Vietnam’s Facebook dissidents test the limits of Communist state


HANOI (Reuters) – “This isn’t like China,” says Vietnamese activist ‘Anh Chi’ at a noisy bar off one of the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. “They can’t shut Facebook down here.”

His 40,000 Facebook followers make him one of Vietnam’s better-known critics, but by no means the biggest in a Communist state whose attempts to crack down on dissidents have collided with the rapidly expanding reach of foreign-owned social media.

Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang this month called for unspecified tougher internet controls in the face of “hostile forces” that he said threatened not only cybersecurity but also “undermined the prestige of the leaders of the party and the state”.

But taming the internet in a young, fast-growing country is not easy, especially when the companies providing the platform are global. China, in contrast, allows only local internet companies operating under strict rules.

Vietnam is among Facebook’s top 10 countries, by number of members. It now reports more than 52 million active accounts to advertisers, according to research provided to Reuters by social media agencies We Are Social and Hootsuite. Google’s YouTube and Twitter are popular too.

As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, social media underpins business and communications as well as government critics.

Some dissidents posting on social media have been caught in a major crackdown that has followed changes in the ruling party hierarchy. At least 15 people have been arrested this year.

High profile bloggers Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as “Mother Mushroom”, and Tran Thi Nga have been jailed for 10 and nine years respectively. Government critics also complain of beatings by unidentified assailants and intimidation.


But dozens of activists still post critical comment every day.

Several have more than 100,000 followers and at least one has over 400,000 – more than double that for the government’s own Facebook page and nearly a 10th the size of the Communist Party’s national membership.

“We use any chance we have to raise our voice: environmental issues, territorial issues, land issues,” said ‘Anh Chi’, 43, a Vietnamese teacher, translator and publisher whose real name is Nguyen Chi Tuyen.

Vietnam tried to pressure Facebook and Google to take down thousands items of anti-government content in March by leaning on advertisers, but the continued prevalence suggests limited success.

One reason it is hard to take tougher action is business: From brewers to insurers to the makers of the motorbikes buzzing Vietnam’s streets, social media is a key marketing route to young and increasingly affluent consumers in an economy growing at more than 6 percent a year, one of the fastest rates in Asia.

Vietnamese dissident and activist JB Nguyen Huu Vinh uses a smartphone to live stream a mass to call for freedom of jailed dissidents and activists at Thai Ha church in Hanoi, Vietnam August 27, 2017. Picture taken on August 27, 2017.Kham

For small businesses it is crucial: One new silk flower shop in Hanoi told Reuters 95 percent of customers found it through Facebook or Instagram.

“You’ve got kids that are building businesses on these platforms and generating significant success,” said Simon Kemp, founder of the Kepios marketing consultancy.

While it accounts for only a tiny part of Facebook or Google parent Alphabet’s revenue, Vietnam is a hot target for global consumer brands. Asia-Pacific was Facebook’s fastest growing region by revenue last year, up nearly 60 percent.

Tighter Internet controls could dampen innovation and impact the growth of Vietnam’s digital economy and its competitiveness, said Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Google declined to comment.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told Reuters the government was an advocate of the internet but tried to minimize “behaviours that harm users and illegal acts such as inciting violence and a depraved lifestyle”.


China blocked Facebook in 2009 and only local sites such as WeChat and Weibo are permitted, operating under laws that ban content that is obscene, violent or offends the Communist Party.

“China has had remarkable success controlling discussion,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

Tools include keyword filtering by the local internet companies and the close monitoring of big networks, he said. Even so, China has said it is investigating its top social media sites for failing to comply with its laws.

Facebook has been blocked in Vietnam occasionally – sometimes at sensitive moments – but never for long.

“Vietnamese authorities have tried for years and so far failed to stop independent journalists and bloggers from using the internet,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It’s a losing battle.”

That does not stop activists being targeted for arrest.

Activist Pham Doan Trang noted on Facebook that some campaigners appeared to have withdrawn from the scene in the face of the crackdown, but said she would not be discouraged.

“Freedom has a very funny rule,” she told Reuters “Once people know the limit of freedom they will never go back.”

Reporting by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Alex Richardson

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


Source link

Trump factor weighs as Vietnam intensifies crackdown on dissidents


(Reuters) – A crackdown on communist Vietnam’s increasingly vocal dissidents has become the biggest in years and activists say authorities have been emboldened by the Trump administration’s lack of emphasis on human rights.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s early decision to drop the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal also removed a clear incentive for Hanoi to show a better rights record, they said.

