Vietnam's Chinese Minority and
the Politics of Sino-Vietnamese Relations
Theresa C. Carino
In September 1979, China claimed that in the 12 months between May 1978 to May 1979, more than 230,000 Vietnamese refugees, mainly of Chinese ethnic origins have been driven into China from Vietnam. Add to this the boatloads of refugees who have landed or perished off other Asian shores and the number of Chinese Vietnamese who fled Vietnam rises to an awesome figure of at least ¼ million. Not since the massive repatriation of Chinese from Indonesia following the military coup in 1965 has, Southeast Asia experienced such a massive movement of people.
As wave upon wave of boat people spilt on their shores, the initial reactions of sympathy to the refugees in most S.E. Asian countries quickly gave way to feelings of incredulity, indignation and then hostility. By mid-1979, the scale and intensity of the exodus had risen to such proportions as to give some credence to Peking's accusations that Vietnam was launching a vendetta against the Chinese under sinister proddings of the Soviet Union. ASEAN leaders spewed theories that Vietnam was deliberately upsetting the political stability of the region by releasing the flood of refugees.
Pushing aside the polemics of a politically loaded issue, it could be said that the exodus represented the culmination of economic and political pressures building up on the Chinese minority in Vietnam since 1975. The sources of these pressures were both internal as well as external to Vietnam. Within Vietnam, the continuing existence of a powerful private sector in the south in which ethnic Chinese domination became increasingly intolerable to the government as it wrestled with economic and political problems of socialist transformation; Externally, Vietnam's relations with Kampuchea and China had deteriorated to a point where the distinction between the Chinese in Vietnam and the Chinese government became gradually blurred in the eyes of the Vietnamese. Distrust and suspicious of the Chinese in Vietnam (whether they were Vietnamese nationals or Chinese citizens) grew with every rupture in Sino-Vietnamese relations that became inextricably linked
with Vietnam’s conflict with Kampuchea and China’s dispute with the Soviet Union.
While the economic pressures that continued to build up on the Chinese Vietnamese have to be viewed, within the context of socialist transformation in South Vietnam post-1975, the drastic economic measures adopted by the Vietnamese government in dealing with its Chinese minority were not devoid of political consideration influenced by Vietnam's hostility to China. These economic measures ostensibly intended to break the back of the private, capitalistic sector within the Vietnamese economy, in effect left many ethnic Chinese devoid of any means of livelihood and the frightening prospect of being forcibly sent to the ”NEW ECONOMIC ZONES”. The explanation professed by Vietnamese authorities that these measures were not exclusively directed against the Chinese and were generally aimed at "bourgeois, capitalist" elements in Vietnamese society failed; however, to explain why a large proportion of refugees came from North Vietnam where the ethnic Chinese had became relatively well integrated into a socialist, Vietnamese society. To a large extent the furling of events pointed towards the fact that Vietnam's treatment of its Chinese minority had become embroiled in the politics of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict the war between in the politics of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict and the war between Vietnam and Kampuchea. In order to understand the dilemma of the Chinese in Vietnam and to place recent events regarding them into proper perspective, a little historical excursion is necessary.
Perhaps more than any other Chinese minority in Southeast Asia, the Chinese Vietnam has come closest to being assimilated with the native population. The degree of intermarriage between Vietnamese and Chinese has been exceptionally high and this has no doubt contributed, over the years, to the unusually close cultural affinity between them.
Vietnam and China have had a historically special and close relationship and this is not surprising, given the fact that they share a common border and that the Viets (or Yueh people, as the Chinese know them) originally came from Southern China for a period of 1,000 years (111 B.C to 10th Century A.D.) Vietnam, which then consisted mainly of the area covered by the present North Vietnam, was under the complete political domination of China. During this period, the Vietnamese borrowed much from Chinese culture and civilization in terms of language, social and political organization, religion and agricultural techniques. Although the Vietnamese maintained and preserved a distinctly Vietnamese spoken language the Vietnamese script was Chinese and Mandarin and remained the court language until the French colonization of Indo-China.
Numerous Chinese mestizos attained highly influential positions in Vietnamese government and in fact, it was a Chinese-Vietnamese who headed the first successful revolt against Chinese domination in the 10th century. Following the first overthrow of Chinese power, the Vietnamese began their southward into Cochinchina. In this expansion that took place over several centuries the Chinese who settled in Vietnam played an active role. In the 17th century, when the Manchus conquered China, Chinese Ming loyalists fled to Vietnam. There, they helped the Vietnamese sovereign to conquer Cochinchina from the Khmers. In return, they were rewarded with special privileges and allowed to settle in what has now become Southern Vietnam. Hence the origins of Cholon (the Chinatown of Saigon) and the Ming Huong who were the offsprings of intermarriage between the Ming refugees and the Vietnamese.
