Activists in Vietnam greeted visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping with rare demonstrations Thursday amid an ongoing dispute over territorial rights in the South China Sea, prompting a harsh crackdown by authorities who beat and detained protesters, sources said.
The morning protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City came as Xi kicked off a two-day visit—the first by a Chinese president in a decade—to the capital to discuss bilateral relations and regional affairs, as well as to address the National Assembly, or parliament.
Protesters who gathered in Ho Chi Minh City to oppose Chinese claims in the South China Sea and the government’s decision to invite Xi to Vietnam were ruthlessly beaten by baton-wielding police, said a female activist, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“Never before have [the police] been so brutal to protesters like they were today—they beat women to the point that they fainted on the spot,” she said, adding that most people in the crowd were not activists and had only joined protests on Thursday.
“They threw people into vehicles just like pigs and drove them somewhere we don’t know. They rounded me up too, but I escaped.”
After setting upon the protesters, authorities vacated the area, citing a disruption of traffic.
“[The police] told people to disperse to avoid a traffic jam, but the only people standing on the street were security personnel—all the protesters were on the sidewalk,” the activist said.
Pham Ngoc An, an activist who was detained at the No. 6 commune police station in Ho Chi Minh City’s No. 3 district, questioned why authorities had responded so harshly when protests and other anti-China events in the days leading up to Xi’s visit were allowed to proceed unhindered.
“They rounded us up and then sent traffic police over with a loudspeaker to tell us to disperse before taking us to the station,” An told RFA by telephone, adding that there were nine others being held with him.
“They didn’t crack down on yesterday’s protest … Today they allowed us to start the protest, but didn’t let it proceed. They detained and beat us. They kicked me in the face until I was bleeding.”
Posts on social media put the number of protesters in Ho Chi Minh City at around 20 and included photos of bloodied activists following clashes with police.
In Hanoi, around 20 protesters held a rally against Xi’s visit in front of the Chinese Embassy, but were quickly rounded up and forced onto a bus deployed by authorities, according to a woman who followed the vehicle to a local police station.
“Plainclothes policemen were everywhere—they must have outnumbered the protesters 20 to one,” said the woman, who also declined to provide her name.
The woman said she was sitting at a café across the street when the protesters began marching in a circle in front of the embassy, waving anti-China banners.
“After walking about 50 meters (165 feet), they were rounded up,” she said.
“They tried to continue their march, but after two circles, a bus came and [the police] forced everyone onto it.”
Blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, who spoke to RFA from inside the bus, said he was never told why he was being detained.
“This morning a group of us gathered near the Chinese Embassy to protest Xi Jinping’s visit, but [the police] forced us onto a bus and now we are underway,” he said.
“We know they are taking us to the Hanoi Police Station in Ha Dong district, but we don’t understand why we were forced onto the bus.”
A protester named Pham Ngoc An told RFA that his group was within its rights to protest and would continue to do so, despite the threat of a police crackdown.
“We have the right to express our opinion according to Article 69 of the constitution, which allows legal rallies,” he said.
“We will continue to exercise our right … by rallying, taking to the streets and writing articles.”
According to a Facebook post by blogger Doan Trang, additional protests against Xi’s visit went on in the capital until at least 9:00 p.m., including in parts of the old city where tourists from China, South Korea and the West commonly go sightseeing.
Protests are rare in one party communist Vietnam, but the government has allowed controlled levels of dissent against its neighbor and ideological ally China amid a lengthy dispute over sovereignty of both the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea, which the Vietnamese call the East Sea.
In May last year, Beijing deployed an oil rig—HD-981—to waters off the Vietnamese coast claimed by both countries, prompting a storm of anti-China protests in Vietnam. China withdrew the rig in July, citing bad weather and the completion of exploratory work.
Chinese detentions of Vietnamese fishermen in 2012 and 2014 have also stoked tensions, with both sides accusing the other of ramming vessels during confrontations in the South China Sea.
Earlier this week, eight Vietnamese nongovernmental organizations and 1,700 activists signed an online petition urging Hanoi not to welcome Xi , citing China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam, its aggressive policy in the South China Sea, and its brutal treatment of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters.
On Wednesday, nongovernmental organizations in Hanoi held a seminar on Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty, while activists staged a demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City—each of which attracted around 100 people—but authorities did not intervene.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.