The U.S. State Department, however, said it continues to insist that better bilateral ties will depend on Hanoi’s progress on human rights.

Vietnam has stepped up measures to silence bloggers and critics whose voices over issues such as a steel mill’s toxic spill last year have been amplified by social media in a country that is among Facebook’s top 10 by users.

At least 15 people have been arrested so far in 2017 – more than in any year since a crackdown on youth activists in 2011 – according to a Reuters tally of arrests for anti-state activities reported by local and national authorities. Four dissidents — a pastor, an engineer, a journalist and a lawyer – were arrested last week.

Freedom of Speech

“Civil society and the democracy and human rights movement increased quite a lot in the last few years and with social media their voices are stronger and stronger,” said Nguyen Quang A., a retired computer scientist and vocal government critic.

“That poses a problem for the leadership.”

Over the past 18 months, Nguyen said he had been detained 12 times without being charged, compared to not once in the previous 18 months.

Vietnam’s government says it is only acting against lawbreakers, with its strict curbs on freedom of speech often flouted on social media.

“All acts of violation of law are strictly treated in accordance with the provisions of Vietnamese law,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang, responding to U.N. criticism of the jailing of one blogger.

Economic growth of more than 5 percent a year for over 16 years has turned Vietnam into a manufacturing powerhouse for everything from Samsung phones to Nike sneakers and brought a surge in prosperity and a revolution in social openness.

Politics has changed more gradually.

Leadership Shift

FILE PHOTO: Nguyen Bac Truyen (C), 39, is escorted by security personnel as he arrives at a court in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam May 10, 2007.Kham/File Photo

The start of the crackdown is dated by activists, diplomats and analysts to the Communist Party congress in January 2016, when the leadership balance shifted towards conservatives prioritising internal security and discipline.

“Although Vietnam has only one party as per the constitution, it actually has many factions and interest groups behind the scenes,” said activist Nguyen Lan Thang. “The political landscape is going through strong movement, not only for activists, but also within the Communist Party.”

Indications of fissures in the ruling Communist Party Politburo came this week when the party proposed sacking a vice-minister over alleged corruption at her former role in an electricity company. Early this year, a top official was demoted and expelled from the Politburo in a rare move.

Manoeuvring had intensified ahead of the expected selection of a new General Secretary of the Communist Party, said Jonathan London of Leiden University, although no date has been set for that.

FILE PHOTO: Nguyen Bac Truyen (R) sits in a police vehicle as he leaves a court in Ho Chi Minh City May 10, 2007.Kham/File Photo

Meanwhile, activists had grown more vocal after street protests erupted last year over a toxic spill from the Taiwanese owned Formosa steel mill.

Among bloggers whose profiles rose over the Formosa protests was Ngoc Nhu Quynh – known as Mother Mushroom – who was jailed for 10 years in July. Another was Tran Thi Nga. She was given a nine-year prison sentence last month.

Trump Factor

Every activist and analyst that Reuters interviewed mentioned a perceived shift in U.S. priorities under Trump as a new factor in reducing pressure on Vietnam’s government.

Not only was Washington paying less attention to the region or to human rights, but Trump gave Vietnam less reason to show willingness to address human rights issues when he dropped the TPP trade deal, in the name of an “America First” policy.

“Vietnam now finds there is much less of a downside for cracking down the way it wanted to in the first place,” said Phil Robertson of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which recently reported on the beating of activists.

“Trump and his policies bear a lot of responsibility for this worsening situation.”

In May, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signalled that the United States would de-emphasize human rights concerns in some of its interactions with other countries, saying that while U.S. values remain constant, they needed to be balanced against national security and economic interests.

The U.S. State Department said the trend of increasing arrests of activists in Vietnam since early 2016 was “deeply troubling” and it called for the release of all prisoners of conscience.

“Progress on human rights will allow the U.S.-Vietnam partnership to reach its fullest potential,” said Justin Higgins, the spokesman for the State Department’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau.

Additional reporting by Donna Airoldi in Bangkok, Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Bill Tarrant


Source link

Attention turns to freedom of Liu Xiaobo’s widow after Chinese dissident’s death


BEIJING (Reuters) – Friends of China’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died of liver cancer in custody, said on Friday they were unable to contact his widow, Liu Xia, and that ensuring her freedom was now a top priority.

Liu Xiaobo, 61, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power” after he helped write a petition known as “Charter 08” calling for sweeping political reforms.

