Vietnam’s authoritarian communist government has allowed state-controlled media to report on mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, with one newspaper even carrying the profile of a student leader of the unprecedented campaign.
The protests by tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents against Beijing’s decision to limit electoral reform in the former British colony have been closely followed in Vietnam, where an electoral system similar to communist China is used.
Vietnam’s official Thanh Nien newspaper has routinely covered the five days of Hong Kong protests championing democratic elections, and recently ran a popularly-received profile on 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong, who has become the unlikely face of the demonstrations, known as the “Umbrella Revolution.”
A number of other state-run newspapers, including Dan Tri, Nguoi Lao Dong and Giao Duc, as well as online news sites VNexpress, VNeconomy and VietnamNet, have also run articles covering the protests, despite an ongoing crackdown on dissent in one-party Vietnam, where demonstrations are extremely rare.
Journalist Le Phu Khai, a former employee of Vietnam Television (VTV), told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the widespread coverage indicates that Hanoi does not feel threatened by the example the protests set for the Vietnamese people, though he didn’t rule out a clampdown if they continue to grow.
“When the government thinks that it is not good for them, then they will forbid [coverage]—then it will be different,” he said.
He said that people in Vietnam may be too preoccupied with their daily lives to pay much attention to the Umbrella Revolution and are unconcerned that they are unable to choose their own representatives in government.
“When things become more urgent in Vietnam and people are more aware of their political rights, then the government may interfere,” he said.
Journalist Huynh Ngoc Chenh said that Than Nien is known for “pushing the boundaries” among official media in Vietnam, and routinely tries to present arguments “within the framework” of the communist system.
“If they see wrongdoings by the party, they can’t criticize them openly, but will still find a way to speak up … in whatever way they are not forbidden,” he said.
“In the case of Hong Kong, maybe Thanh Nien wants to convey some sort of message to the readers.”
Other party newspapers have remained silent on the protests, and journalist Pham Dinh Trong told RFA that the editors may be cautious of drawing comparisons between Hong Kong and Vietnam.
“Hong Kong is like Vietnam—the party chooses candidates and the people vote among those chosen. But Hong Kong people can protest,” he said.
“Big party newspapers and media outlets … have remained quiet, because if they report about this movement it would be like providing guidelines or an example, encouraging the Vietnamese [to do the same], because this very much relates to Vietnam.”
China's main parliament the National People's Congress (NPC)’s standing committee ruled on Aug. 31 that while Hong Kong’s next chief executive would be chosen by popular vote in 2017, candidates must be vetted by a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee.
Under the ruling all of Hong Kong's five million eligible voters will get a vote, but the vetting process for candidates makes the nomination of anyone from the city's vocal pan-democratic camp highly unlikely.
Pan-democratic politicians and campaigners have dismissed the plan as "fake universal suffrage."
The protesters in Hong Kong, aside from calling for open elections, want chief executive C.Y. Leung to resign over the deployment of riot police, tear-gas and pepper spray against them over the weekend.
Vietnam saw widespread riots and a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations with its giant neighbor China following Beijing’s deployment in May of a massive oil rig off the coast of a disputed island in the South China Sea.
Hanoi initially allowed the protests in a rare move widely seen as a way to amplify state anger against Beijing, but the government backpedaled and clamped down after protests turned bloody, with riots targeting Chinese business interests. Beijing says four Chinese citizens were killed in the unrest.
Vietnam and China fought a brief but bloody war in 1979 triggered by Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia. Ties normalized in 1991 but anti-Chinese sentiment remains strong in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government fear that any public gatherings could snowball into protests against the Communist leadership, and many of the country’s rare demonstrations have resulted in mass arrests by authorities.
In April, New York-based media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists said that at least 17 reporters—mostly bloggers—are currently imprisoned in Vietnam, making it “the world's fifth worst jailer of journalists, behind China, Iran, Turkey, and Eritrea.”
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.