The problem is Chinese gov’t, not its people

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

During the past week, tensions and conflicts between China versus the Philippines and Vietnam have dramatically escalated. But headlines in all the major Asian and several international publications have primarily focused on the China-Vietnam conflict because of the more aggressive reaction of the Vietnamese government compared to the Philippines. Also, the violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam are a sharp contrast to the absence of any threats to local Chinese citizens and businesses in this country.

The troubles started when China placed permanent structures in the disputed areas in the South China Sea. In the case of Vietnam, China placed a colossal oil rig off the Vietnamese coast.

In the case of the Philippines, China has begun a construction project, reportedly an air strip, in the hotly disputed Spratly Islands. When the Philippines lodged a formal protest, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying says that the reef is Chinese territory and added: “Construction by the Chinese side on an island in Chinese territory is entirely a matter that comes under Chinese sovereignty.” However, the Philippines has not taken any drastic action to prevent the construction.

In contrast, the Vietnamese have engaged the Chinese in several maritime skirmishes ranging from reports of attempted ramming to the use of water cannons. To date, there are now a reported 80 Chinese vessels surrounding the oil rig.

But it was the anti-Chinese demonstrations that turned violent that captured the headlines. At the beginning the rioters were targeting and burning Chinese factories and businesses. But soon the targets included other nationalities especially Taiwanese, South Korean, Malaysian and even Japanese factories. It turned out that more than 200 Taiwanese owned factories were burnt or damaged – more than any other nationality.

The only explanation came from an observer who claimed that the Vietnamese do not know any Chinese words. It seemed that the mobs attacked all businesses and factories as long as they saw a Chinese sign, regardless of whether the owners are Chinese, Taiwanese or even Vietnam-born Chinese.

There have been reported deaths resulting from the riots. Also, aside from closing down their factories, there has been an exodus of foreigners, especially Chinese and Taiwanese nationals. Taiwan-based China Airlines has sent special flights to deal with the sudden surge of Taiwanese wanting to leave. There were also reports that hundreds of mainland Chinese had crossed into Cambodia to escape anti-Chinese violence.

This outburst of violence is very rare for Vietnam where its Communist government has always clamped down on any demonstration or public gatherings. In fact, there is a suspicion that the initial protests were approved by the government. But it seems nobody anticipated the mounting anger would explode into violence.

The immediate trigger for the demonstrations has been the installation of the Chinese oil rig off the Vietnamese coast. But as the rioting quickly spread to engulf hundreds of businesses – Taiwanese, Japanese, South Korean, Malaysian — that had no direct links to the dispute, there were speculations about other causes.

The oil rig may have been just a catalyst for the widening wealth gap resulting from the influx of foreign companies. Taiwanese political observer Yen Chen-Sen says: “For the locals prices have gone up, but wages have not caught up. Although the protest is about China’s oil rig, the core anger and fear is against foreign exploitation of their country.”

The other, more plausible explanation is the long standing and historical bitter conflicts between the two nations. It is noticeable that the violence was directed at Chinese nationals and those who were easily mistaken, by the rioters, to be Chinese because of physical appearance and ethnicity – Taiwanese, Japanese, South Korean, Malaysian Chinese and even Chinese Vietnamese.

Vietnam has had a long and bitter relationship with China during its entire history. The original Viets came from central China. For more than eight hundred years, the country was held by China. Then it became a vassal state until the French took over and colonized the country.

After the United States retreated from the country, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and signed a defense agreement with Russia. These two moves made China feel that Vietnam and Russia had entered into an alliance to contain China.

In January, 1979, then Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited the United States and told President Jimmy Carter: “Our little buddy is getting naughty, it’s time to be spanked.” On February 17, a force of 200,000 Chinese with more than 200 tanks invaded Vietnam.

The Vietnamese resorted to the tactics they had used to defeat the American forces. They retreated from the towns, moved to the surrounding hills and jungles, and resorted to guerrilla tactics. This resulted in heavy Chinese casualties numbering in the thousands.

The combination of high casualties, a badly organized People’s Liberation Army high command, and a harsh and unrelenting Vietnamese resistance stopped the Chinese advances before they could capture Hanoi.

On March 16, 1979 the Chinese forces marched back to China. As they retreated, they implemented a scorched earth policy. Every standing property was destroyed. Every livestock was killed. This has left bitter memories that will not be easily erased. During the period 1977 to 1980, more than 140,000 ethnic Chinese left Vietnam fearing discrimination and persecution. This is similar to the cases in Indonesia and Malaysia where there have been violent racial riots in their contemporary history.

In contrast, the Philippines do not have such memories in its history of relations with China. During its entire history as an independent nation, there has never been any record of any violent anti-Chinese or any form of ethnic violence here. There is absolutely no possibility of any such event happening in the Philippines.

Our president is a member of the Cojuangco family which traces its roots to a town in Fujian province in southern China. My own mother’s family, like many Filipino families, traces its own roots to a Chinese immigrant. He combined his full name and made it a family name which is now our Sicangco clan. The Chinoy has become inextricably woven into the tapestry of Filipino culture and life.

Our quarrel is with the government of China and its territorial aggressions, and not with the people of China.

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