Liu Xia has been under effective house arrest since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and was allowed to visit him in prison about once a month.

Liu Xiaobo died on Thursday after suffering multiple organ failure. He was recently moved from jail to a hospital in the city of Shenyang to be treated for late-stage liver cancer.

Liu Xia was at the hospital as her husband’s health deteriorated over the past couple of weeks.

Rights groups and Western governments have mourned Liu Xiaobo’s death and also called for authorities to grant his wife and the rest of his family freedom of movement.

China responded by lodging “stern representations” with countries that made remarks about Liu Xiaobo, including the United States, expressing its firm opposition, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular briefing.

China also lambasted Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen for her comments on Liu and her calls for China to embrace democracy, saying her behaviour was “very dangerous”.

Geng said he had no information about Liu Xia, but added that the entry and exit of Chinese citizens would be handled in accordance with the law.

“Let’s not make any prejudgements here,” he responded, when pressed on whether Liu Xia was allowed to leave the country. He did not elaborate.

Mo Shaoping, Liu Xiaobo’s lawyer, said there was no legal reason for China to prevent Liu Xia from leaving the country.

“But China is not a country with pure rule of law, so it is possible they will ignore the law and stop her from going,” he added.

In an interview, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said she shared the compassion of people over Liu’s death.

Hu Jia, a fellow dissident and family friend, said: “Now, we are most concerned about Liu Xia, but there has been no information about her.”

“All the willpower and force we put behind freeing Liu Xiaobo, we have turned to Liu Xia,” he said.

Efforts should also focus on Liu Hui, the younger brother of Liu Xia, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2013 for fraud and to whom Liu Xia is very close, Hu added.

Several other friends said they were unable to reach Liu Xia, who suffers from depression, or confirm her whereabouts.

FILE PHOTO – Liu Xia, the wife of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, talks to the media in Beijing February 11, 2010.Nir Elias/File Photo

Efforts are being made to secure permission from Chinese authorities for Liu Xia and Liu Hui to leave, a Western diplomat said, but it was unclear if they would succeed.

Diplomatic sources also said that, before her husband’s hospitalisation, Liu Xia had expressed a wish to go to Germany, in telephone calls with the German embassy.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the Nobel Peace Prize, said it was “deeply worried” about Liu Xia’s situation.

Its leader, Berit Reiss-Andersen, said the Chinese embassy in Oslo had declined to receive her visa application for travel so she could attend Liu’s funeral.

“I was told that my visa application was incorrectly filled in … because I did not have an invitation from the person I was visiting,” Reiss-Andersen told Reuters.

The Shenyang justice department released a video clip of Liu Xiaobo’s treatment, emphasizing that his family had a history of liver cancer and that family members were involved in the treatment process and informed of developments.

Funeral Arrangements

Friends have begun calling to be allowed to join in Liu Xiaobo’s funeral arrangements and support his wife and family.

More than 150 friends and supporters have signed an open letter announcing plans for an “online memorial” to Liu, urging authorities to release his body and allow a public funeral.

“We will pay close attention to how Liu Xiaobo’s funeral will be arranged,” said Shanghai-based writer Wen Kejian, another friend of the family.

“We, at the very least, hope to have the opportunity to go to Shenyang or Beijing to send him off.”

Liu’s remains were taken to Shenyang’s Xiheyuan funeral parlour, a source close to the family said, but a Reuters reporter was turned away on Friday.

Shenyang authorities forced half-a-dozen supporters of Liu who went to pay their respects to leave, or detained them, said Beijing-based rights activist Li Yu, who is tracking the situation.

News of Liu’s death prompted an outpouring of grief online, with many liberals, lawyers, dissidents and journalists sharing articles and posting on messaging app WeChat.

But censors were swift to act. An article titled, “Speaking of heroes, who is a hero?” from respected business publication Caixin was taken down after being shared by many of Liu Xiaobo’s supporters, despite making no mention of him.

“The deceased has gone, the feigned sorrow is really preposterous,” the state-backed Global Times tabloid said in a social media post that appeared to mock mourners. “We will just eat watermelon and watch for the night.”

Ye Du, a writer and friend of Liu’s, said he hoped people would be able to commemorate Liu Xiaobo, adding, “Liu Xia will surely be monitored and controlled”.

Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Gwladys Fouche in OSLO, Joesph Campbell in SHENYANG, China and Fabian Hamacher and Damon Lin in TAIPEI; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel


Source link