietnamese,” argued that the Vietnamese party-state, through incompetence, cowardice, and malevolence, was complicit in Chinese violation of Vietnamese sovereignty.[4]

From Thursday to Sunday, protests with tacit state approval slowly built momentum, then unexpectedly exploded into a mass factory revolt. On Thursday the 8th, fifty-five “public intellectuals” (nhân sĩ trí thức) requested that the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) People’s Committee “create advantageous conditions” for a rally that Sunday in front of the Metropolitan Opera House. The next evening, a small group of youths and dissident intellectuals gathered in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, protesting for an hour without police intervention before disbanding of their own accord.[5] Momentum continued to build the following day when more than a hundred people gathered at the Chinese Consulate in HCMC. State affiliated newspapers appeared to support the gatherings, with HCMC-based Tuổi Trẻ (“Youth”) sympathetically reporting: “The People of HCMC Peacefully Protest at the Chinese Consulate.” Perhaps encouraged by the sympathetic reporting, Sunday’s protests spread throughout every major city, becoming the largest in recent memory. The state was prepared, preventing noted dissidents from leaving their homes, and dispatching Communist Youth League “state-owned protestors” to blend into the crowd, deactivate audio equipment, and attempt to silence anti-regime agitators.[6] Nevertheless, the protests garnered international attention and set the stage for the maelstrom of the coming week.[7]

This relatively calm though somewhat contentious atmosphere was transformed when the work week began again the next day. Late in the afternoon on Monday, May 12th, sporadic protests broke out at the Việt Nam-Singapore 1 Industrial Zone in Bình Dương, a province on the northeastern outskirts of HCMC: the manufacturing center of southern Vietnam. The next morning, 20,000 or so workers demonstrated in three industrial zones. Rioting exploded around lunchtime. Chinese owned factories were targeted first. Masked men wearing workers’ uniforms and bearing Vietnamese flags arrived on foot and by motorbike, pulled down factory gates and clambered over walls, urging others to join the march and allegedly even paying workers the equivalent of five to ten US dollars to participate in the vandalism, looting and arson. One worker reported to the BBC, “The protestors requested that workers making products at the companies follow [the protestors]—whoever came along wouldn’t have problems, but whoever didn’t come along wouldn’t be spared.”[8] The rioting quickly spread to Taiwanese, Korean, and even Vietnamese factories. According to celebrated independent journalist and historian Huy Đức, “Of the 315 investors damaged by the events in Bình Dương, twelve companies were seriously burnt (with many burnt to the ground), three were partially burnt, thirty-three were looted, 196 factories were smashed, and 241 offices were ruined, with many others completely torched and destroyed.”[9] The vast majority were Taiwanese-invested, mainland Chinese-managed textile manufacturing plants.

The next day, a similar sequence of events took place in Central Vietnam at the Taiwanese-invested, Chinese-staffed Formosa Plastics steel mill in Vũng Áng—the same place a horrendous chemical spill would trigger another set of nationwide protests two summers later.[10] It began in the early morning with twenty masked, motorbike-riding, flag-bearing protestors demonstrating in workers’ uniforms outside the main gates. At 10:30 they barged through the gate into the administrative area and collected sixty more protestors before being convinced to leave. At 1:30 pm they suddenly returned with two hundred protestors and broke through the gates, attacking passing vans carrying Chinese workers. By 4:30 the group had swelled to around five hundred protestors. According to one witness, activists within the group began yelling to passersby that “a Vietnamese person has been beaten to death at the worksite,” quickly swelling the protest to around five thousand. This group attacked a group of about one thousand Chinese workers, set fire to dormitories, and stole construction equipment and appliances. Four Chinese workers were killed and 130 injured, with twenty-three left in critical condition. One Vietnamese worker interviewed by state media speculated that the flag-bearing protestors who first barged into the factory were not workers on that site.

Who started the factory riots of 2014? Of the four hundred subsequently arrested in southern Vietnam, most were young laid-off men, languishing among the migrant worker population. Furthermore, there is no doubt that miserable workplace conditions and anger towards oppressive managers were necessary to make such an explosion of violence and property damage possible.[11] Nevertheless most accounts feature a vanguard group, well prepared with flags, batons and money, who came to mobilize workers and instigate the destruction. The Vietnamese government blames Việt Tân (the Vietnam Reform Revolutionary Party), a Pittsburgh-based anti-communist, pro-democracy organization founded in 1981 by Vietnamese refugees and remnants of the former Saigon government and military. Considered an illegal terrorist organization by the CPV, they are often scapegoated for domestic unrest. Việt Tân’s radio station, Chân Trời Mới (“New Horizon”), shot back that the riots were orchestrated by the party to strike back at Beijing, having the added benefit of giving the state justification for clamping down on peaceful protests and shifting public anger away from China.[12] Both explanations are unconvincing.

We may never find out exactly how the quasi-sanctioned protests escalated into factory riots on Tuesday the 13th, but that shouldn’t distract us from the way this controversy hinges on an important weakness of the Vietnamese state. Unlike Chinese protests against Japan, Vietnamese anti-China protests always border on movements against the regime. Why should this be? After all, didn’t the CPV represent the anti-colonial aspirations of the Vietnamese people? As heirs to a two thousand year-old anti-colonial tradition, didn’t the Communists lead the nation to defeat French, Japanese, American and Chinese imperialists and their puppets, just as their forefathers had done against the Han, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing empires?

This two-part primer aims to give readers the background necessary to understand contemporary Vietnamese perspectives on China. This first article offers a cursory sketch of Sino-Vietnamese relations leading up to the market reforms (1986), paying particular attention to how this modern configuration of nationalist history was first formulated by literati revolutionaries in the colonial era, and then propagandistically reinterpreted by the two competing Vietnamese states throughout thirty years of civil and revolutionary war. Soon after the North Vietnamese tanks rolled triumphantly into Saigon in 1975, strained relations between Beijing and Hanoi developed into an outright war that re-politicized the distant and recent Sino-Vietnamese past. During the ten years that followed, the Vietnamese state was entangled in sporadic skirmishes with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), along with a costly and bloody Cambodian occupation, which combined to solidify hatred toward the “eternal enemy” across the northern border. Then, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, a secretive September 1990 conference was held in the Chinese city of Chengdu, precipitating an unexpected about-face. An agreement on removing Vietnamese troops from Cambodia was reached, a path to Sino-Vietnamese normalization was opened up, and the preceding ten years of open warfare were scrubbed from official media, leaving the Vietnamese national position on China in disarray. A subsequent essay to be published in the third issue of Chuang will then analyze the actions of reform-era dissidents and the multiplying conspiracy theories that have emerged since the Chengdu Conference against the backdrop of the global economic reorganization that has taken place since 1980.

These otherwise marginal conspiracy theories have taken on contemporary importance because of China’s rise to geopolitical prominence, and especially the correlated shifts in the geography of global commodity production that have occurred in the wake of the Great Recession. By 2013, combined FDI into the five largest ASEAN economies had already surpassed FDI into China, with low-wage Vietnam one of the premier sites for global textile and apparel manufacturing.[13] These investors include Chinese firms, which are moving production abroad to flee the rise of domestic costs such as wages. If, in line with Vietnamese practice, one includes Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau under the umbrella of “Chinese investments,” then China is by far the largest investor in Vietnam, with $56 billion USD invested in 4,759 projects as of 2016—more than a quarter of GDP.[14] While mainland China accounted for only about $10 billion of the total, the division is somewhat artificial, as non-mainland firms make heavy use of mainland employees and managers, and are associated with China in the popular imagination.[15] Furthermore, the outflow of capital is accelerating because of the US-China trade dispute, which has prompted Guangdong manufacturers to prioritize already existing plans to diversify production into the lower wage countries of Southeast Asia to avoid US tariffs.[16]

Yet instead of allaying popular Sinophobia, Chinese investments appear to have actually intensified it, as mainland-affiliated projects have been notoriously plagued by huge cost overruns, relatively high interest loans, ballooning public debt, and especially favorable breaks from tax and environmental regulations—feeding popular suspicions of corrupt backroom deals between the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties at the people’s expense. A few notable examples are illustrative: The Cat Linh-Ha Dong Metro line in Hanoi, Vietnam’s first metro, has gone more than forty percent over budget and is buried under interest payments from the $669 million worth of loans taken from China EximBank.[17] The metro still hasn’t opened, yet already appears outdated. Even more controversial have been the Chinalco-invested Central Highlands bauxite mines, which initially received unprecedented public criticism on environmental, economic, and national defense grounds in 2010. So far the two mines have eaten up nearly $1.4 billion USD. This is already more than twice the originally projected cost, and yet the mines show little prospect of ever achieving profitability. These astounding financial losses are in no small part due to relatively antiquated and uncompetitive technology installed by the Chinese contractor, which, in addition, pollutes more than contemporary global standards.[18] More recently, the Vĩnh Tân Electrical Center in Bình Thuận, a coal plant that is 95% Chinese funded, is staffed by a small city of mainland Chinese workers, and its pollution has obliterated the domestic fishing and aquaculture industries. Nationwide popular protests broke out against proposed special economic zones near the plant in early June 2018. Opposition to the plant escalated into violent skirmishes in which protestors set fire to provincial government buildings, beating and capturing security forces.[19] Testifying to the unpopularity of Chinese-invested projects, the plant has now been placed under “Special Security Protection.”[20]

This all shows that popular Sinophobia in Vietnam is important because it indexes the increasingly precarious position of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, and therefore has implications for China’s continued expansion into Southeast Asia. This two-part series descibes the origins and explains the causes of widespread Vietnamese Sinophobia with three broader questions in mind: will the Party be able to accomadate Chinese expansion while economically developing, thereby vindicating the Sinophilic minority within both the ruling party and the population, or will popular Sinophobia win a mass base, form an effective vehicle for anti-regime activism led by liberal-democratic partisans, and further constrict state maneuvarability, or even lead to civil strife? Secondly, how do class positions and memories of the socialist period influence the character and prevalence of this Sinophobia? Finally, how does Vietnamese Sinophobia compare to similar ideologies in other parts of Southeast Asia, and what implications do these ideologies have for China’s geopolitical and economic expansion throughout the region? In order to approach these broader questions, we must first start at the surprisingly recent crystallization of a unified and distinctively Vietnamese nationalist perspective on China.


Early Civilization

Readers familiar with American wartime activist scholarship may take it for granted that the Vietnamese have long hated all things Chinese.[21] This misreading of the history, which from its origins was more about rebutting the “domino theory” than analyzing Sino-Vietnamese relations, obscures a delicate, if at times conflicted, partnership between the polities.

The first recorded settlements in the Red River Delta sprung up between 600 and 200 BCE. Radiocarbon dating puts the reinforced structures of Cổ Loa at 300 BCE, perhaps a sign of the first centralized economy capable of dominating surrounding settlements. Whatever the features of this civilization, it was soon conquered by a series of migrants from the North. In 111 BCE, the Han Empire officially incorporated the territory stretching from modern Guangdong to Thanh Hoá into the frontier commandery of Jiaozhi, where it remained, with some alterations, for a thousand years.[22]

Far from the center of power, the Han colonial project extracted goods such as pearls, ivory and lapis lazuli[23] through a diverse series of indigenous chieftain collaborators. As time passed, the Northern empires opened their armies, academies and administration to Jiaozhi’s best and brightest, further integrating the peripheral elite culture into the core. Indeed, men born in the Red River Delta would hold powerful positions throughout subsequent Northern administrations well into the 20th century.[24] This process, often glossed as “Sinicization,” involved mass technology transfer as the world’s most sophisticated farming techniques, record keeping practices, manufacturing expertise and political philosophies followed centuries of settlers to the polyglot, polymorphic Southern frontier. The social dynamic engendered by settlers, political incentives and economic centralization gave birth to an elite culture and language that came to dominate the administration of the more densely populated lowland and coastal settlements, while leaving difficult-to-access highland and scattered rural areas as reserves of precious forest goods. The elite culture that would eventually become Vietnamese had little in common with the vast linguistic and cultural diversity nominally administered by the state. Nevertheless, elite members of the governing apparatus defined the culture of the Việt (Ch: Yuè) imperial system, and aspects of their pre-modern self-identification would be reconfigured into the 20th century nation.

