Saturday, February 05, 2005

Web Diplomacy

Citizens of China and Vietnam are doing something heretofore unheard of. They're hashing out territorial differences via a China People's Daily web forum. The debate was sparked by the killing last month of nine Vietnamese fishermen (the Chinese call them "pirates"), who were shot by Chinese police in the Gulf of Tonkin (China calls it the "Northern Gulf"). In dispute is the tract of water where the killings occurred. The two not-so-friendly socialist brethren have overlapping historical claims to this sea -- and to the oil deposits that lie beneath. And despite decades of tightly-scripted diplomacy to resolve the territorial dispute, neither is willing to concede an inch.

Similar Flags, Different Clams
In both countries, public discourse about territorial authority over the Gulf and its adjoining South China Sea is almost exclusively the province of stiff-suited apparatchik from their respective foreign ministries. Any citizen who dares discuss the issue in terms that stray from his governments' tersely worded stance, runs the risk of interrogation our even imprisonment.

Unfurling Vietnam's Control
I know from personal experience. In the 1990s, while the managing editor of Vietnam's largest English-language weekly in Hanoi, I was required as a matter of routine to submit all copy to an operative from Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information. Mr Dung scrubbed all mention of the dispute and replaced all references to the "South China Sea" with the Vietnamese-correct version, "The Eastern Sea," before I could go to press. I once discussed this arrangement over the phone with a fellow journalist and was visited soon thereafter by my minder from Hanoi's Ministry of the Interior who leveled a series of questions about my intentions.

Such is the tense state of play between China and Vietnam. And issue number one is their seemingly intractable and competing claims to the common waters off their shores.

Which is why I'm watching the People's Daily web forum. It appears to be an somewhat open discussion between average Minhs from both countries. Some are critical of the Chinese Givernment, though, I'm certain that the webmasters at the Daily (the official outlet of the Chinese Communist Party) are monitoring the posts to be certain no one crosses the line too far. And many of the posts are by Chinese planted shills, posing as Vietnamese citizens (Le Xuan and Nguyen Long for example) to argue on behalf of Beijing. Still, it's an astounding development given the history of repression that, sadly, both nations share.

2 comments:

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