4 Signs the Vietnamese Government Is Crushing the Country's 'Social Media Revolution'

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The Communist Party has responded to the growth of anti-state blogging with a disturbing crackdown.

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Vietnamese students surf the Internet at a cafe in Hanoi March 18, 2004. (Reuters)

After more than a year in pre-trial detention, five independent bloggers amid other activists stood in a Vietnamese court for two days in January to hear they would live behind bars for up to 13 more years. They join a growing cohort of bloggers imprisoned for "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration," "undermining of national unity" and committing "propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam."

Vietnamese bloggers tasted internet freedom over the last decade as online access grew, but social media is no game changer in a paranoid state. With a mix of insecurity and strength, the Communist Party is gagging dissent in Vietnam with a strategy that entails promoting self-censorship, defaming the swelling ranks of imprisoned dissidents, deploying anonymous pro-Party influencers and holding showcase purges amid a stalling economy.

When life in jail can be authorized at a whim, it takes a person of rare strength and daring to openly criticize the state.

In one-party Vietnam, the pace and breadth of internet connectivity is astounding. The online population is the world's eighteenth largest and Vietnam is Facebook's fastest growing country, according to market researcher We Are Social.

Overall internet penetration is around 34 percent of Vietnam's 90 million citizens. Although the Southeast Asian regional average is closer to 40 percent, the rate of change in Vietnam is impressive. The number of internet users increased by more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2011, and the government recently announced a broadband plan that aims to cover 85 percent of the population by 2015. Vietnam's growth rate in information and communication technologies (ICTs), as captured in the ICT Development Index, is one of the highest globally. In a country report, the International Telecommunications Unionsays the spread of mobile phones with internet access is driving the increase. Penetration of mobile broadband rose from nearly zero in 2008 to 13 subscriptions per 100 people in 2010. The Democracy Report

A byproduct of Vietnam's surge online is the rise in popularity of blogging. One estimate counts independent blogs at two million, with a small, yet sizeable, portion devoted to sensitive social and political subjects. The novelty of easy access to contrary views in a country with total state control of print media has turned dozens of independent bloggers into well-known pundits. Some are anonymous, like contributors to Danlambao, or "people doing journalism," which reached half a million page views in September 2012. Others are famous by their pen names, like Nguyen Van Hai, known as Dieu Cay, founding member of the banned Club for Free Journalists.

The prolific bloggers earn their following by reporting events and issues blocked by state censors. Dieu Cay, for example, is popular for covering protests on disputed claims in the South China Sea. Former police officer Ta Phong Tan is read for her corruption allegations, particularly against the police. Other flashpoint topics include democracy, land confiscation, human rights and unauthorized strikes. Some bloggers, perhaps more provocatively, opine on a defunct political system. Le Van Son predicted the impending collapse of the regime, and Le Quoc Quan criticized the central role of the Communist Party in Vietnamese politics.

It is tempting to think Vietnam is opening under pressure from what Time Magazine called the maturing "culture of protest." The Economist even suggested the Party is at risk of losing the moral authority underpinning its power and ominously warned that public frustration is growing, "though not as yet to revolutionary levels."

After the Arab Spring protests shook the Middle East and North Africa, giddy scenarios of change were forecast for Twittering Iran, Weibo-ing China, and blogging Russia. The 2009 election protests in Iran were called a Twitter Revolution. The new social order? Christophe Deloire of Reporters Without Borders calls it an "era of terror" with pervasive monitoring by the state and relentless persecution since protests began. In all these countries, as in Vietnam, penal crackdowns on dissidents and an upswing in state censorship and monitoring are bitter checks on a breathless prognosis of revolution.

Hanoi is awake to the domestic surge of online opinions, and reaction against experimenting dissidents has been swift and excessively harsh, even for the Communist Party. Here are four signs that the momentum belongs to the Party and the crackdown on political dissent will continue, ugly and effective.

1. The Party changed the rules

Political dissent has long been illegal in Vietnam, where multi-party politics is also against the law. This, apparently, extends to new media platforms. In September 2012 Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung passed administrative order No. 7169 instructing officials to show zero tolerance with ill-defined illegal blogs. Before that, another decree outlined fines for print and online journalists who fail to comply with vague requirements such as "providing honest domestic and international news in accordance with the interests of the country and the people." The law also decreed expansive investigative powers, creating a new force of state inspectors. Authority to investigate suspected 'propagandists' is no longer vested in the Ministry of Information and Communications, but all layers of the People's Committees and the police force, among others.

The new rules illuminate a growing sense of paranoia among top ranks of the Party that blogging represents a new, powerful medium for dissent. This fear is especially evident in the growing number of arrests on charges of "attempting to overthrow the state," as the U.S. State Department pointed out in its 2011 human rights review.

Anti-state propaganda carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Paired with harsh punishment, the vague rules on what constitutes an offense are even more alarming. Part of the government's approach is to keep citizens guessing: A clever strategy to incentivize self-censorship that has been used for decades. During the corruption purge of the late 1990s, Vietnam watcher Martin Gainsborough recorded the public incredulity at seemingly random falls from grace, and the common view that offenders "haven't done anything different from anyone else."

When life in jail can be authorized at a whim, it takes a person of rare strength and daring to openly criticize the state.

2. Show trials have not caused a backlash

As its citizens moved online, Vietnam hit the bottom ten in the 2012 World Press Freedom Index. Vietnam cuts a literal black streak through South East Asia in the index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, notably for the Party's repression of pro-democracy bloggers.

Over the past year, the Party, via the tightly controlled judiciary, hosted a series of show trials for inconvenient thinkers. In the showrooms that have been compared to the Soviet era, chilling vitriol is reserved for independent bloggers and journalists. Life imprisonment can be delivered in a trial lasting two days, and judges easily grant a monopoly on evidence to the state.

The crackdown is gaining such momentum that Vietnam seems destined to bottom out on the 2013 Index. In the past two months, five independent bloggers were convicted on national security charges, another was forcibly admitted to a mental health institution and 22 activists were jailed for subversion and sentenced to between 10 years and life imprisonment. In the final days of 2012, prominent human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan was arrested and charged with tax evasion. In September, three independent bloggers and co-founders of the Free Journalists Club were sentenced to 12, 10 and four years in prison, even after the arrests had earned international condemnation, including from the White House.

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Dana Wagner is a migration-policy consultant based in Hanoi.

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