However, one should not overstate the degree of integration and consistency in premodern Việt elite culture. There were lengthy civil wars between powerful ruling families with significant regional differences in economy and court culture. At times, different Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian traditions predominated among elites, and plenty of borrowing also took place from the neighboring non-sinitic competitors of Angkor, Siam and Champa. The regional variation grew as Việt settlers percolated south and eventually conquered Cham and Khmer territories, subduing the Mekong Delta on the eve of French colonization in the mid-19th century. Despite these variations, the Việt elite were firmly planted in the East Asian cultural sphere.


Pre-Colonial Visions of “The North” 

Nationalist historiography roots the consolidation of an independent Vietnamese polity in the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, when decades of intermittent conflict fractured the Red River Delta. In 968 Đinh Bộ Lĩnh wrested control of the area from local warlords, becoming the leader of Greater Viet (Đại Việt). Though declaring himself emperor, he was only recognized as “Commandery Prince” (quận vương) by the Song Dynasty (960-1279).[25] A tributary relationship was established, and despite brief conflicts, maintained until the French colonial era. In the 12th century the Song upgraded this title to “king” (quốc vương), prompting court annalists to write and rewrite the Việt genealogical relation to the northern dynasties in an attempt to ground imperial sovereignty in Việt sharing of civilized Northern habits, knowledge, and an advantageous geomantic configuration.

Far from writing their history as one of popular resistance to the North’s colonial subjugation, annalists familiar with northern sources and precepts turned to the northern canon to fashion a political identity based on a genetic lineage to the northern dynasties through Shennong, a mythical founder of “Chinese” civilization. According to the elite Việt worldview elaborated in the premodern era, civilization and morals were brought south by virtuous Northern individuals, and the process was codified in heavenly signs that legitimized the Southern Kingdom as a new locus of civilization with its own powerful geomantic currents that in turn generated venerable Southern individuals.[26]

Despite the fact that many of these talented individuals are now celebrated for their exemplary bravery in patriotically battling  “Chinese” invaders, previous rulers of the Southern kingdoms originally promoted their deification with different purposes in mind. For example, Trần Hưng Đạo, Vietnam’s most revered hero, renowned for defeating the Yuan Dynasty’s Mongol forces in a riverine ambush in 1288, was previously celebrated for his strict adherence to ideals of royal and filial loyalty.[27] Even when his martial prowess was celebrated, he would be compared to Northern generals. As late as the 19th century, martial shrines (võ miếu) were constructed to celebrate such exemplary militarists. While Trần Hưng Đạo was granted first position among the Southern generals, he was still subordinated to personages “from the ‘Northern Court’ (Bắc Triều), [such] as Guan Zhong, Zhang Liang, Han Xin, Zhuge Liang, Li Jing, Guo Ziyi, and Yue Fei.”[28] Subordinating Trần Hưng Đạo in this manner proves that his exemplary qualities did not include opposition to “China.” On the contrary, he was exemplary because he mirrored qualities most perfectly exhibited by his Northern counterparts. In sum, historical figures celebrated in present Vietnam for patriotic, anti-colonial, and anti-Chinese purposes have a long history of acting as both efficacious regional deities and state-promoted tutelary personages for popular moral rectification, but their promotion as patriotic heroes was a development of the colonial and revolutionary period. In the early 20th century, the metaphysical foundation for a consubstantial yet inferior relation with the North dissolved as reformers found themselves thrust into a world of competing nations caught in a zero-sum survival of the fittest.


Colonial Reformers

This cosmological-political system was thrown hopelessly out of synchronization in the mid-19th century. One hundred years before, in the mid-18th Century, the Việt lands were nominally under the authority of the Lê emperor, but effectively controlled by two rival warlord families: the Trịnh in the north, and the Nguyễn in the south. The Nguyễn were hopelessly engaged in expansionist operations into the disputed frontier marshes of the Mekong Delta: a key Southeast Asian rice basket that fed cash-cropping and construction activities around the Nguyễn political center in Huế.[29] In the late 17th century the Qing had lifted the ban on direct trade with Japan and limited trade in Southeast Asia, precipitating a long crisis in the Nguyễn’s raw material export industry. The Nguyễn disasterously sought to make up for the shortfall by overvaluing its zinc currency, and when that proved catastrophic, by bringing more of the highlands into taxation, increasing corvée, and compelling rice traders to deliver at below market rates. The stresses were concentrated at the midway port town of Quy Nhơn, triggering the 1770 Tây Sơn rebellion: a highlander-affiliated provincial revolt led by Nguyễn Huệ (no relation to the ruling dynasty) that metastasized into all-out war and eventually forced the sole surviving Nguyễn heir to flee, while obliterating the Trịnh and Lê royal families.

The Tây Sơn army sought to further expand its power northward and capitalize on a defeat of the pro-Lê Qing Empire forces by sending an expeditionary force to annex Guangxi and Guangdong. Meanwhile, the Nguyễn Dynasty’s last surviving heir, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, exploited the Tây Sơn’s preoccupation with northern conquest by allying with a Siamese effort to seize the Khmer territories and reclaim the Mekong Delta.[30] Tây Sơn leader Nguyễn Huệ’s unexpected death in 1792 left his fledgling regime in a succession crisis, while Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s multinational coalition of mercenaries steadily reclaimed and consolidated vast swaths of the southern delta, dividing and conquering the Tây Sơn zones and uniting territory under the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802.

French naval officers provided pivotal training, fortification engineering, weapons sourcing, and battle commanding functions for Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s reconquest. However, the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars prevented an intimate role by the French state, and the Frenchmen involved remained loyal to Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, eventually establishing Vietnamese families and assimilating into Vietnamese society.[31] The aloof attitude of the French state shifted as inter-imperial competition intensified during the French Second Empire (1852-1870). Bristling at increasing European intervention at the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s son, Emperor Minh Mạng, combined a policy of political and cultural centralization with an unprecedentedly virulent anti-Christian propaganda campaign that depicted the faithful as agents of Western imperialism. By the 1850s, the anti-western sentiment had swollen into rolling pogroms against local Christian communities, while overtures for trade relations made by French monopoly trading houses, financed by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, were flatly rejected by the justifiably suspicious Nguyễn regime.[32] Unperturbed by the hostility, Louis Napoleon’s naval forces had already begun scouring the Chinese coast for paths into the interior, and rescuing persecuted Christians proved a convenient justification to the less-than-pious French naval officers looking for a river route into the prosperous markets of the Yangtze Plain, which would allow them to circumvent British dominance of the Pearl River Delta.

The Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-1853) intensified French fears of being beaten to a southern route to the Chinese interior. In 1858 the French were repelled at Đà Nẵng, and shifted their attack to Saigon, which they annexed through the treaty of the same name in 1862. By 1874 they had annexed the rest of the Mekong Plain and Cambodia, sending expeditions upriver in search of a water route to Yunnan, China. When the upper Mekong proved unnavigable, they turned their sights to the Red River, bisecting Hanoi. Unrest in the Metropole during the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune (1870-1871) delayed official support for what were increasingly adventurist activities of untethered naval commanders in a European dash for Asian territory.[33] French entrepreneurs, especially the Lyon silk industry, emerged as powerful competitors on the global commercial stage.[34] The Third Republic, anxious to grab a share of the Asian pie, seized the whole of what would become Indochina, formally ending Qing vassalage by forcing a protectorate on the Nguyễn Dynasty in the 1883 Treaty of Hue. From 1885 to 1889, the last spasm of open royalist resistance to French conquest fizzled out in the malarial hills, as a contingent of renegade scholar-generals led by Phan Đinh Phùng preferred death to recognition of French control over the court. Eventually they succumbed to disease, hunger and betrayal as dynastic revanchism proved unable to rally sufficient sympathy from lowland compatriots and hostile highland polities.


Discovering Vietnam and Vietnamese Heroes

The old cosmology, like the tributary regime that anchored it, did not vanish overnight. Nevertheless, from 1900 to 1930 a sea change occurred in intellectual debates, increasingly dominated by reformers and revolutionaries who viewed the once celebrated Northern customs as backward, feudal and, most importantly, a threat to the continued existence of what was increasingly seen as the Vietnamese nation. Ironically, this anti “feudal” attitude wasn’t promoted by the French colonizers, who propped up the defanged Nguyễn Dynasty well into the revolutionary period (1945-1954), but by Chinese literati reformers and their Vietnamese admirers. Soon after the turn of the century, nationalist and Social Darwinist ideas flooded into Indochina through the East Asian circuits travelled by tireless literati activists like Phan Bội Châu, who first read essays by Chinese nationalist Liang Qichao while in Saigon, and then spent the next few decades in and out of prisons while travelling between Japan and South China. Châu exhorted young Vietnamese to “go east” (đông du) and study Meiji examples, while he collaborated with Liang, Sun Yat-sen and others on diplomatic, propagandist, and military recruitment missions.[35] The connection to the Sinosphere remained crucial, as the debates prevalent in Indochina were replicas of those propagated by the late Qing modernizers. Indeed, Liang Qichao himself inspired, introduced, and published Châu’s influential History of the Loss of Vietnam (Việt Nam vong quốc sử): a text first circulated in China to warn young patriots about the fate of nations who succumb to colonial domination, a fear voiced by the Chinese revolutionaries of 1911, who chanted, “Only one thing makes us afraid: losing all hope of recovery like Annam.”[36]

Part and parcel of these debates were a slew of concepts that increasingly framed the world in terms of territorially bound ethnic nations locked in a timeless battle for survival. Neologisms such as “fatherland” (Vn: Tổ Quốc, Ch: zuguo),  “patriotism” (Vn: Ái quốc, Ch: aiguo), “democracy” (Vn: Dân chủ, Ch: minzhu), “republic” (Vn: Cộng hoà, Ch: gonghe) and “compatriot” (Vn: Đồng bào, Ch: tongbao) initially entered Vietnamese, not through French, but through the Chinese reformers exiled in Japan.[37] While giants like Phan Bội Châu loom large, the grunt work of popularization was accomplished by a slew of literati education reformers who promoted “modern” textbooks on subjects like geography and history. These scholars reimagined the dynastic annals and geomantic configurations with the explicit intention to foster a popular nationalist consciousness. In so doing, they hoisted the old Southern tutelary deities up from their previous subordination to Northern models, and invested these newfound “heroes” (Vn: anh thư, Ch: yingci) with the national character: a supposedly two thousand year old anti-colonial tradition. These new heroic configurations were screens bearing the projections of elite Việt panic over the prospect of racial extinction. Nevertheless they were subsequently inherited by both the Republican and Communist states.[38] When the Cold War inflated what might have been a relatively small anti-colonial and civil war into a horrific proxy war, the two rival states contested each other’s revolutionary pedigree by drawing on examples presented by their recently minted heroic ancestors. While the Communists portrayed Ho Chi Minh as the next generation’s exemplary hero, Republicans pointed to Hanoi’s reliance on China to portray their enemies as collaborators with a new wave of Northern invaders.


