On May 18, Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China “will suspend some of its plans for bilateral exchanges with Vietnam in response to the deadly violence against Chinese nationals in the country,” according to state news agency Xinhua. Beginning May 13, local rioters set fire to an unknown number of foreign-owned industrial parks and attacked Chinese workers in residence there. In one of the deadliest confrontations between China and Vietnam since the two countries fought a war in 1979, two Chinese workers were killed and more than 100 injured. Meanwhile, as many as 1,500 Chinese have reportedly fled across Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. Yet since tensions began, Chinese authorities have been surprisingly stingy with information and seemingly mindful of stoking anti-Vietnamese sentiment within China. On social media, users appear to feel the Chinese government failed to react with sufficient speed or urgency to the violence as it unfolded.
At an iron and steel company in Ky Anh, a rural district of Vietnam’s north-central coastal province of Ha Tinh, one user of Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging site, asked, “Why is there no one here to help us? Are we really abandoned?” Taking photos of the scene with a smart phone, the user, who called herself only “a woman lost in love,” later uploaded them to Weibo and appended a geo-tag placing her at Ky Anh. She described locals “burning the work sites, hitting people, and looting” and also “setting workers’ housing on fire.” She ended her message with a plea that seemed directed to her countrymen: “Aren’t we Chinese? How could people continue to neglect us like this?” Another steel worker from the same company fumed, “There is no air-conditioning, no water, and the temperature here” is almost 100 degrees. “Where are you, our motherland?”
Despite the online outcry, for nearly a week after the violence first flared, Mainland Chinese media remained largely reticent on the issue. One May 14 article on the website of Hong Kong-based media conglomerate Pheonix called “Vietnam Uses Anti-Chinese Riots to Loot Taiwanese Business,” appears to have been pulled. “Our fellow countrymen are suffering, but our official media have all lost their voice,” one deleted Weibo comment reads. “I can’t help but ask: why doesn’t CCTV,” China’s largest state-run television outfit, “go and cover the riots?” While censors tolerated discussion of the attacks, many comments raising questions about the government’s treatment of its citizens were quickly removed. (They remain viewable on FreeWeibo, a mirror site that catches deleted Weibo posts.)
Some web users attempted to fill the void. Citing what he claimed was a friend trapped in a factory near Hanoi, An Puruo, an author of online fiction, turned his Weibo account into a news feed delivering daily updates from Vietnam to his 281,000 followers. On May 15, after releasing photos of a scorched factory in southern Vietnam—which shows its Chinese name forcibly removed from the entrance—An wrote that 300 Chinese workers, this time from the iron and steel plant in Ha Tinh, escaped to the border with China’s Guangxi region after the company’s local contact arranged for seven buses. (Foreign Policy was unable to independently confirm any of the information in the Weibo posts.)
Reflecting the high emotions of the moment, many users on Weibo quickly applied the racial epithet typically reserved for Japanese—guizi, which literally means devil—to Vietnamese, and, invoking the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, called for a quick military intervention to reassert China’s sovereignty in the region.
Beijing appears to be responding, if belatedly. On May 18, CCTV reported that five ships were rescuing the 3,000 workers still stranded in Vietnam. The comments on Weibo, however, have only grown more worrying. “In my opinion, a war with Vietnam is forthcoming, and it’s better to do it sooner than later,” wrote Li Ao, a Taiwanese commentator who frequently appeared on Chinese media, on May 18. “This is predestined by both global and regional geopolitics; we have no control over it.” In a deleted post, Wang Bing, a popular Chinese writer, wrote that same day that he found the conflict “thrilling,” and exhorted, “Let’s support Chinese retaliation against Vietnam!”
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