Riots in Bình Dương

So, I don’t know if it’s hit your radar if you’re living outside the country, but Vietnam’s been having some pretty serious civil unrest the last couple of days: in an industrial area called Bin Duong Bình Dương , rather near to Saigon, factories were attacked, looted, and set on fire. The international news coverage seems to have caught on in the last 24 hours, and I see in the articles a lot of attempts to clarify what triggered this outburst:

Thousands of workers rampaged through an industrial area in southern Vietnam on Tuesday in what reportedly began as protests against China’s stationing of an oil rig in disputed waters off of Vietnam’s coast.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Kham (VIETNAM - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) -- Click for Source.
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Kham (VIETNAM – Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) — Click for Source.

It’s been alleged that the police didn’t do much early on–or didn’t have clearance to do much, or feared they were too heavily outnumbered–which allowed this all to spiral out of control, including looting and a lot of fear among Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporean, and yes, Korean expatriates in Vietnam. A few factories were set on fire, and many more were trashed:

VSIP Binh Duong industrial parks 1 and 2 are managed by a unit of Singapore’s Sembcorp Industries.

A VSIP spokeswoman said protesters set fire to three factories but there were no reports of casualties.

Local police have taken over the provision of security at the two parks, she added in a statement.

Anti-China mobs torched up to 15 foreign-owned factories and trashed many more in southern Vietnam as anger over the recent deployment by China of an oil rig in disputed Southeast Asian waters spun dangerously out of control, according to news reports out of Vietnam.

The unrest at industrial parks established to attract foreign investors was the most serious outbreak of public disorder in years.

Apparently a lot of rioters and looters have been arrested–the NYT article above mentions the detainment of over four hundred people–so perhaps the mayhem is dying down… but there were also demonstrations and protests in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and even in the shopping district near our house, far from downtown.

It seems apparent to me that it’s not really all about the Chinese oil rig, of course. Despite this being a dispute with China, the rampage has been much less discerning: rumor on the Korean web boards has it that a Singaporean factory was one of the worst-hit, and that outside a Taiwanese school, “Chinese” were lynched-in-effigy–that is, a mannequin was hanged by the neck, prompting closures not just at the Taiwanese school but also at the local Korean International School as well.

Not only that: many South Korean-run factories have been attacked; the factory run by one student we know was actually pretty badly trashed, or so we heard tonight. (One of our students joked that maybe his dad was happy to find his office computer smashed to bits, making work impossible, yay!) Fortunately, nobody’s been seriously injured yet, at least not in the news reports I’ve read, but that’s scary, and Bình Dương is a royal mess.

This raises the question: why hit Korean factories?

The rationalization for the attacks on Korean factories that’s been going the rounds on the Korean discussion boards here–where people who argued with protesters and rioters have shared their experiences–is that Korean factory owners “hire a lot of Joseon-jok [Chinese-Koreans] as managers” and therefore Koreans “are supporting China.”

That seems like a sketchy explanation at best, and while I don’t know how distinct Taiwanese is from Chinese for your average Vietnamese factory worker (in news reports,  Taiwanese factory personnel claim the rioters weren’t interested in the distinction), but generally Korea has a high enough profile as to be perceived as distinct, in part thanks to the pop culture here. And yet Korean factories were among those hit hardest, and Chinese ones weren’t, at least according to one New York Times report:

The great majority of the affected factories and workshops were owned by Taiwanese or South Korean companies.

“There was quite a lot of damage,” said Chen Bor-show, the director-general for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, which functions as Taiwan’s de facto consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. Mr. Chen said that around 200 Taiwanese companies were affected.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said 50 Korean-owned factories were damaged in the riots, and one South Korean citizen was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. 

From the Wall Street Journal report: A factory building burns in the Binh Duong province, Vietnam, Wednesday. Click for source.
From the Wall Street Journal report: A factory building burns in the Bình Dương province, Vietnam, Wednesday. Click for source.

Therefore, at least to me, it’s pretty obvious the riots aren’t just about the dispute with China… so what’s the deal?