Notwithstanding the intermittent struggles for political independence from China over a period of almost 2,000 years, the Vietnamese were generally amicable towards the Chinese minority in their midst. The one notable exception was the massacre of 10,000 Chinese by the "Tayson Rebels" during the 18th century. During the 30-year Tayson peasant
uprising against the Vietnamese Emperor, the Chinese remained loyal to the Nguyen monarchy, and when Gia Dinh fell to the rebels, the Chinese had to pay for this misplaced loyalty in a massive bloodletting.
With the French colonization of Indochina, the number of Chinese residing in Vietnam increased considerably. The Chinese in their traditional roles as traders, retailers, usurers and middlemen served well the economic and political interests of the French. Economic growth under a colonial system attracted new waves of Chinese immigrants from poverty-stricken provinces of Southern China in the late 19th and early 20th century. By the time of the Geneva Conference in 1954 whereby Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallel, there were rough estimates of 100,000 ethnic Chinese living in Cholon-Saigon.
The civil war in Vietnam and partitioning drove a considerable number of ethnic Chinese from the North to the South. Those who remained in the North were concentrated at the Hanoi-Haiphong area while some were engaged in private trade and commerce, many worked in mines, and ports of fishermen. On the border areas between China and Vietnam, small communities of Chinese (mostly of Hakka stock) were farmers. The gradual socialization of the North Vietnamese economy in the 50's and the 60's under a communist regime transformed whatever remained of private capitalistic ventures – a process that did not provoke any mass departures of Chinese or generate any vehement protests from the Chinese government. In general, the Chinese appeared well integrated into a socialist, Vietnamese society. This integration was facilitated probably as much by the then amicable relationship between China and Vietnam as by the policy of the PRC to encourage its nationals and overseas Chinese to adopt the nationality of their host countries.
The Nationality Issue
In 1954, China had openly declared that is was renouncing
the former policy of the Kuomintang and the issue of dual nationality. It proposed to negotiate treaties with Southeast Asian countries that would allow ethnic Chinese or Chinese nationals to freely determine the nationality of their choice. One corollary of this was that those who chose the citizenship of their host countries would rescind their right to Chinese citizenship. China also actively encouraged all those of Chinese origins in Southeast Asia to adopt the nationality of their host countries, to integrate with the people and to respect their laws and customs. In North Vietnam, China under-scored its sincerity on this issue by discontinuing the old practice of issuing Chinese passports to Chinese Vietnamese citizenship.
In South Vietnam, however, the nationality issue of the Chinese had become another source of antagonism between the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and Peking, Under Diem's administration, the South Vietnamese government in 1955 decreed that all Chinese born in Vietnam automatically became Vietnamese citizens. The Chinese were left with no choice as to the kind of nationality they could adopt. The suddenness with which the decrees were enacted and the use of force and threats in its implementation aroused vehement protests from both Peking as well as Taipei. Peking accused Diem of violating international laws and while it reiterated its policy of encouraging the overseas Chinese to adopt the citizenship should be freely and voluntarily made.
Despite the protests of both Peking and Taipei, Diem followed up the decree on forcible naturalization with the nationalization of all categories of trade in Sept. 1956. (a move that was directly and exclusively aimed at the Chinese). Non-Vietnamese (i.e. Chinese) citizen were prohibited from engaging in the sale of meat and fish, in haberdashery, in coal and charcoal trading, in the sale of petroleum, in rice-milling, in the sale of rice and grains, in the sale of textiles, scrap iron and in the transportation industry. While Chinese it first reacted by transferring to other trades, they later circumvented the regulation by adopting Vietnamese
citizenship. If the goal of Diem's legislation was to undermine Chinese control to retail trade and commerce in Saigon it failed rather miserably for apart from a nominal change in national status, business continued as usual for the Chinese. Nevertheless, the net effect of the above two legislation was to force most ethnic Chinese in South Vietnam to adopt Vietnamese citizenship. By 1961, only about 2,000 of the 1 million Chinese in South Vietnam held Chinese citizenship.
This situation however, did not indicate the complete resolution of the Chinese nationality issue. When in 1975 Vietnam was reunified under the leadership of the Vietnamese Worker's Party, the Chinese government once again raised the issue of nationality. Peking reminded Hanoi that in 1960, the South Vietnam National Liberation Front had announced that it would nullify "all the reactionary laws concerning the Chinese" and would allow them the freedom to choose their nationality. Hanoi authorities refused to reopen the issue in addition to refusing to allow Chinese Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City rubbed salt into the wound by insisting that the Chinese register for the elections of the National Assembly in 1976 under the nationality imposed on them by Diem. The nationality issue simply added another thorn to Sino-Vietnamese relations. And as the political schism between China and Vietnam widened the attitudes of Vietnamese authorities and their policies toward the Chinese became correspondingly harder.
