As Vietnam struggles to keep the peace with neighboring China, one of its citizens believes he has something to add to Hanoi’s arsenal: his antique collection.
Hoang Van Cuong, who says he can raise tens of millions of dollars by selling everything from royal beds to 2,500-year-old bronze drums, has promised to donate the proceeds to the state so it can support fishermen out in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and China are sparring over the rights to several archipelagos. He expects Hanoi to use some of his money to bolster the military, should clashes break out between the two countries.
A portion of the funds would come from China, of all places, because his collection includes porcelain from the Qing dynasty and other Chinese artifacts, attracting scores of dealers from north of the border. The peculiar irony of taking Chinese money to buy weapons to fight China is not lost on Cuong.
“I don’t like Chinese people,” Cuong said in an interview at his home in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, cluttered with bodhisattva figures and lacquer tables. “But when I’m putting things on sale, I need money. I don’t mind if it’s a Chinese person, an American person, or whoever has money, I’ll sell. But the truth is, between me and China, I don’t like Chinese people.”
The oil rig
In Vietnam, such rancor toward China seems to always linger under the surface, but it burst onto the international stage in 2014 after Beijing parked an oil rig in a part of the South China Sea that both countries claim. That sparked rare, deadly rioting across Vietnam. Authorities quelled the violence, but many Vietnamese are still finding ways to air their objections to China.
Fundraisers are a common means for citizens to show their love of Vietnam and displeasure with China, from collection boxes at concerts, to donation campaigns by top newspaper Tuoi Tre. The funds go to Vietnamese fishermen, who are seen as humble national heroes on the frontline of perceived Chinese bullying.
Even though the oil rig was eventually withdrawn, Vietnamese have increasingly vented their anger through a boycott of Chinese goods. The political act is pragmatic, too, for shoppers who are suspicious of imported goods from China, from apples that never seem to rot, to toys made of carcinogenic plastic. But it’s a testament to Beijing’s influence that its exports remain popular here.
The “love-hate” relationship extends to the communist government in Hanoi, which walks a tightrope between defending Vietnamese territory from China, and cultivating economic and political ties with their much larger neighbor. The ruling elite recognize they’re in a sticky spot.
After tensions peaked with the violent riots in 2014, Ho Chi Minh City delegate Truong Trong Nghia told the National Assembly that Vietnam can’t extract itself from its reliance on China.
“Dependence in this case means we want to withdraw but we can't,” Nghia said. “We know it's not good, but we are forced to continue this dependence.”
The Vietnamese public is less likely to admit it depends on China. People like Cuong, the antique collector, want their leaders to take a hard line, but at the same time hope for peace.
“I don’t want anymore war here,” said Cuong, who witnessed major battles as a UPI photographer during the Vietnam War.
Pointing to the antiques around him, Cuong added he might as well sell his fortune because, “I figured, if war arrives, everything here would be worthless.”