I don’t know enough on the Vietnamese side to really say. Maybe this is more general anti-neo-imperialist sentiment bubbling for (the “extremism” mentioned in some reports)? Perhaps it’s some kind of indeterminate xenophobia, or some generalized resentment of all foreign ventures in Vietnam? It could be that the people involved are angry for a host of reasons only partly connected to the factories, but are venting in a way that seems more politically acceptable to them… and maybe they didn’t care whose stuff they were breaking and looting, because the priority was on the venting? Or maybe the places hit were just easy targets, with laxer security than other places? 

I simply don’t know enough about Vietnamese society, culture, and politics–or the situation in Bình Dương–to even hazard a guess about any of those possibilities.

Still, it’s hard not to suggest one more possible reason for the targeting of Korean factories:

Korean businessmen often make lousy bosses… and they tend to be perceived as especially lousy by non-Korean employees.

I don’t want to get into it too deeply, but I’ll just say that conversations with Koreans connected to Korean factories here have often brought to mind the anti-communist anti-capitalist propaganda films of Sergei Eisenstein. Different costumes and props–polo shirts instead of tuxedoes, and soju or Sapporo beer in place of cognac, cigarettes in place of cigars–and not a stick of Victorian furniture in sight, but in terms of the disdain for factory workers, and the attitudes towards their exploitation? I hate to say it, but South Korea gives those Russian bad-guy characters a real run for its money.

Some of South Korea, anyway: it must be said that there are really progressive Koreans here, too. (Mrs. Jiwaku is one, after all.)

In fact, it doesn’t feel like much of an exaggeration to suggest that Korean expatriate society in Vietnam can be roughly divided into two groups:

(a) those who respect Vietnamese people as human beings, and
(b) those connected to the Korean-run factories here.

From all the stories I’ve heard involving the latter group–including more than a few from their own mouths, or the mouths of the kids who have internalized their parents’ unfortunate attitudes and beliefs–I’m not even remotely surprised that Korean factories got hit so hard. I’m not saying this is for sure the reason, but… well, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Not from everything I’ve heard.  

Anyway, for Mrs. Jiwaku and me personally, the personal implications are noteworthy:

For one thing, lessons are going to be slow for a few days (or until this dies down), probably: some of the adults we teach will be busy dealing with the fallout over in Bình Dương, but also, most parents feel (very understandably) a need to be careful about sending their kids out in taxis or shuttle buses, especially after the commencement of protests in Saigon proper. They’re even more leery in the wake of the Sewol Ferry Disaster.

Long term it doesn’t matter–we’ve been planning to leave Vietnam in late August anyway–but in the short-to-medium term, we don’t really know how many South Korean factories are going to have to suspend operations temporarily, or longer; probably not enough to make leaving sooner our best option, but you never know… I mean, this is another snippet from the NYT article:

Mr. San, the blogger, who uses the pen name Huy Duc, said that some of the workshops were very severely damaged. “It’s kind of a disaster zone,” he said. “Everyone is scared. There are hundred of factories that will have to close for weeks or months.

Also, Mrs. Jiwaku’s planning to be a bit more careful for a while. She commented on how she’s often mistaken for Vietnamese when she’s with me, but mistaken for Chinese when she’s alone. And while it’s pointless to get paranoid, when things get worked up like this, it can’t pay to be a little careful. 

3 thoughts on “Riots in Bình Dương

    1. Argh!

      Thanks Jack, for the typo as well as the concern. That “anti-communist” line is just a momentary spontaneous access to an alternate dimension brain-glitch. (At least you have a tablet keyboard to blame!) I’ve amended it.

      Over here things actually have cooled off almost completely as far as I can tell, aside from very isolated incidents. (I think it was last week, one local woman committed protest suicide–by self-immolation–in front of the Chinese embassy, over a Vietnamese fishing ship that was reportedly attacked by a Chinese ship in the area and sunk, killing all the crew. That’s all we’ve heard about.) I was actually expecting more fallout–some of the Korean families whose kids and wives we teach are here because of the dads’ jobs at factories, and a few got badly trashed–but not family we know has even left, and the kids are all back to school, and so on.

      As far as us, the only thing we’ve noticed is a slight increase in people asking Jihyun where she’s from, but nobody so far has disbelieved her when she tells them she’s Korean, so safety’s no longer a concern, I think. Knock on wood!

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