Communist Connections, Chinese Aid, and Vietnamese War Communism

Nguyễn Sinh Cung, the man later known as Ho Chi Minh, was only one of countless activists from the colonial world who gathered at Versailles in 1919 to submit a futile petition in hopes of realizing Woodrow Wilson’s hollow advocacy for national self-determination. An erstwhile advocate for a more humane colonial patronage, over the next two years, Ho, like many of his peers, grew disillusioned with the reformist agenda and became radicalized in the postwar Parisian atmosphere. Lenin’s Colonial Theses, published in L’Humanité, affected him deeply. And he had good company, brushing shoulders with the likes of Zhou Enlai, Li Lisan, Deng Xiaoping, as well as activists from Madagascar, Algeria and Dahomey, with whom he published an anti-colonial newspaper called Le Paria. When, in December 1920, the French Communists broke with the Second International, Ho followed, becoming a founding member of the French Communist Party. In 1923 the Comintern invited him to Moscow, and in late 1924 he was sent to Guangzhou as a communications specialist. Once there, he founded the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, which published communist and anti-colonial tracts to be smuggled into Vietnamese Indochina, where they found a receptive audience among the nascent patriotic student movement.[39]

The Indochinese communists were part of the global revolutionary movement, which officially had its nerve center in Moscow, but had its Asian base in Southern China. The Guomindang’s (KMT) 1927 violent turn against the CCP forced the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League to close, pushing Ho into Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, while he busily set about organizing parties in Malaya, Laos, Thailand, and perhaps Cambodia, the communist organizations within Indochina continued to grow independently of Comintern oversight, albeit in fits and starts due to periodic mass arrests. In 1929, the Comintern’s Far Eastern Bureau (FEB), based in Shanghai, began to push local communists to reorganize into Comintern-approved communist parties. This work was primarily done through the Nanyang Committees: Comintern-affiliated anti-imperial revolutionary organizations established during the First KMT-CCP United Front Period (1923-1927) and dominated by communists from the Chinese diaspora, who sought to organize and unite fellow diaspora with indigenous communists in such far-flung lands as San Francisco, Cuba, Peru, and Malaya, to name a few places where the Committees were active.[40]

For the Vietnamese, this effort culminated in the establishment of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in Hong Kong in the Spring of 1930. Led by Trần Phú, with Ho as Comintern liaison, the party’s founding coincided with a communist-led peasant rebellion and the establishment of soviets in the North-Central Provinces of Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh. Not only was the rebellion locally ratified without approval from the nominal center based in South China. The somewhat adventurist rebellion may have even been coordinated by Li Lisan’s agents in the Nanyang Committees, which were just rolled into the ICP, and were brimming with Chinese communists who had fled the KMT crackdowns a few years prior. This disastrous episode testifies to the way the Indochinese communist movement, from its earliest days, was not only linked to the Chinese communist movement via its bases in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but was also linked at the quasi-independent locales through the Nanyang Committees.

The Nghệ Tĩnh soviets were brutally crushed by French airpower, triggering a colony-wide crackdown on political radicals and sending a generation of revolutionaries into colonial prisons, themselves proving an effective incubator for the radical ideas that would later strangle French colonial power in Asia.[41] Ho fled back to Moscow, but others weren’t so lucky. Many in the Central Committee were arrested in Hong Kong in 1931. While a renewed surge of leftist radicalism overtook the colony, this time centered around Saigon, Ho was sidelined in Moscow, undergoing self-criticism and reeducation for promoting a united front strategy while the party line was emphasizing “class struggle.”

Ho’s path changed course again in the early 1940s. Ascendant European fascism and Japanese militarism caused Moscow to renew united front tactics. The French Third Republic fell to the Wehrmacht, and the resulting axis-aligned Vichy government was forced to allow Japan to station troops throughout Indochina, ruling the colony through a fragile co-governing arrangement. Inspired by wartime shortages and France’s humiliation at having capitulated to a nation of the supposedly inferior “Asian race,” the Southern Uprising (Nam kỳ khởi nghĩa) shook the Mekong Delta in late November 1940. Yet another brutal crackdown followed in its wake, this time effectively neutralizing the Southern communists. Fortuitously for Ho, he was back in Southern China to assist in the Second CCP-KMT United Front (1937-1941) just as the center of Vietnamese communism shifted from Cochinchina into the frontier highlands on the Yunnan border.[42] It was from here, especially after the March1945 Japanese internment of French colonists, that the ICP-led Vietminh solidified and expanded into a formidable guerrilla force with a large presence and widespread support in the densely populated rural Red River Delta, where they acted as OSS (Office of Strategic Services, a US intelligence agency) liaisons to reconnoiter and sabotage the Japanese occupation, providing famine relief to the beleagured countryside by raiding Japanese grain stores.

With the French in prison, Japanese surrender in August immediately precipitated an anti-colonial insurrection. The Vietminh organizations, being the most disciplined military and political force in the territory, was best situated to capitalize on the mayhem, sweeping in to capture administrative centers throughout the country and establish the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), cementing their reputation as steadfast nationalists with connections to the victorious allied forces and untarnished by collaboration with the defeated Japanese.[43] Nevertheless, the Allied leaders convened at the Potsdam Conference had already decided that the surrender of Japanese controlled Indochina would be accepted by Chiang Kai-shek in the North and Britain in the South. Regional divergences intensified as the KMT recognized de facto Vietminh authority in the North, while the British deferred to the French and stood by as they overthrew and exterminated the local Vietminh apparatus to regain a foothold. Fearful of a KMT-backed anti-communist coup, the ICP officially dissolved from 1945 until 1951, when they were reestablished as the Vietnamese Workers’ Party (VWP).[44] They still secretly dominated the state administration, and local anti-communist nationalists weren’t fooled, but in an ironic twist, international communist allies began to seriously doubt the Vietminh’s communist credentials.[45] The suspicion was exacerbated by the fact that, after the French recaptured the lowlands in 1946, the Vietminh were once again pushed into the Yunnan border region, and almost completely cut off from the world communist movement. Indeed, Stalin was so concerned with maintaining French communist competitiveness in Europe that he couldn’t risk denouncing the nation’s colonial reconquest in Southeast Asia, even to the point that he advocated for Indonesian independence while ignoring the Vietnamese.

The CCP, on the other hand, provided much needed aid to the struggling and isolated Vietminh, despite being preoccupied by full-blown Civil War. By July 1947 nearly a thousand officers, soldiers, specialists and intelligence agents had received training at the behest of the Guangxi Vietnam Border Interim Working Committee.[46] This trickle grew to a flood when diplomatic relations were established in January of 1950, and a steadily increasing flow of arms and advisors proved decisive in the Vietminh shift from a stalemate guerrilla insurgency in the far-flung highland frontiers to set-piece attacks on French positions and eventual victory at Điện Biên Phủ.[47]

Chinese advisors like Chen Geng, Wei Guoqing and Luo Guibo did not just teach military tactics and select strategic targets, they also presided over a complete makeover of the DRV’s state, party and military organization. In anticipation of a shift from guerrilla war toward “General Counteroffensive” (tổng phản công), a Political Advisory Group was established to act as the civilian compliment to the Chinese Military Advisory Group. This consisted of over 100 Chinese advisors who consulted directly with Ho on a range of issues including finance, security, culture, party consolidation and land reform. Class struggle education spread throughout the military and mass organizations, where criticism/self-criticism sessions for petty bourgeois class standpoints were scheduled at regular intervals.[48] The social pressure of these marathon group interrogation sessions is difficult to exaggerate. During one rectification drive, for example, all four thousand new recruits of the Army Officer School in Yunnan confessed to working for “the enemy,” with some so distraught that they committed suicide. With Chinese aid freeing the party from a reliance on the financial support of the indigenous bourgeoisie and landlords, training in class struggle intensified, and pretenses of a united front were gradually dropped. Men and women recently deemed the “patriotic bourgeoisie and landlords” for contributing to the resistance war were now increasingly described as “evil” (ác bá), “traitorous” (gian) and “reactionary” (phản động). In early 1953, pilot rent reduction programs were carried out by a parallel branch of specially trained cadres with close collaboration between top VWP leaders and their CCP advisors. A slew of propagandist literary works, both Vietnamese originals and translations from Chinese, were circulated in anticipation of the rent reduction and land reform campaigns that soon swept North Vietnam in a whirlwind of purgative show trials, coupled with famine.[49]

The land reform campaign should be understood as a final step in the consolidation of authority that began with the explosion of PRC aid and advisors in 1950. The early stages of preliminary rent reduction and plans for land reform were first carried out in the liberated zones during preparations for the fateful siege of the French base nestled in the distant mountains of Điện Biên Phủ—the largest battle in colonial history.[50] The timing was no coincidence: land reform was the conclusion of the abovementioned reorganization designed to squeeze an increasing ratio of loyalty from critically strained resources. Previous emulation campaigns proved insufficient to rouse enough peasant enthusiasm for death by napalm, dysentery and machine gun fire. Party General Secretary Trường Chinh made the connection explicit: “Despite the Party’s exhortations, a number of peasants have revealed a sluggish attitude (uể oải), they do not enthusiastically produce, they do not enthusiastically volunteer for military service. [… The party] must free the peasants from the feudal yoke, it must assist the peasants, in order to mobilize.”[51] Despite enjoying widespread approval, eight bloody years of war had taken its toll. By coupling the promise of land with menacing summary executions of “traitors” and “feudalists,” land reform was a carrot-and-stick policy that both stimulated flagging support among the peasantry and terrorized potential resistance.

It was also a necessary addendum to the “labor mobilizing policy” passed a few months prior, which automatically enrolled all men and women aged 18 to 50 into a civilian porter program. The incentives of special status, financial support, and family support were reinforced by mandatory prison sentences for draft dodgers. Lacking suitable roads and susceptible to French air power, the war effort depended on an outrageous number of civilians to carry supplies through the forest by foot. This peaked with the battle at Điện Biên Phủ, where 261,451 civilian porters carried artillery pieces, munitions, medicines and food supplies by backpack and bicycle deep into the mountainous, malarial, snake-filled jungles of the far-flung Laotian border. Between 1950 and 1954, the DRV mobilized 1.7 million civilian porters—one fifth of the population— in a total of 53.8 million work-days. Mortality from enemy fire, and especially disease, was astoundingly high, and morale plummeted.[52] By the end of Điện Biên Phủ, the DRV was one of the most militarized societies on earth, a trend that would continue during the even bloodier “American War.”

The pressure cooker of international Cold War strategic interests caused the nascent DRV to crystallize as a lopsided rural war machine. Only seven percent of the North Vietnamese population lived in urban areas in 1954.[53] The Geneva Conference agreements for population movement saw another 850,000 flee to the South, most from the more densely populated former French-controlled zones where International Control Commission staff oversight was able to prevent DRV agents from impeding flight.[54] Land reform was followed by cooperativization campaigns and military-led infrastructure and industrial projects focused in rural areas near the northern border.[55] Restrictions on rural migration, which had long been enacted by French colonial tax and worker identification requirements, were greatly expanded with the universal implementation of a PRC-inspired hộ khẩu (Ch: hukou) household registration system in 1960.[56] This was paired with detailed personal files (lý lịch) that recorded class background, daily habits, familial political affiliations and whatever gossip was deemed relevant by the local police, immobilizing the population and creating a tier system for access to goods and services: necessary tools to ensure rural families displayed sufficient patriotism by providing “volunteer soldiers” to infiltrate the South.