Sino-Vietnam Relations and Un's Policies Towards the Chinese
On the economic front, the business operations of those Chinese who had remained in Ho Chi Minh City after 1975 had increasingly become a source of irritations to the Vietnamese leadership. For the Chinese businessmen in the South, business had continued as usual after Liberation and their capitalistic ventures continued to flourish under a
socialist regime. A series of currency reforms meant to break the grip of the private sector on the economy in the South failed to achieve its goal mainly as a result of the ingenious and swift tactics of the Chinese businessmen. Although some small business did go bankrupt, the currency reforms hardly affected the majority of Chinese traders. Meanwhile, the black market in foreign exchange and illegal goods thrived under the predominant participation of Chinese businessmen who wooed and in many cases corrupted the inexperienced rural Party cadres from the North with bribes in order to secure a breathing space for their illegal enterprises.
For a while, the operations of the Chinese business community in Ho Chi Minh City were tolerated by the government as priority was given to the consolidation of political power after liberation and the encouragement of traders and retailers who were mainly Chinese were still sorely needed and their overall commercial skill were deemed important in the rehabilitation of the economy. The tolerance of the Vietnamese authorities quickly wore thin however, as war clouds gathered once more over Indochina.
Not only in the South but in the North as well, both economic and political pressures began to build up on the Chinese. The gap between China and Vietnam's attitude towards the Soviet Union had visibly widened after '75 and their differences grew increasingly antagonistic with China's continued support of the Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea. In Vietnam, the hostility towards China and the Chinese grew correspondingly as the conflict between Kampuchea and VN intensified.
As early as Feb. 1978, the on-off border between China and VN in the North had begun to affect the lives of Chinese communities strung along the common border as well as in the Hanoi-Haiphong area. As thousands of ethnic Chinese streamed across the border into China, the Chinese government accused the Vietnamese of systematically and forcibly driving the Chinese out of Vietnam. Hanoi
retaliated by charging the Chinese embassy in North VN with rumor mongering and instigating exodus. Despite Vietnamese claims, it would be difficult to imagine that the Chinese embassy could have succeeded so dramatically in urging the Chinese to leave Vietnam. Obviously, the economic burdens that a massive influx of refugees would give rise to would have sufficiently deterred the Chinese authorities from encouraging such an exodus.
It was clear that Vietnam authorities were making life difficult for the Chinese in Vietnam. There political loyalty was suspect, whether they were Vietnamese citizens or not and many ethnic Chinese were dismissed from their jobs and subjected to frequent security checks. The Chinese were kept under close surveillance and no doubt became the targets of general Vietnamese hostility that intensified with every report of Khmer attacks on Vietnam and the implicit role of "big brother" China. By driving the Chinese population on the border areas into China, the Vietnamese created a buffer zone of "no man's land" Between China and Vietnam. From the Chinese perspective, the Vietnamese were unmistakably making warlike preparations. On the Vietnamese side, traditional fears of Chinese expansionism began to loom large. Inevitably, the "Chinese issue" had become inextricably intertwined with Vietnamese fears of Chinese domination. Not only did the Vietnamese authorities perceive the ethnic Chinese as potential 5th columnists (as Soviet propaganda had been urging them to do for a long time) for China, but they feared that the strongly sinicized Vietnamese tribes living in the highlands bordering China would seek political autonomy from Vietnam and lean towards China.
All along the ill-defined border Vietnam and China, tribal minorities exist that have relatives on both sides of the border. Over the past few years, these tribesmen have had increasing contacts with China (low consumer prices in China being a source of attraction) and displayed a growing tendency to turn to Chinese authorities rather than the
Vietnamese. This has nurtured Vietnamese fears that the mountainous autonomous zones with their tribal leaders might turn into pro-Chinese fiefdoms and in fact led to the recent official dissolution of the Tay Bac and Viet Bac autonomous zones.
The simmering border dispute between Vietnam and China, the expulsion of ethnic Chinese from North Vietnam, the growing resentment against China for its support of Kampuchea in the Vietnamese-Kampuchea conflict and the mounting economic crisis in Vietnam exacerbated whatever irritations existed between Vietnamese authorities and the Chinese in the south. In March 1978, Hanoi announced moves to abolish "bourgeois trade" in the South. This, however, was preceded by the mobilization of a large policy and military force to surround Cholo – the habitat of 80% of South Vietnam's Chinese. Thousands of Vietnamese youth, accompanied by soldiers, were then sent to make an inventory of assets and goods in shops and house in the area. These raids produced large amounts of goods, money and gold bars. It is note-worthy that the timing of these raids coincided with news of the massacres of Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge. While the element of anti-Chinese politics was evidently present in these raids, the Vietnamese authorities justified their actions by citing the necessity to break "bourgeois" (read "Chinese") control over food prices and the rice trade and to persuade the unproductive population of Ho Chi Minh City to leave for "NEW ECONOMIC ZONES" in order to further the socialist transformation of Vietnam.
