Anti-Chinese mobs torched and ransacked foreign-owned factories in Vietnam Wednesday to express anger over the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, bringing production to a standstill, workers and factory owners said.
Police said they had detained 700 people since anti-China protests which began at the weekend turned violent from Tuesday as more than 20,000 people attacked Chinese and other foreign factories in industrial parks in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial capital.
The violence was directed at Chinese-owned factories, but companies from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore were also affected, with many closing their doors and stopping operations.
Police said workers burned at least 15 factories while hundreds more were vandalized, according to local reports, following anti-China street demonstrations in major cities on Saturday and Sunday over the giant oil rig deployed in waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi.
Military vehicles were dispatched to quell rioting in Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring Binh Duong and Dong Nai provinces in the early hours of Wednesday morning, sources told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Armored vehicles were sent to guard the Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, amid stern statements of concern from Beijing as well other countries with factories affected by the violence.
Workers told RFA police and other instigators had led workers in the rioting, while others said workers had joined the demonstrations spontaneously.
Some factories put up signs saying they were not Chinese-owned in attempts to protect their facilities from rioters angry over Beijing’s actions in the maritime territorial dispute, workers said.
“Factories that have Chinese characters outside have been destroyed,” said Huynh Kim Bau, owner of a factory in Binh Duong.
“The rioters destroyed things and set fire to things that they suspected belonged to Chinese, anything with Chinese words on it. Even police and army troops couldn’t do anything about it because there were too many people,” he said.
Some factories put up signs backing Vietnam’s claim to disputed islands, he said.
“Factories have stopped operation, and outside there are signs saying, ‘The Paracels and Spratlys belong to Vietnam,’ and ‘Long Live Vietnam.'"
State media initially reported robustly on the protests, which experts have said authorities may have allowed to proceed in a calculated move to voice displeasure with Beijing.
But reports posted earlier in the week were taken down after the protests turned violent, sending local residents to social media for information about the disputes.
Police standing by
Workers reported colleagues being urged to join the violence and police standing by as workers rioted.
“This was not done by the workers. It was instigated by a group of people who threatened the workers, so they joined the protest,” Le Thi An, a worker at a Chinese-owned company in Binh Duong said.
“The group had scores of people, and they went around and damaged things.”
“I saw traffic police on the streets but they did not stop them, and I was surprised,” she said.
Another worker said police had instructed his colleagues to join the rioting and had observed the protesters without stopping them.
“Some women workers said … that in the morning they were working when police came and told them to stop work and join the protest…. So all the workers left,” said the worker, Nguyen Dang.
“They said those people were wearing police uniforms. I saw police following behind the protesters and they were very calm.”
Hundreds of arrests
Police in Binh Duong Province have arrested 599 people for inciting riots and looting, and police in Dong Nai have arrested 100, the Tuoi Tre newspaper reported.
According to Binh Duong police, as of Wednesday afternoon, the premises of more than 460 local companies had been wrecked and vandalized, and as many as 15 factories had their warehouses set ablaze, the paper said.
The violence has prompted Beijing and its embassy in Hanoi to issue warnings to Chinese citizens in Vietnam.
The Chinese Embassy's website said it saw no end to the attacks and urged Chinese to take precautions, while the Hong Kong government issued an amber travel warning for Vietnam.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying expressed concern over the rioting at a daily press briefing on Wednesday, saying Beijing had made representations to Vietnam and enacted emergency mechanisms to provide security to Chinese companies.
"We urge Vietnam to stop all provocative actions, come to their senses, and stop all acts intended to create disturbances," she said, according to reports.
Singapore called in Vietnam's ambassador to the country to voice concerns over the protests, while Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou told a national security conference that the government would send aircraft to evacuate its nationals if the situation worsened.
South China Sea tensions
In Washington, White House Spokesman Jay Carney said the dispute in the South China Sea over the oil rig needs to be resolved through dialogue, not intimidation.
Beijing’s deployment of the rig on May 1 near the Paracel Islands some 220 kilometers (140 miles) off of Vietnam’s coast saw patrol vessels from the two countries converging in the disputed area, sending tensions spiraling.
The ships have skirmished repeatedly in recent days, causing collisions and the use of water cannon.
Beijing’s decision to set up the rig is seen as one of its boldest moves yet in a bid to secure its claims in the South China Sea, which is known in Vietnam as the East Sea.
Dozens of anti-China rallies have been held in Vietnam since 2007 against perceived aggression by Beijing in the waters.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.