The first Five-Year Plan (1960) also established population resettlement schemes designed to spread people evenly over the terrain and combat food shortages by bringing new land under cultivation. In 1965, US President Johnson responded to political instability in South Vietnam by authorizing strategic bombing of the North and mass deployment of American troops in the South. This further accelerated de-urbanization and stunted industrial growth, as what little concentrations of population and industry that did exist soon became prime targets for the gargantuan air power mobilized by the US. Five hundred thousand more people were evacuated from the cities, and industry was further decentralized, making the period from 1954 to 1973 one of zero urban growth.[57]

North Vietnamese society was able to survive the bombings and continue waging war in the South because of the military and consumer goods provided by the PRC, and, increasingly under Kosygin’s leadership after 1965, the Soviet Union. From 1965 to 1967, aid made up sixty percent of the DRV’s annual budget.[58] PRC aid continued to climb during the Sino-Soviet split as the two nations competed for influence over the DRV. Though the USSR contributed high-price items like petroleum, high-tech weapons systems, specialist personnel and advanced equipment, China surpassed the total value of Soviet aid and loans through the massive contribution of less expensive items like food, clothing, medicine, engineers and even hundreds of thousands of soldier-laborers.








With the costs of social reproduction heavily subsidized by the PRC, DRV society dug into a holding pattern of wartime mobilization where the scaling-up of cooperatives, tightening of workplace discipline, and restrictions on black market activity were postponed to ensure that rural morale remained sufficient to allow a steady stream of recruits despite the shortage of agricultural and manufacturing goods.[59] The civilian porter system organized for the French War was dwarfed by the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail. By 1975 this network, composed of more than 16,700 kilometers of gravel and paved highway along with 5,000 kilometers of fuel pipeline, honeycombed the borderland high-canopy jungles of Laos and Cambodia.[60] The roads carried more than 1.5 million soldiers and millions of tons of weapons. More than 2.2 million small arms, 43,000 anti-tank weapons, 10 million uniforms, and 10,000 vehicles were contributed by the PRC, with an additional estimated $85 million USD per year in economic assistance.[61] Generally speaking, socialist bloc aid allowed Vietnamese war communism to develop into a streamlined system for delivering Northern peasants, bearing Chinese weapons, to strike targets inside South Vietnam.[62]


China and the Two Vietnams

Vietnamese Communists built their national image upon fin-de-siècle nationalist histories and were conceptually torn between nationalist and class-based poles of analysis. Between these poles, the movement to “save the nation” and embrace “martyrdom for the fatherland” tended to eclipse the more sublime and difficult-to-mobilize identification with an international proletariat. Unable or unwilling to reimagine the essentially “Việt” subject of national liberation, a complicated and contradictory position vis-à-vis their Chinese comrades developed, as the received history of “Chinese” domination over Việt self-determination had to be reconciled with a renewed reliance on northern socio-political models, military support and economic aid. Their Saigon-based competitors faced no such contradiction and were free to frame the Vietnamese Communists as collaborators with a renewed Chinese imperial project. In the South, the term “northern invaders” could be shorthand for both Hanoi and Beijing.

The dilemma facing Hanoi is evident in the editorial tendencies of the party-state’s flagship historical journal, Language-History-Geography (Văn-Sử-Địa), renamed Historical Research (Nghiên cứu lịch sử ) in 1959. In its early years, the journal closely followed historiographical debates taking place in the PRC, investigated Chinese historical figures for inspiration, debated links between the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions, and engaged in comparative work between the countries. One article in particular shows how Communist scholars reconciled the tension between nationalist historiography and proletarian values, “The Historical Relationship between Vietnam and China” by Trần Huy Liệu.[63] The article preempts charges of cooperating with the timeless enemy to the north by emphasizing the class nature of previous waves of expansionism, where the Chinese “feudalists” who invaded Vietnam had been simultaneously oppressing their own “people” (nhân dân) in a similar manner. Now that the two nations’ feudalists had been overthrown, the common people of each could become united in proletarian brotherhood against American imperialism.

Besides being an accomplished scholar and the journal’s chief editor, Trần Huy Liệu also held such official positions as General Secretary of the Vietminh, Chief Minister of Information and Propaganda (in the 1945 Provisional Government), Chairman of the National Salvation Cultural Association (precursor to the various intellectual and artistic mass organizations), and Deputy Chairman of the China-Viet Friendship Society. His article, then, is not the opinion of a young scholar seeking recognition, but of a seasoned official responsible for Sino-Vietnamese relations. It was published in 1966, amidst a crescendo of “anti-revisionist” sentiment and a decidedly pro-Chinese stance on the Sino-Soviet dispute.[64] The article is exemplary in its attempt to resolve the paradox of Viet historiography, namely: how to reconcile the continued reliance on Chinese aid and socioeconomic, military, political and philosophical models, on the one hand, with  nationalist historiography’s excavation of a Viet essence from layered centuries of opposition to Chinese imperial schemes, on the other.

The Republican government in Saigon faced no such dilemma. Just as Hanoi’s propaganda sought to paint that regime as the offspring of French compradors with newfound careers as puppets of American imperialism, the Southerners recast themselves as true inheritors of the nationalist historiography’s two-millennia tradition of resistance to Northern aggression. Former tutelary deities were transmuted into national heroes, anchoring new rituals and agitprop that collapsed both North Vietnam and “Red China” (Trung Cộng) into a single invading force poised against an authentic Vietnamese way of life. For example, the 1962 inauguration of a new statue of the Trưng Sisters, first ranking among the nation’s women warriors of lore, drew strong parallels between ancient opposition to Northern invaders and the current conflict with the Communists. RVN first lady Trần Lệ Xuân explained in her speech that the elder sister Trưng Trắc “faces north […] with a sword half drawn from her scabbard, she stands ready to march forward into battles.” Trần Lệ Xuân then condemned both the “howling communist wolves” and the “Free World’s […] pseudo-liberalism,” the latter for refusing to recognize that rural insecurity resulted from the superior military power of the Communists, “who pour all their material means into war purposes instead of peace purposes.”[65]


Figure 4 “Follow the example of Trần Hưng Đạo. All people unite to fight the communists and save the nation”


As we might expect, this emphasis extended to the Saigon Government’s propaganda campaigns. A 1968 leaflet distributed in the Mekong Delta, for example, likened the Communists to the 13th century Mongols: northern invaders to be overcome by national solidarity led by the medieval prince Trần Hưng Đạo, now under the Republican flag.[66] A similar leaflet, dropped from planes over North Vietnam between 1969-1972, was even more explicit: “All Vietnamese honor Trần Hưng Đạo on his feast day. The Spirit of Trần Hưng Đạo would not tolerate the Workers’ Party bringing the elephant [of the North] to trample the tomb of our ancestors.”[67] Another airdropped leaflet made use of the celebrated rebel Nguyễn Huệ (Quang Trung), who in 1788 defeated the Qing forces sent to reinstate the crumbling Lê Dynasty. The leaflet references the use of Chinese military assistance as a national betrayal, accusing the Communists of similarly “receiving support from our eternal enemy to the North, who is directly commanding and supporting a war against the Southern people.”[68]

Whereas Hanoi propaganda also claimed inheritance of the New Historiography’s two thousand year anti-colonial tradition, it could not so seamlessly associate current events with “Chinese domination.” Instead, Hanoi linked the anti-colonial spirit of Vietnamese heroes to contemporary, and distinctly Stakhanovite, anti-French and later anti-American counterparts.[69] Yet beyond just refraining from criticism, documents recovered from Communist guerrillas occasionally included pro-Chinese propaganda. For example, one book published in 1965, titled China: Faithful friend struggling beside the Vietnamese people, blood brother to the people of the South,[70] emphasizes close connections between the Vietnamese and Chinese revolutions, the vast economic aid China had provided in the North’s industrialization effort, and widespread demonstrations across Chinese cities, where “4,300 letters from all over arrived at the Vietnamese embassy, emphasizing that ‘when needed, the Chinese youth are ready to enter the battlefield and help Vietnam.” Another recovered book, called Thank you China: Friend in the same foxhole,[71] includes over fifty pages of encouraging poems and essays from Chinese authors dedicated to the Vietnamese revolution. Ominously foreshadowing current troubles in the South China Sea, one newspaper recovered from a captured guerilla contained propaganda lauding Chinese oil drilling operations, and even featured a map acknowledging what is currently known as “the 9 dash line” of Chinese maritime claims.[72]

In sum, both Communists and anti-Communists inherited colonial-era nationalist conceptions of Vietnamese history first pioneered by the literati reformers and traceable to Liang Qichao’s New Historiography. The Communists increasingly relied on Chinese aid, which made them vulnerable to propaganda that framed them as traitors to the nation’s “eternal enemy.” The South too was hopelessly dependent not only on US aid, but also on hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the US and its allies, making them vulnerable to propaganda discrediting their own nationalist credentials. Whereas the South denounced the French colonists and grudgingly accepted their American patrons, the North celebrated their Chinese comrades as proletarian brothers mutually freed from the oppressive bonds of “feudal” society and united against American imperialism as their new common enemy. It is difficult to say how ordinary people in the North evaluated Chinese assistance, but it seems unlikely that Vietnamese Communists could escape this period without being clearly associated with the CCP. After the relationship between the two countries soured in the late 1960s, the Vietnamese Communists would abandon admiration of Chinese proletarian internationalism and fall back on propagandizing against the “eternal enemy” of the Vietnamese people, inadvertently contaminating themselves with collaboration.

Breaking Up

After victory over the French at Điên Biên Phủ in 1954, Vietnamese Communist approval of the Chinese model was at an all-time high. With the help of an advisory team composed of Chinese veterans of the anti-Japanese and Civil Wars, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) had developed from a relatively small, jungle-marooned guerrilla outfit to a multi-division regular force triumphantly marching through a flurry of confetti into the once invulnerable halls of colonial power. The land reform “excesses,” which forced Trường Chinh to symbolically step down and Hồ Chí Minh to make a tearful if melodramatic apology, might have first planted the seeds of doubt. But after the 1953 death of Stalin and the ensuing 1956 attack on his cult of personality triggered a rupture between the PRC and the USSR, corresponding cleavages opened among VWP artists, intellectuals and apparatchiks.

The key cultural, economic and military debates were polarized by the growing Sino-Soviet split. A 1956 literary controversy known as the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm Affair followed on the heels of Khrushchev’s acknowledgement of Stalinist excess. For a few months, reformist intellectuals drew courage from the riots in the Eastern Bloc and the Chinese Hundred Flowers Campaign to demand more intellectual freedom. When the latter shifted into the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the VWP followed in lockstep, denouncing, reeducating and arresting any would-be reformers. However, while the CCP and VWP largely agreed over cultural policies, the two parties diverged in economic thought. When Beijing launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the VWP refused to follow suit, believing that Vietnam wasn’t prepared to form agricultural communes, and perhaps also concerned that another major reform in the wake of the recent land reform disaster would precipitate widespread resistance. Nevertheless, party debates over controversial agricultural measures, which sought to remedy flagging production by turning a blind eye to the reintroduction of peasant smallholder mechanisms, continued throughout the 1960s.[73] Could socialist agricultural relations of production, in the form of rural cooperatives with strict production quotas and work-points, precede the technological basis for mass production? Or should spontaneous private smallholder production be tolerated as a stopgap measure to develop a requisite level of technological development and expertise? This debate had geopolitical implications against the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of advisors and specialists from the PRC, and the subsequent privileging of the “red” over the “expert.”

