Anti-government protesters in Vietnam who are using historic wariness towards ethnic Chinese as a cover for their frustrations are treading a damaging path. The nations are working together on the shared development offered by the “Belt and Road Initiative”, but the demonstrations stir unjustified anger and resentment.

As has happened from time to time in recent years, passions may spill over into unrest that can harm ethnic ties, diplomatic relations and foreign investment.

Those behind the tactics should not target particular groups as a way to broach issues with authorities and instead think more laterally about how best to have their views heard.

Dozens have been arrested and hurt across Vietnam this month in violent demonstrations ostensibly against the planned creation of three special economic zones.

The country already has 18 zones, but the legislation for the new ones would have enabled foreign investors to lease land for up to 99 years.

Given most investors in the country are from mainland China or Taiwan, to some Vietnamese that seemed like selling territory to the Chinese, a combustive suggestion. A vote on the law has been postponed to at least October.

For centuries, Chinese rulers invaded and conquered Vietnamese land and, in 1979, the nations fought a month-long border war. Both also contest territory in the South China Sea.

Drilling by China in the disputed waters in 2014 sparked protests that led to four Chinese deaths and the looting and damaging of factories, and there were more demonstrations in 2016, when a Taiwanese-owned factory spilled toxic waste in central Vietnam.

President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong agreed during a state visit by the Chinese leader last November to strengthen their nations’ development partnership and boost cooperation.

Their foreign ministers vowed in April to peacefully resolve disputes in the South China Sea. With such progress, the Vietnamese need not fear a territorial grab by China.

Behind the latest protests, as shown by the variety of banners during the demonstrations, are issues including a government crackdown on dissent, a cybersecurity law that the National Assembly recently approved and claimed confiscation of land by authorities.

The chairwoman of parliament, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, responded to the latest unrest by promising that people’s opinions “will always be heard”. Activists who complain about the party’s monopoly of power are bound to view such words as mere rhetoric. But the government’s decision to delay and most likely rethink the special economic zones law shows it is not deaf to concerns. The use by protesters of anti-Chinese feelings to mask domestic worries is a flawed, and potentially harmful, approach.

The South China Morning Post - June 26, 2018