— In the face of growing constraints on freedom of speech by Vietnamese authorities, protesters who oppose Chinese policies and trade practices are finding inventive ways to express themselves.
With stories of carcinogenic bras and toxic apples from China prevalent in the Vietnamese media, many people try to avoid buying Chinese goods. However, a few have taken it one step further and are using consumer choice as a way to express their political views.
Paulo Nguyen Thanh manages the website No China Shop
, which allows reputable local producers to sell strictly made-in-Vietnam products ranging from handbags to organic vegetables. He says he has two kinds of customers, those who are concerned about the ill effects of substandard goods and those who want to express their patriotism.
The site is one-of-a-kind in Vietnam, Thanh says, but is already proving popular. In two days he says the website sells around 4,000 items.
Thanh says Chinese products account for 95 percent of goods on the Vietnamese market. He says many people would rather buy products that are not made in China but they cannot find an alternative.
One of his latest offerings is a special kind of envelope, known as "bao li xi", which is filled with money and given as a gift during the Lunar New Year festival.
Along with the traditional new year message, the design includes a map of Vietnam and the words: “Hoang Sa, Truong Sa, Vietnam,” - the Paracel and Spratly islands belong to Vietnam. China claims the islands and much of the surrounding sea.
Thanh was among a group of people who took part in anti-China protests in June.
He says while shopping in supermarkets he noticed that nearly all of Tet envelopes were imported from China with Chinese lettering. He says Tet is a Vietnamese holiday so the design should be in Vietnamese.
Jonathan London, Vietnam expert and assistant professor at City University Hong Kong, says complaints about Chinese sabotage of Vietnam’s economy are literally thousands of years old. However, part of the recent boycott movement has been inspired by aggressive Chinese foreign policy.
In recent months authorities detained protesters at an anti-China rally, jailed 13 Catholic activists and arrested high profile activist lawyer Le Quoc Quan, moves interpreted by some as part of an increasing crackdown on freedom of speech.
London says in this restrictive atmosphere, consumption is one way for Vietnamese people to express their views.
"Essentially the state cannot manage people’s consumption as tightly as they can manage people’s open expression of ideas...the Vietnamese populace has been pushed to a point where the consumer-based movement is one of the only options that’s available to them," London said.
Most consumers are more concerned about quality than foreign policy.
At a busy open market in Hanoi, 32-year-old stallholder Ngoc says many Vietnamese people do not like buying Chinese goods, particularly poultry, fruit and vegetables, but she adds she and her friends do not have an opinion on political issues.
She says in the past Vietnamese people would buy Chinese goods but they know better now. Many are concerned about dangerous chemicals used to preserve fresh goods.
China is Vietnam’s biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $41 billion in 2012, up from nearly $36 billion a year earlier. The country’s reliance on China economically puts it in a difficult position politically. A consumer backlash in China over Japanese products following another territorial dispute cost Japanese firms substantial profits. However, London says it is not likely a boycott of Chinese products in Vietnam would have a big impact.
"If this boycott were to gain momentum and gain wide notice in China then I think it could be significant but my sense is that at present it is mainly an expression of dissent," London noted. "And outrage at China’s foreign policy within Vietnam."
London says the existential conditions of Vietnam that have always existed and will always exist is the need to cope with China. Despite pressure from authorities, many people are likely to continue to find inventive ways of expressing their views.