On the military front, Khrushchev’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” had internally divided the Vietnamese party between the more hawkish “South-firsters,” who sought immediate military unification, and the more dovish “North-firsters,” who wished to focus resources on rebuilding the North.[74] Faced with Ho Chi Minh’s failing health, the General Secretary Lê Duẩn’s South-firsters overcame the more cautious advocates of military modernization, led by General Võ Nguyên Giáp. Because this ideological cleavage roughly corresponded to the Sino-Soviet split, Lê Duẩn’s consolidation of power entailed the systematic purging of Soviet-affiliated party members. By 1963 the campaign against “modern revisionism” was unfolding hand-in-glove with the wholesale suppression of pacifist elements within the party, military and mass organizations. Literary authors with nuanced positions on war were rusticated, dovish Soviet movies were banned, and more than fifty middle and high-ranking cadres defected to the Soviet Union. The highest ranking and most outspoken pro-Soviet, Dương Bạch Mai, died mysteriously, and a number of high-profile arrests were made. Vietnamese students abroad in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were ordered to return home for reeducation, and many refused. According to East Germany’s embassy records, the atmosphere in Hanoi at this time was so tense that civilians were arrested for even routine interactions with foreigners from the Soviet Bloc.[75] Although the split clearly loomed large in the VWP’s internal politics, the party never made a firm commitment to either side. Instead, they maintained a significant degree of independence while benefiting from the military aid doled out by the competing hegemons.

Unexpectedly, the break between the VWP and the CCP first took root during this crest of anti-Soviet sentiment. Khrushchev was ousted by Kosygin, who visited Hanoi in 1965, signaling renewed Soviet interest in the DRV unification effort. If Khrushchev’s ouster was the carrot, China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the stick. The chaos in the PRC came at the worst possible time for the VWP. A year before the upheaval in China began, the US bombed North Vietnam and put boots on the ground in the South. Although the renewed threat of US troops on the Chinese border drove an increase in aid from the PRC, the existential threat of American airpower brought a critical need for superior anti-aircraft weapons from the Soviet Union. The PRC was a critical logistics corridor for Soviet aid, and the widening split brought tighter PRC control over DRV-bound Soviet products. The USSR accused the PRC of purposefully delaying and even tampering with Vietnamese supplies.[76] This propaganda coup for the Soviet Union coincided with the Cultural Revolution, which besides making the PRC generally unreliable also decreased China’s relative share of aid.

It’s unclear exactly how or why, but clear conflicts between the erstwhile “comrades and brothers” soon percolated to the surface.[77] While the USSR and the DRV both advocated “united action” among socialist states to combat US imperialism in Southeast Asia, the PRC rejected cooperation, and Soviet aid transiting through Guangxi was occasionally looted by Red Guards. Mao Zedong pressured the DRV to oppose a “Soviet Peace plot,” PLA “volunteers” stationed in North Vietnam were disciplined for distributing propaganda, and Red Guards who “did not respect the rules” were crossing freely over the border, demanding to join the fight against the US.[78] In addition, personnel changes in the Beijing Foreign Ministry transformed embassies abroad into propaganda organs advocating popular revolution. This badly damaged PRC relations with other Southeast Asian states, but at this point it is unknown what took place in Hanoi. We do know that the Cultural Revolution divided the ethnic Chinese community, encouraging nationalist activism among Chinese-language schools in the North. The DRV cracked down by deporting such activists and abolishing Chinese as a language of instruction.[79] The break is also evident in the mass withdrawal of PLA “volunteers”: numbering 170,000 in 1965, by 1968 all of them had returned China. In addition, VWP suspicion of Chinese intentions in Laos, if muted before, were made clear when the Vietnamese responded to increased Chinese road-building activities by pressuring the Pathet Lao to isolate their China-affiliated members. This tug-of-war reached a crescendo of sorts with the 1971 assassination of Pathet Lao General, and critic of Hanoi, Phomma, causing several battalions of Pathet Lao forces to defect to Vientiane.[80]

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, a new balance of power had emerged in Southeast Asia. The military failure of the Tet Offensive in the Spring of 1968 was followed by Lon Nol’s coup against the Sihanouk regime, extending the US war into Cambodia and putting extreme pressure on Viet Cong supply lines into South Vietnam. To compensate, PAVN forces expanded deeper into Laos and Cambodia. This worried Beijing, which was confronted with the specter of a powerful, Moscow-friendly Hanoi dominating the Southeast Asian mainland and boxing in the PRC. The Sino-American rapprochement was born from this concern, among others.[81] China, who in 1968 had strongly opposed peace talks as a revisionist “plot,” now pressured the DRV to negotiate a settlement with Kissinger that recognized the Republican government in South Vietnam. Despite Beijing’s assurances that Vietnamese interests were being kept in mind, DRV officials strongly opposed this “Ping Pong Diplomacy.” One Hanoi official remarked that, “While Nixon gets his 21-gun salute in Peking, we’ll be giving him a different kind of salute in South Vietnam. There will be more than 21 guns. And they won’t be firing blanks.”[82] Hanoi’s suspicions of Beijing were communicated through a proposal to officially delineate the northern border, where sporadic battles began to break out between the two countries’ militaries as early as 1973. The PRC in turn cultivated relations with anti-Vietnamese elements within the Khmer Rouge, who captured Phnom Penh two weeks before the PAVN captured Saigon and quickly set about pressing irredentist claims for the return of the Mekong Delta. When the Vietnamese Party General Secretary Lê Duẩn sought reconstruction aid from Mao that September, he was rebuked: “Today, you are not the poorest under heaven. We are the poorest. We have a population of eight hundred million.” Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge received more than a billion dollars in assistance.[83]

The first signs of the South China Sea dispute also emerged during this period. In December 1973 the DRV wished to begin oil exploration in the Tonkin Gulf and requested to resolve maritime boundary disputes by holding the PRC to the 1887 Sino-French convention. This was promptly rejected by Beijing, who would have ceded two-thirds of the Tonkin Gulf under the deal. Even more damning for the VWP, the DRV had already publicly recognized China’s 1958 Declaration claiming maritime sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.[84] In 1974 the PRC attacked South Vietnamese positions in the Paracels. Though DRV officials didn’t publicly protest the Chinese attack, neither did they support it, instead coolly replying that, “Countries should settle disputes by negotiation and in a spirit of equality, mutual respect, and good-neighborliness.” As soon as the South Vietnamese military collapsed, however, the PAVN occupied the Spratly Islands, later describing China’s 1974 attack on the South Vietnamese Navy as the PRC’s “first act of armed aggression against Vietnam.”[85] The mask of friendship gave way to open warfare in 1978, when the PAVN quietly responded to Khmer Rouge massacres of Vietnamese villagers with a limited punitive invasion of the eastern Cambodia. The Khmer responded by publicly denouncing Vietnam, blowing the cover off the conflict. Vietnam was determined to overthrow the Pol Pot regime and install a friendly government, while Beijing was committed to keeping the Khmer Rouge in power as a limit to Vietnamese hegemony in Southeast Asia. When the Vietnamese seized Phnom Penh and pushed the Khmer Rouge government deep into the heavily forested Thai frontier later that winter, Deng Xiaoping had the perfect pretext for a subsequent punitive expedition against Moscow’s unruly allies to the south. No longer seeing each other as “comrades and brothers as close as lips and teeth,” in 1978 Deng gained tacit support from US, Thai, and Singaporean officials for an attack against the “ungrateful” and “expansionist” Vietnamese—the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war.[86] The red menace in Southeast Asia was no longer Chinese, for the moment. 

A Bad Time to Be Hoa

The ethnic Chinese residents of Indochina bore the brunt of the new international balance of power. Domestically known as the Hoa, these settlers had arrived in waves, with the largest migrations into the south occurring after the Ming collapse and again during the Opium Wars. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, they developed into an ethnic mercantile class (with a large proletarian counterpart) that, in the South, controlled tax farms and colonial monopolies, while vertically integrating the lucrative Mekong Delta rice trade. When the Vietnamese-controlled parts of Indochina were split along the 17th Parallel, the Hoa were split into two very different legal regimes. Whereas Ngô Đình Diệm’s regime in Saigon more closely followed other Southeast Asian examples by instituting coercive assimilationist policies, Hanoi afforded numerous privileges to the Hoa, including freedom from military conscription, increased economic rights, and the right to travel to China—with all the opportunities for smuggling that this entailed.[87] At the war’s end, around 1.2 million Hoa resided in the newly unified Vietnam, and though the suppression was rationalized differently in the two zones, all of them came under severe scrutiny.

In the South, because of continued Hoa economic dominance, their suppression was part and parcel of socialist reforms. Northern cadres, many coming directly from the rebel zones, were astonished by the spectacular material wealth of downtown Saigon. A debate raged within the politburo regarding the best course of action: should Saigon be maintained as a special economic zone and used to subsidize the impoverished North? Or would its capitalist elements pollute the socialist economy?[88] In the end, hardline socialists won out, in no small measure due to the fear of an ethnic Chinese “fifth column” controlling the Southern economy. Beginning in March 1977, ethnic Chinese shopkeepers around the city awoke at dawn to teams of Youth Union activists ready to enact the “Reform of Capitalist and Private Industry, Trade, and Commerce,” which nationalized thousands of “establishments” (cơ sở) belonging to “compradors,” “commercial capitalists” and “petty traders.”[89] These were followed by further policies of dispossession, reeducation and coerced relocation to dreaded “New Economic Zones,” where the former shopkeepers would reclaim the malarial frontier wilderness for agricultural production. One goal of the latter was to break up the more elite Hoa neighborhoods and scatter their residents among Vietnamese, or alternately push them into the steady trickle of refugees already fleeing the country to try their luck on the open seas. According to HCMC statistics gathered in March 1979, of the 28,787 households branded as commercial capitalists and reformed, 2,500 households with “revolutionary credentials” were allowed to remain in the city, and 3,494 were rusticated to the provinces under the guise of “registering for the new economic zones.” The remaining 23,000 were thrown into limbo.[90]

While the ethnic cleansing of Chinese elements in the South first took place under the banner of reforming capitalist elements, the simultaneous suppression of Hoa in the North was explicitly pursued as a purge of Chinese spies. Though many of the northern Hoa had also been merchants in the past, they were never as dominant as their southern counterparts, and most had already been at least partially dispossessed in the socialist reforms of 1955. After unification brought conflict with the PRC to a head, a series of policies and state-driven popular mobilization campaigns then specifically sought to expel the Hoa from the country. In 1976, under the guise of “unifying the educational system,” all Chinese language instruction was abolished and the teachers placed on paid leave to study Vietnamese. Later that year, the Hoa residents in the port cities of Hải Phong and Quảng Ninh were prohibited from working in any occupation somehow associated with espionage, including barber, household electrician and jobs that might put one into contact with foreigners. In addition, state media began inciting racial hatred, with programs like “Stories of Vigilance” (kể chuyện cảnh giác) broadcasting tales of conniving Chinese spies. A resettlement policy was developed and propagandized, with slogans such as “the party and state have created the conditions for the Hoa to return to their fatherland.” But many of the Hoa had been in Vietnam for generations, married into Vietnamese families, and had only the most tenuous connections to their “Chinese” heritage. Unfamiliar with both Chinese language and customs, a number of committed and high-ranking party members killed themselves and their families rather than suffer the indignity of expulsion. In the two northern Hoa centers of Quảng Ninh and Hải Phong, 185,000 out of a total of 197,000 Hoa were driven out in 1978.[91] By the time the Chinese launched their punitive expedition in February, 202,000 Hoa refugees had been resettled from Northern Vietnam into China.[92]

Meanwhile in the South, a backdrop of intense scarcity encouraged well-positioned police and provincial authorities to take advantage of the expulsions for personal gain. A secretive plan was hatched by local officials to provide a more organized departure for the fleeing Hoa. Called “Plan II” (phương án II), the operation would charge emigrants 8 taels (300 grams) of gold for a place on a boat leaving Vietnam. In practice, unaccountable local administrators charged the families far more, underreported the number registered, undersupplied and overcrowded the boats, and divided the savings. Overseas relatives poured money into the country to buy a ticket out for their relatives, with one estimate placing the remittances at $3 billion USD, replacing the coal industry as the largest source of foreign exchange.[93] Though unofficial emigration continued and expanded to millions of Vietnamese refugees, Plan II was officially stopped in June of 1979, leaving many Hoa who had already paid stranded without a way out. For those who did make it onto the open ocean, many were then forced to endure rape, robbery and marooning at the hands of pirates.

