Written by Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19.
President Joe Biden will meet General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and other Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi on 10 September, where they are expected to sign a significant “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement,” in part, aimed at shoring up alliances and relationships in the Indo-Pacific to counter China.
“The leaders will explore opportunities to promote the growth of a technology-focused and innovation-driven Vietnamese economy,” among other objectives, the White House said. This is likely to include boosting Vietnam’s semiconductor production and promoting the country as a destination for disentangling tech companies from China, at a time when Beijing is increasingly exporting technology-enhanced authoritarianism.
Promoting Vietnam as an alternative in a high-tech supply chain may boost trade and economic cooperation but won’t counter rising totalitarian visions of digital governance. As part of its strategic partnership, the US must push Vietnam over its own record of digital repression.
Digital dictatorship in Vietnam
Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law, which appears loosely modeled on China’s, emphasizes data localization and broad information control, while amendments to internet regulations appear poised to supercharge censorship and surveillance. Freedom of expression in Vietnam already ranks ‘in crisis’ in ARTICLE 19’s latest Global Expression Report 2022.
In July 2023, the Ministry of Information and Communications issued a draft amendment to Decree No. 72 on the management, provisions, and use of internet services and online information.
Of concern, the draft decree requires platforms to proactively monitor content and comply with 24-hour takedown orders, such provisions risk forcing even foreign tech companies into greater compliance with arbitrary content removal. Vague provisions raise concerns of extraterritorial censorship, while mandatory identity verification requirements, as exist in China, would be a significant blow to the right to privacy and freedom of expression.
Another tactic of digital repression, Vietnam has engaged in network interference, from throttling or shutting off internet access during protests or high-profile trials, to slowing down Facebook services until the company agreed in 2020 to increase removal of content unwanted by the government. Meta now reportedly even maintains a list of Vietnamese leaders who may not be criticized on Facebook, among other alarming concessions unique to Vietnam since the government-backed bandwidth throttling effectively made economic hostages of the company.
When censorship measures fail, the state has engaged in information manipulation. Often compared to China’s 50 Cent Army, since 2016, Vietnam’s Force 47 has been tasked with publishing pro-government social media content and correcting “incorrect” thoughts online. Some have speculated the size of Vietnam’s online influencer army at around 10,000 members.
Meanwhile, the less documented Committee 35 boasts perhaps several hundred thousand low and mid-level party members who engage in disinformation in a play for promotion. Such state-backed information manipulation is also used to harass human rights defenders online.
The state-backed persecution and arbitrary imprisonment of human rights defenders for their online expression is widespread in Vietnam.
Nearly 200 human rights defenders are imprisoned in Vietnam, says advocacy group The 88 Project. Many have been charged merely for online expression.
In April 2023, journalist Nguyn Lan Thang was sentenced to six years in prison for posting interviews on YouTube and Facebook. Other recent cases include Pham Doan Trang, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2021 in retribution for her writing and online presence, and Pham Chi Dung, co-founder of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam whose website is censored in Vietnam, who is serving a 15 year prison sentence.
Vietnam also practices transnational repression of individuals targeted for their online activity.
In April 2023, Vietnamese officials allegedly abducted blogger Duong Van Thai from Thailand, where he had been living since 2018. He was held incommunicado until July, when Vietnam confirmed to his family that he was under arrest, but have still not divulged his whereabouts.
Blogger Truong Duy Nhat was likewise seemingly abducted from Bangkok in 2019, and held incommunicado for months before being convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in March 2020. The brazenness of his abduction is reminiscent of China’s 2015 disappearance of Hong Kong book publisher Gui Minhai, also from Thailand.
Strategic partnership for internet freedom
Partnering with Vietnam to counter China while ignoring Vietnam’s emulation of Beijing’s techno-authoritarianism would do very little for advancing long-term US objectives of protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms online.
If plans for a strategic partnership include support for a technology-focused economy, to counter China or otherwise, it must also include a concrete plan to reverse the trend of digital dictatorship and promote internet freedom.
This will require the repeal or amendment of provisions that allow censorship and surveillance, addressing the misuse of technology, and the immediate and unconditional release of those imprisoned for their online expression, such as Pham Doan Trang and Pham Chi Dung.
If Washington and its allies truly wish to counter China and the global rise of digital authoritarianism, it means greater investment in democracy affirming technologies, and advancing both global human rights norms in the digital space and ensuring their localization through partnerships grounded in benchmarks, oversight, and accountability.
This article also appears in Context.
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Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager [email protected]