30,000 families of businessmen were ordered to join their relatives in villages or be forcibly transferred to New Economic Zones – resettlement areas on virgin land. While these draconian measures undoubtedly had some of their origins in the hardening of Vietnamese attitudes towards the Chinese, in general they were also attributable to the economic crisis that had plagued Vietnam since 1977. Corp failures and mismanagement have certainly contributed their
share to the crisis but Vietnamese authorities insisted that the persistence of private trade in the South had worsened conditions. Apparently, private traders (mainly of Chinese stock) had managed to corner the surplus rice of peasants in the Mekong Dalta by offering higher prices than the government. Then they proceeded to hoard the rice, causing shortages, inflated prices and speculation. The continued existence of a market that was more than 65% under private control also engendered bribery and corruption, which filtered to the Spoartan North and led to the growth of an open-air market in Hanoi and a small black market in foreign currency and imported goods.
There certainly were evidences that private trade, in which the Chinese dominated, had undermined some of the socialistic measures of the Vietnamese government 'but the abruptness and high-handed manner in which socialization took place left many Chinese businessmen without alternative means of livelihood. For the majority of these urbanities, the prospects of surviving in the New Economic Zones appeared depressingly dim. Protests and mass demonstrations by the ethnic Chinese only met with bloody retaliation from the authorities.
In the eyes of the Chinese government, Hanoi's treatment of the Chinese in the south smacked fervor than of Soviet interference in the Sino-Vietnamese dispute. The Chinese official media pointed out that socialization of the economy in the north in the 50s and 60s unlike the current policies, had not discriminated specifically against the Chinese and had not provoked the mass departure of Chinese. Peking was convinced that the contrast in approach to socialization had been the result of Soviet anti-Chinese agitation. In the context of deteriorating Sino-Vietnamese relations and the absence of a Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, the Chinese Government's attempt to "protect the Chinese" was limited to the dispatching of two ships to pick up: Chinese Vietnamese refugees, who had begun to stream forth from the south.
By the end of 1978 and early 1979, Vietnam's "Chinese problem had begun to hit Asian shores as un-seaworthy junks crammed with ethnic Chinese left Vietnam. For all of these refugees, political and economic condition in Vietnam had reached a point where flight seemed the best and only solution. The consistency of refugee accounts regarding the manner of their departure confirmed suspicions that Vietnamese authorities were encouraging the exodus and were even profiting from it. Refugees reportedly paid the equivalent of 10 taels of gold per person to leave Vietnam – an amount that was supposedly managing the human traffic. Indeed the participation of Chinese middlemen in the affair, their profiteering from it and the Vietnamese government's apparent sanctioning of it gave an ironical twist to the whole phenomenon.
The dramatic cutback in the flow of refugees from Vietnam in recent months indicate more the effect of international opinion on Vietnam rather than a rethinking of its policies towards the overseas Chinese. Some analysts predict that Hanoi's turning off the tap is only a temporary measure and that since at least 800,000 ethnic Chinese still remain in Vietnam, the tap could be turned on again. Overall, Vietnam’s recent policies towards its Chinese minority while in part motivated by economic and ideological consideration have been largely influenced by the politics involved in its relations with China, Kampuchea and the Soviet Union.
The case of Vietnam demonstrates once again the vulnerability of overseas Chinese communities to the exigencies of politics involving particularly China's relations with Southeast Asia. In spite of the growing evidences that more and more overseas Chinese are identifying with their countries of residence and citizenship rather than with China, the notion still seems to persist in Southeast Asian countries that the Chinese ultimately have an emotional and political attachment to China that make them potential 5th columnists for the "mother country." Furthermore, as
Vietnam has demonstrated, hostility towards China can and has been translated into hostility towards the Chinese minority in the country. Vietnam's treatment of its ethnic was a symptom of deteriorating Sino-Vietnamese relations rather than a cause.
China's response to Hanoi's actions was guided in part by certain principles governing its relations with the overseas Chinese but in the main the vehemence of China's protest was influenced by China's belief that it was the Soviet Union that had ultimately been responsible for the "persecution of Chinese" in Vietnam. In this respect, it is worth noting that since 1967, the Soviet Union had produced several books, brochures and pamphlets on "The Overseas Chinese as Bourgeois Tools of Chinese Expansionism in Southeast Asia." Ironically, these publications repeat the "5th column" theories about the overseas Chinese that the CIA used to propagate in Asia during the 50s! Evidently, the attention being paid to the overseas Chinese indicate that they still count as a vital factor in China's relations with Southeast Asia.
Taken from Praxis Jan-Apr., 1980.