In the eighteen-month period from January 1978 to July 1979, 398,804 people were accepted into the refugee camps of neighboring Southeast Asian countries and Hong Kong. It’s unclear what percentage of these were actually Hoa, and how many died at sea, but the expulsion of ethnic Chinese from South Vietnam was a turning point in the post-war period that transformed the steady trickle of refugees into the now infamous torrent of “Boat People.” The renewed threat of war and the dire material deprivation greatly exacerbated by US-led sanctions no doubt played a significant role in the refugee crisis. But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the Hoa policy. As mentioned above, the Southern Hoa weren’t an isolated community restricted to Saigon’s Chinatown, Chợ Lớn, but were the social and economic pillars of Southern society, spread throughout the countryside, heavily intermarried with ethnic Vietnamese, and a part of vast kinship, friendship, and patron-client networks, all of which were devastated by the reforms. Part political purge, part socialist reform, part ethnic cleansing, the sudden and drastic clampdown on the ethnic Chinese remains a stain on the socialization drive, and a watershed in Sino-Vietnamese relations.

As could be expected, state-led discourse on China and the Hoa adjusted to the new balance of power by reframing the Sino-Vietnamese relationship in explicitly colonial terms, thereby approximating the narrative formerly prevalent in South Vietnam, and crystallizing many of the talking points still used by today’s anti-Chinese activists. Perhaps the most condensed example is found in the Foreign Ministry’s October 1979 White Papers. This hundred-odd page indictment backtracked on the earlier calls for proletarian internationalism to argue that:

The current Chinese leadership’s international strategy, despite their tricks of concealment, has laid bare their extremely counterrevolutionary essence, […] completely exposing themselves as disciples of great nation chauvinism, and as bourgeois capitalists. [Their] current policy toward Vietnam, no matter how cleverly camouflaged, is still the celestial empire’s policy from thousands of years ago, which aims to annex Vietnam, pacify the Vietnamese people, and transform Vietnam into a Chinese vassal.[94]

According to this reformulation, Chinese aid was a plot to lure Vietnam into opposing the USSR, technical assistance was a cover for the road building needed to expand into Southeast Asia, Chinese advisors and technicians were Maoist agents sent to organize a spy network and mobilize a fifth column of Hoa saboteurs, and the Cultural Revolution was a “rabid and blood-drenched domestic struggle [that] aimed to erase Marxism-Leninism, shatter the Communist Party, […] destroy the global revolution, and link with American Imperialism to promote a policy of nationalist expansionism.”[95] Historians followed suit en masse, publishing countless essays condemning the Southeast Asian Chinese Diaspora as tools of the mainland empire, showing continuities between the foreign policies of the PRC and those of earlier Northern dynasties, discovering the deeply reactionary origins of the CCP, and generally unearthing a timeless plot to conquer and assimilate the Vietnamese.[96]



In 2013, while on a trip to visit his children studying abroad in the US, Brigadier General and Political Commissar of the General Office of Defense Industry, Hà Thanh Châu arrived at the US Citizen and Immigration Services Offices in Seattle, Washington, where he submitted an application for political asylum. Four days later, he passed top-secret documents to a journalist at Foreign Policy magazine that shook the Vietnamese blogosphere and confirmed commentators’ worst suspicions. The unbelievable document shows that, in 1990, as socialist states were collapsing across Eurasia, and political pluralism was being considered in Vietnam, then Party General Secretary Nguyễn Văn Linh accepted Chinese support to backpedal on promised political reforms and inaguarated a fateful crackdown on intellectual freedom. According to the document, Linh prefaced his decision with the confession, “I know that if we rely on China we’ll lose the nation, but I’d rather lose the nation than lose the party.” The plan to regain Chinese support was supposedly hatched at a secret conference in Chengdu (1990), where Linh flatteringly conceded to Deng Xiaoping:

Vietnam requests that China erase the misunderstandings of the past. On Vietnam’s part, we will expend every effort to rebuild the longtime friendship founded by Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam will abide by the Chinese request to allow Vietnam to enjoy Autonomous Area Status under the Central Committee of the Beijing Government, just as China has allowed Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Guangxi to also enjoy. In order to effectively mentally prepare the Vietnamese people and resolve the necessary steps to join the great Chinese ethnic family, please allow us a period of 60 years [broken into three stages]: 1990-2020, 2020-2040, 2040-2060.[97]

This imaginative, though presumably fabricated, scenario is typical of the conspiratorial exposés that form permanent fixtures of the Vietnamese anti-government blogosphere. Though the Chengdu Conference was very real, the party-state hasn’t released evidence of the terms of renewed relations, and this secrecy adds fuel to a fire of popular paranoia over the rising global power to Vietnam’s north. Perhaps analagous to the illuminati conspriacies of Clinton-led globalist rape cults and European racist anxiety over national degeneration at the behest of scheming Soros-led financiers, Vietnamese populism is haunted by the prospect of assimilation into China: imported foods are poisoned, Vietnamese women are doomed to sexual servitude at the hands of unmarriageable Chinese men, Chinese settlers are colonizing the sacred territory of the fatherland, and the multiplying development loans and construction projects are a debt scheme to sell off the nation piecemeal.[98] The US diplomatic mission in Vietnam is well aware of the prevalance of such conspiracy theories among pro-democracy activists, and while suspicious of the rumors’ veracity, American diplomats hold frequents meetings with their purveyors.[99] These aren’t simply the product of American meddling, however, as even prominent party stalwarts like Võ Nguyên Giáp, Võ Văn Kiệt, Bùi Tín and others have, toward the end of their lives, indulged in some degree of similar rhetoric. The recent explosion of mass protests, strikes and riots over planned Special Economic Zones is only the latest wave in a series of popular outbursts showing that these fears, if not necessarily the full-fledged conspiracy theories, have established a broad appeal among the masses, accurate information being hard to come by in a nation that shuns polling and public research into the topic.

The Communist Party of Vietnam sees these popular expressions as products of anti-regime propaganda spread by overseas remnants of the Saigon regime and part of a US Government-led effort to promote a “color revolution” in Vietnam.[100] Putting aside momentarily the certainly present, though difficult-to-quantify role, of diaspora anti-communists and the US security state, the study of these conspiracy theories is made all the more important by the likelihood that, were a popular squares type anti-regime protest to gain traction in Vietnam, hypernationalist conspiracies of this sort would be a key feature. A subsequent article will dive deeper into the very real economic and historical basis of these theories as they developed alongside the political changes of the mid-1980s reform period, charting their growth alongside the flood of Chinese investment and the churning geopolitical fortunes of the last decades.






[1]            “Vietnam Bloggers: Nguyen Huu Vinh and Minh Thuy Jailed”, BBC, 3/23/2016, (accessed 7/11/18)

[2]            See for example: Thạch Nhan, “Bí ẩn quan hệ Việt-Trung,” Ba Sàm: Cơ quan ngôn luận của Thông Tấn Xã Vỉa Hè, 6/10/16,  (accessed 7/11/18); Embassy Hanoi “Deputy Secretary Steinberg’s September 27, 2009 Conversation with Political Dissident Dr. Pham Hong Son,” Wikileaks Cable: 09HANOI843_a, 9/29/2009, (accessed 7/11/18); Embassy Hanoi, “How much influence does China have over Vietnam’s internal politics?”, Wikileaks Cable: 10HANOI11_a, 1/27/2010, (accessed 7/11/18); Bùi Tín, “Tại sao lại đi đêm,” VOA, 2310/2014, (accessed 7/11/18).

[3] “Lời kêu gợi biểu tình yêu nước của 20 tổ chức dân sự Việt Nam”[The call to patriotic protest from 20 civil society organizations], Dân Luận [public opinion], 5/7/14, (accessed 7/11/18). (This and all other translations are the author’s unless otherwise cited.)

[4] The letter read: “Instead of uniting with the nation’s people and with one heart protecting our national sovereignty, Vietnam’s rulers have continued to repress the very patriots who oppose the invaders. […Arresting the patriotic blogger Anh Ba Sàm] is a continuation of years of arrests in which China is a factor. […] Can we believe in a regime that not only fails to protect the fatherland, but also represses citizens who want to demonstrate their patriotism, and safeguard the Fatherland? No. A regime that is repeatedly cowardly in the face of foreign encroachment and repeatedly arrests those that do oppose the invaders IS NEVER a patriotic regime.” Ibid.

[5]            Thanh Phương, Thuỵ My, “Vụ giàn khoan HD-981: Biểu tình phản đối Trung Quốc tại Hà Nội” [The HD-981 Oil Platform Affair: protests to oppose China in Hanoi], RFI, 5/9/2014, (accessed 7/11/18)

[6]            For a collection of photos and videos, see: “Tường thuật trực tiếp diễn biến các cuộc biểu tình phản đối Trung Quốc ngày 11/5/2014”[live reporting on the unfolding protests against China 5/11/2014], Dân Luận, archived at (accessed 7/11/18)

[7]            Vu Trong Khanh, “Vietnamese Gather at Chinese Embassy to Protest Against Oil Rig, The Wall Street Journal, 5/11/2014, (accessed 7/11/18); AFP, “Large protests in Vietnam over China oil rig”, AFP 5/11/2014,  (accessed 7/11/18)

[8]            BBC, “Công nhân biểu tình ‘phản đối TQ’” [Workers protest to oppose China], BBC 5/13/2014,, (accessed 7/11/18)

[9]            Huy Đức, “Mồi lửa và đống củi” [The flame and the kindling], Truong Huy San personal Facebook account, 5/19/14) (accessed 7/11/18)

[10]           Van Hải, Đức Hiệp, “6.000 người xô xát tại Vũng Áng vì câu nói kích động”[6,000 fight in Vung Ang due to a provocateur], VN Express, 5/15/1014, (accessed 7/11/180); Gerry Mullany, “Chinese Company Puts Death Toll in Vietnam Riots at 4, New York Times: Sinosphere, 5/21/14, (accessed 7/11/18)

 [11]           Ivan Franceschini, “Interview with Angie Ngoc Tran”, New Mandala, 7/29/14,  (accessed 7/11/18)  Bill Hayton, “Vietnam-China tensions: Why protests are not just jingoism”, BBC 5/16/14, (accessed 7/11/18)

 [12]           “Ông Lý Thái Hùng nhận định về việc CSVN vu cáo Việt Tân đứng sau các cuộc bạo động ở Đồng Nai”[Mr Ly Thai Hung comments on the CPV accusing Viet Tan of being behind the violence Dong Nai] Chân Trời Mới Media, 6/1/14, (accessed 7/11/18)

[13]           Heng Shao, “Manufacturing Beyond China,” Forbes Asia, 8/25/2014,

 [14]           Bach Duong, “Top FDI Source China Pours over $56 Billion into Vietnam with Nearly 5,000 Projects,” VNExpress, 5/4/2016,

 [15]           The clearest example of this is the controversy surrounding the abovementioned Vững Áng Formosa Steel Plant, which besides being the site of fatal brawling between mainland Chinese workers and Vietnamese protestors in 2014, was also the cause of widespread popular protest in 2016 after it released enough carbonic acid into the ocean to kill all marine life along a 200 kilometer stretch of coastline. Popular conspiracy theories also circulated placing the Vững Áng plant as a “concession” territory secretly ceded to mainland China. See: Angel L Martinez Cantera, “We are Jobless because of Fish Poisoning: Vietnamese fishermen battle for justice,” Guardian, 8/14/2017, For an example of conspiracies about Formosa see: Tran Dai Quang, “Tìm Hiểu Tô Giới Vững Áng Hà Tĩnh,” Kontum Que Toi,

[16]           Ben Bland and Nicolle Liu, “China’s Factories Eye South-East Asia to Avoid US Tariff Threat,” Financial Times, 7/19/2018,

 [17]           Kiều Linh, “Đường sắt Cát Linh- Hà Đông: Mỗi năm trả nợ Trung Quốc khoảng 650 tỷ,” VnEconomy, 22/01/2018,

 [18]           See: Anh Thư, “Rót 32.000 tỷ vào bãuit, alumin Tây Nguyên, kết quả giờ ra sao?” Dân Trí, 2/22/17,; Staff, “Vinacomin’s Two Grave Missteps,” Vietnamnet Business, 05/03/2017,

 [19]           For an account see: Do Son, “Fear and Loathing in ‘the Pacified South’: Conspiracies and SEZs in Vietnam,” Chuang Blog, 6/11/2018,

 [20]           “Nhiệt điện Vĩnh Tân cần được bảo vệ an ninh đặc biệt,” Radio Free Asia, 6/29/2018,

[21]           For a brief discussion of the historiography, see Tuong Vu, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology, Cambridge, 2017, 7; for examples see: George Kahin and John Lewis, The United States in Vietnam, (New York: Delta, 1969) 326-327; George Herring, America’s Longest War, 4th ed. (New York: Mcraw-Hill, 2002), 3-4; Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990), 2;

Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown 1972), 8.

[22]           For a thorough survey of early history see Taylor. This account is based on the short summary of early history in Goscha. Keith Weller Taylor, A History of the Vietnamese, Cambridge University Press, 2013; Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History, Basic Books, 2016

[23]           Goscha 2016, p. 51

[24]           Ibid., p. 53

[25]           Nationalist historiography emphasizes a radical break at this time, calling the preceding era “Thousand years of northern domination”. More scholarship is instead seeking to extricate this history from anachronistic notions of independence and nationalism purveyed by 20th century scholars. The narrative related in this section relies on: Liam Kelley, “From a Reliant Kingdom in Asia: Premodern Geographic Knowledge and the Emergence of the Geo-Body in Late Imperial Vietnam,” Cross Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review,  No.20 (September 2016), pp. 12-13

[26]           See section on “Celestial Scripting,” in ibid. p. 19

[27]           Liam Kelley, “From Moral Examplar to National Hero: The transformations of Trần Hưng Đạo and the emergence of Vietnamese nationalism,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 49 Iss. 06 (November 2015), pp. 1968-1975

[28]           Cited in: ibid., p. 1973

[29]           Li Tana, Nguyễn, Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Cornell University Press, 1998, p. 139

[30]           See: Taylor, A History…, pp. 374-380

[31]           Taylor, ibid., p. 385

[32]           ibid., pp. 441-445

[33]           Goscha, Vietnam… pp. 62-72

[34]           Martin J. Murray, The Development of Capitalism in Colonial Indochina (1870-1940), University of California Press, 1980, pp. 12, 53-55; Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hemery, Indochina: an Ambiguous Colonization 1858-1954, University of California Press, 2009. p.22

[35]           Notably, Vietnam wasn’t subject to the same complicated overlapping racial complications that plagued Chinese anticolonialism, where Manchu, Japanese, British, and others would vie for control of the territory. In Vietnam, fears of racial extinction were framed in starker terms: the yellow man versus the white man, see: Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 20-21; David G. Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925, University of California Press, 1971, Ch. 4-5; Rebecca Karl, Staging the World: Chinese nationalism at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Duke University Press, 2002, p. 164

[36]           Annam is a common older referent for the people of Vietnam. During the Colonial Era it was the name of the Central Vietnamese protectorate centered in the imperial capital, Hue. Interestingly, History of the Loss of Vietnam is credited with first popularizing the term Vietnam, See: Hue-Tam Ho Tai, ibid., p. 21; Chinese student chant cited in: Brocheux and Hemery, ibid., p. 293

[37]           See discussion in Kelley, “Tran Hung Dao…,” p. 1982 and “From a Reliant Kingdom…,” p. 32

[38]           See epilogue chapter “Retrospective,” in Keith Taylor, A History of the Vietnamese, pp. 620-626

[39]           For Ho’s biography, see: Sophie Quinn-Judge, Ho Chi Minh: The missing years 1919-1941, University of California Press, 2002,

[40]           For speculation on Nanyang committees role in this period of party formation and uprisings see: Sophie Quinn-Judge, Ho Chi Minh pp. 165-176; For overview of political history in the period see: Goscha,  “The Failure of Colonial Republicanism,” p.123; on the Vietnamese Communist’s ideology during the period see: Tuong Vu, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution, pp. 31-89: For an overview of Nanyang Committees see: Anna Belogurova, “Networks, Parties, and the ‘Oppressed Nations’: The Comintern and Chinese Communists Overseas, 1926-1935,” Cross Currents East Asian History and Culture Review,  No. 24 (September 2017).

[41]           Peter Zinoman, Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam 1862-1940, University of California Press, 2001.  

[42]           Cochinchina was the southernmost territory of the Indochinese Union, and unlike the protectorates of Annam, Tonkin, Laos, and Cambodia, it was a full French Colony subject to direct rule under French law. For more on the role of the failed Southern Uprising in fortuitously conditioning Ho’s eventual triumph, see: Goscha, Vietnam, p.193.

[43]           For a history of the “August Revolution,” see: David Marr, Vietnam 1945: The quest for power, University of California Press, 1995. For an insightful critique, which argues that the ICP played a commanding role throughout the popular uprisings, see: Alec Holcombe, “The Role of the Communist Party
in the Vietnamese Revolution: A Review of David Marr’s Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945-1946),” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 11, Issue 3-4, pp. 298-364.

[44]           At this second party congress in 1951, the former ICP agreed to split into three parties, one each for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but under the provision that “the Vietnamese party reserves the right to supervise the activities of its brother parties in Cambodia and Laos.” The Cambodian branch became the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party later that year, but the Pathet Lao’s organization (originally named “Lao People’s Party”) wasn’t formally established until 1955. The VWP was renamed the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1976, after formally merging with the People’s Revolutionary Party of South Vietnam in 1975.

[45]           See: Christopher Goscha, “Courting Diplomatic Disaster? The Difficult Integration of Vietnam into the Internationalist Communist Movement (1945–1950),” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1-2 (February/August 2006), pp. 59-103.

[46]           Qiang Zhai, China & the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975, University of North Carolina Press, pp. 12-35

[47]           By April, Ho and Liu Shaoqi had determined sites for Vietnamese Military Academies in Yunnan, began retraining top party members in Maoist military theory, and formed a Chinese Military Advisory Group  composed of 281 persons to be posted at Vietminh army headquarters, three divisions, and a new officer training school. Within five months of establishing relations, the Vietminh had already received at least 14,000 small arms, 1,700 heavy machine guns and recoilless rifles, 150 mortars, 60 pieces of artillery and 300 bazookas, as well as ammunition, medicine, communications equipment, clothes and 2,800 tons of food.

[48]           Lifetime guerrilla, author, and political cadre turned reformist Nguyên Ngọc recalls, “At that time, us intellectuals had to treat ourselves like manure. I was just 20 years old, not even old enough to have sinned, but I had to self-criticize for secretly harboring lustful dreams.” See: Huy Đức, Bên thắng cuộc tập II: Quyền bính, Osinbook 2012, p. 12

[49]           The early debate on land reform was polarized by the political climate of the 1960s.The problem is compounded by the CPV jealously guarding any data that could be used to accurately estimate the number of executions. While it’s difficult, if not impossible, to statistically judge the popularity of the land reform, the subsequent rebellion in Quỳnh Lưu, the resignation of Party General Secretary Trường Chinh, the tearful, if melodramatic, apology by Ho Chi Minh, and the rectification of errors campaign which determined that almost 72% of ‘landlords’ were miscategorized middle and wealthy peasants, are all signs that there was significant discontent among multiple segments of the population as a result of the violence. In China, land reform seems to have been more popular among poor peasants and also more successful agriculturally, but in both countries an important function of land reform was to destroy local elites as competitors for the new party-state’s power. In China (as discussed in “Sorghum & Steel,” Chuang 1, pp. 33-35), however, this shift of power was centered on control over agricultural surplus, whereas in Vietnam, equally if not more important was peasant loyalty in the seemingly endless war against the French and, later, the Americans. For recent research  see: Alec Gordon Holcombe, Socialist Transformation in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, PhD. Diss. UC Berkeley, Spring 2014; Alex-Thai D Vo, “Nguyễn Thị Năm and the Land Reform in North Vietnam, 1953,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies Vol. 10, No. 1 (February 2015), pp. 1-62. For the original debate see: Hoang Van Chi, From Colonialism to Communism: A case history of North Vietnam, Fredrick A. Praeger, 1968; D. Gareth Porter, “The Myth of the Bloodbath: North Vietnam’s land reform reconsidered,” Interim Report: No. 2, International Relations of East Asia Project, Cornell University, 1972; Edwin E. Moise, Land Reform in China and North Vietnam: Consolidating the revolution at the village level, University of North Carolina Press, 1983. For more on the key western academics defending the DRV’s official account, the “Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars,” see: Fabio Lanza, The End of Concern, Duke University Press, 2017.

[50]           Christopher Goscha, “A ‘Total War’ of Decolonization? Social Mobilization and State-Building in Communist Vietnam (1949-54),” War and Society, 31:2, pp. 136-162

[51]           Truong Chinh, ‘Bao Cao cua tong bi thu Truong Chinh tai hoi nghi lan thu 4’, not dated, Van Kien Dang toan tap, Vol. 14 (1953), pp. 48–50, Cited in Goscha, “A ‘Total war’…,” p.154.

[52]           ibid.

[53]           N.J. Thrift and D.K. Forbes, “Cities, Socialism, and War: Hanoi, Saigon and the Vietnamese experience of urbanisation,” Society and Space Vol. 3, 1985, pp. 279-203

[54]           The Geneva Accords are written up by later nationalist and some western historians as a Chinese and Soviet sabotage of the Vietnamese revolutionary project. Recent research has shown that this is not the case, and that the CPV had plenty reason to accept a less than ideal settlement. The International Control Commission was a joint force of Polish, Indian, Iranian, and Canadian troops established to oversee the application of Geneva Accord articles on military and civilian movement between into and between North and South Vietnam. See: Christopher Goscha, “’Hell in a Very Small Place’ Cold War and Decolonization in the Assault on the Vietnamese Body at Dien Bien Phu,” European Journal of East Asian Studies, 9.2 (2010), pp. 201-223; and Pierre Asselin, “Choosing Peace: Hanoi and the Geneva Agreement on Vietnam, 1954-1955,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 9 No. 2, Spring 2007, pp. 95-126.

[55]           For an account of the coordinated tightening of control over both economic and intellectual production, see: Kim Ngoc Bao Ninh, Ch. 5: “The Structure of a Cultural Revolution: The Ministry of Culture,” in A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945-1965, University of Michigan, 2002, p. 164.

[56]           For a brief history of the Vietnamese Hộ khẩu system, see: Andrew Hardy, “Rules and Resources: Negotiating the Household Registration System in Vietnam under Reform,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 16, No. 2, Negotiating the State in Vietnam (October 2001), pp. 187-212.

[57]           N.J. Thrift and D.K. Forbes, “Cities, Socialism, and War…”

[58]           Harish C. Mehta, “Soviet Biscuit Factories and Chinese Financial Grants: North Vietnam’s Economic Diplomacy in 1967 and 1968,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (April 2012), pp. 301-335.

[59]           One consequence of this focus on wartime mobilization was that the DRV grew increasingly unable to restrict rampant black-market activity for fear of damaging morale among the loosely connected rural cooperatives, sowing the seeds for later capital accumulation among well-placed provincial officials and cooperative directors, who grew increasingly empowered viz. the central committee. The rapidly expanding state payrolls further fueled this dynamic by increasing the pool of money relative to goods. See: Adam Fforde, The Agrarian Question in North Vietnam 1974-79: a study of cooperator resistance to State policy, New York: M.E.Sharpe 1989.

[60]           Đăng Phong, Năm đường Hồ Chí Minh, NXB Tri thức, 2008, p. 119.

[61]           John W. Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 239.

[62]           Despite the triumphalist depictions of life on the trail promoted in state memorialization, men and women on the trail and in the bush suffered appalling casualty rates, as often from hunger, disease and wild animals as from American bombs. See: Francois Guillemot, “Death and Suffering at First Hand: Youth Shock Brigades during the Vietnam War (1950-1975),” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4 Issue 3, 2009, pp. 17-60. On Northern regulars as unwilling conscripts, see Hai Thanh Nguyen, PhD Dissertation, Texas Tech University, Forthcoming.

[63]           Trần Huy Liệu, “Quan hệ lịch sử giữa hai nước Việt-Trung,”, Nghiên cứu lịch sử số 88, tháng 7 1966, tr 1.

[64]           See: Martin Grossheim, “’Revisionism’ in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam: New Evidence from the East German Archives,” Cold War History Vol. 5, No. 4, November 2005, pp. 451-477.

[65]           “Vietnamese Women’s Day: Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu Unveils Hai Ba Trung Memorial”, 11 March 1962. Vietnam Center and Archive. 11 August 1962. Folder 5, Box 1194; Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections. Wesley R. Fishel Papers. The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. (accessed 7/13/18)

[66]           “Follow the example of Trần Hưng Đạo. All people unite to fight the communists and save the nation” Propaganda Leaflet With Translation – Tran Hung Dao Example, No Date, Folder 09, Box 01, Gary Gillette Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018 <>.

[67]           Leaflet – The Spirit of Tran Hung Dao, No Date, Folder 08, Box 05, Fred Walker Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 23 Dec. 2017 <https-//>..pdf

[68]           Leaflet – Quang Trung the National Hero, No Date, Folder 08, Box 05, Fred Walker Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018 <>. (Emphasis added.)

[69]           Vietnamese Stakhanovism far eclipsed its Soviet and Chinese peers, at least in terms of the quantity of “model worker” emulation campaigns. For an analysis of the blending of traditional tutelary figures with modern emulation campaigns, see: Benoît de Tréglodé, Heroes and Revolution in Vietnam, 1948-1964, NUS Press, 2012.

[70]           “Trung Quoc, nguoi ban chien dau trung thanh, nguoi anh em ruot thit cua nhan dan mien Nam Viet Nam” (China, the loyal friend and blood brother of the people of South Vietnam), 01 January 1965, Folder 042, Box 21, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 05 – National Liberation Front, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018 <>.

[71] Cam on Trung Quoc, nguoi ban cung chien hao (Thanks to China, our comrade-in-arms of the same trench), No Date, Folder 040, Box 21, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 05 – National Liberation Front, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018 <>.

[72] Captured Documents (CDEC): Unknown Interrogation Source, Log Number 08-2239-67, 03/09/1967, CTZ 3, Tay Ninh Province. Vietnam Center and Archive. 24 August 1967 Reel 0161 Vietnam Archive Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 22 May. 2018

[73]           See: Đăng Phong, Phá rào trong kinh tế vào đêm trước đổi mới, NXB Tri thức, 2015; and Tư duy kinh tế Việt Nam, 1975-1989, NXB Tri Thức, 2016, pp. 27-59. For more on how this debate interfaces with geopolitics and pursuing war in the south, see: Sophie Quinn-Judge, “The Ideological Debate in the DRV and the Significance of the Anti-Party Affair 1967-1968,” Cold War History 5:4, especially pp. 486-493. For an account of how the party was not an inventor of the reforms, but rather only ratified peasant non-compliance, see: Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, The Power of Everyday Politics: How Vietnamese Peasants Transformed National Policy, Cornell University Press, 2005. For an interesting account that proposes the party ceased to be “sovereign” after spontaneous commercialization created a morass of powerful SOE business interests in this period, see: Adam Fforde, “Post-Cold War Vietnam: stay low, learn, adapt and try to have fun—but what about the party?” Contemporary Politics, Vol. 19, No. 4 2013, pp. 379-398; and Adam Fforde and Lada Homutova, “Political Authority in Vietnam: Is the Vietnamese Communist Party a Paper Leviathan?” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 36, 3, pp. 91-118; Lien-Hang T Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, UNC Press, 2012; Sophie Quinn-Judge raises powerful objections to the reductionism of the “south-first”/ “north-first” dichotomy, but I hope it’s overcome here by using the distinction in-addition-to, rather than in-lieu of, political-economic factions. See: Sophie Quinn-Judge, “The Ideological Debate…”

[75]           Martin Grossheim, p. 456

[76]           Qiang Zhai, p. 150

[77]           These were visible as early as April 13th 1966, when Deng confronted Lê Duẩn, saying, “Now, I want to talk about another aspect of the relations between the two parties and two countries. Among 100 thousand Chinese military men, who are now in your country, there may be someone who committed wrongdoing, and on your side there also may be some others who want to make use of these incidents to sow division between two parties and two countries. We should, in a straightforward manner, talk about it now as there is not only the shadow but some damages in our relations as well. It is not only the matters concerning our judgment on the Soviet aid. Are you suspicious that China helps Vietnam for our own intentions?” Later that August Zhou Enlai confronted Lê Duẩn and People’s Daily Chief Editor Hoàng Tung, saying “What about the fact that recently Vietnamese newspapers carried some documents about aggressions by Chinese feudal dynasties against Vietnam?[…] You are studying this issue while you are struggling against the US. What is the implication?” Transcript available in: 77 Conversations Between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964-1977, Edited by Odd Arne Westad, Chen Jian, Stein Tønnesson, Nguyen Vu Tungand and James G. Hershberg, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Working Paper No. 22, May 1998. 91-97

[78]           Maurice Meisner, Mao China and After A History of the People’s Republic of China, Free Press, 1999, p. 339 ; Sophie Quinn Judge, “The Ideological Debate…” p. 486; Qiang Zhai 150-156

[79]           Han Xiaorong, “A Community between Two Nations The Overseas Chinese Normal School in Hà Nội, 1956–1972,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 12, Issue 4, 2017 pp. 23-63

[80]           Qiang Zhai, p. 180

[81]           For the various factors involved, see “Red Dust” in this volume.

[82]           Cited in: Qiang Zhai, p. 201

[83]           Qiang Zhai, p. 213

[84]           Huy Đức, Bên thắng cuộc tập I: Giải phóng, p.113

[85]           Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War after the War, Collier Books, 1986, p. 21

[86]           See: For the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war see: Ch. “A Red Christmas,” in ibid., p. 313

[87]           Xiaorong Han, “Spoiled Guests or Dedicated Patriots: The Chinese in North Vietnam, 1954-1978,” International Journal of Asian Studies, 6, 1 (2009), pp. 1–36

[88]           Đăng Phong, Tư duy kinh tế…, p.90

[89]           Huy Đức, Bên thắng cuộc v.1…, p. 97

[90]           ibid., p. 101

[91]           Huy Đức, ibid., p. 116-122

[92]           Xiaorong Han, p. 2

[93]           “Hanoi’s 6b$ Stake in Exodus,” Straits Times, 8 June 1979, p. 36

[94]           Bộ Ngoại Giáo, SỰ THẬT VỀ QUAN HỆ VIỆT NAM ­TRUNG QUỐC TRONG 30 NĂM QUA, Nhà xuất bản Sự Thật, 
1979, p. 21-22

[95]           Ibid p. 45

[96]           See, for example: “Chính sách của Bắc Kinh đối với người Hoa ở Đông Nam Á” [Beijing’s policies towards the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora]. Nghiên cứu lịch sử 186, p. 9; “Vài nết về chính sách ngoại giao của Trung Quốc đối với Việt Nam trong thời phong kiến” Nghiên cứu lịch sử 188; PP Vladimirov, “The Vladimirov Diaries: Yenan China 1942-1945,” Doubleday 1975, reviewed in Văn Phong, “Đọc nhật ký Diên An. Đặc khu ở Trung Quốc (1942-1945),” Nghiên cứu lịch sử 195 p. 83; “Quan hệ Trung-Việt và Việt-Trung,” Nghiên cứu lịch sử 187

[97]           Some version of this document is available on hundreds, if not thousands of blogs. One example can be seen here: Chính Việt Blog, “Mật nghị Thành Đô,” no date, (accessed 7/13/18)

[98]           The case of the bauxite mines is typical here, where even Võ Nguyên Giáp declared that they were a plot by the PLA to station troops in the Central Highlands. For the best analysis of the event, see: Jason Morris, The Vietnamese Bauxite Controversy: Emergence of a New Oppositional Politics, PhD Dissertation, UC Berkeley, Fall 2013.

[99]           Embassy Hanoi “Deputy Secretary Steinberg’s September 27, 2009 Conversation with Political Dissident Dr. Pham Hong Son,” Wikileaks Cable: 09HANOI843_a, 9/29/2009, (accessed 7/11/18); Embassy Hanoi, “How much influence does China have over Vietnam’s internal politics?”, Wikileaks Cable: 10HANOI11_a, 1/27/2010, (accessed 7/11/18);

[100]          Embassy Hanoi, “Internal CPV Directive Warns of U.S.-Led ‘Peaceful Evolution,’ Provides Insights into Hardliners’ Thinking,” Wikileaks Cable: 09HANOI899_a, 11/12/2009,, (accessed 7/13/18)