HANOI, Vietnam – Vietnam allowed several hundred demonstrators to stage a noisy rally outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi on Sunday against Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in the contested South China Sea that has triggered a tense standoff and raised fears of confrontation.
The country’s authoritarian leaders keep a very tight grip on public gatherings for fear they could attract anti-government protesters.
This time, they appeared to give in to public anger that also provided them with the opportunity to register their own indignation at Beijing.
Other protests, including one drawing more than 1,000 people in Ho Chi Minh City, took place in other locations around the country. For the first time, they were reported on enthusiastically by the state media.
The government has in the past forcibly broken up anti-China protests and arrested their leaders, many of whom are also campaigning for greater political freedoms and human rights.
“We are infuriated by the Chinese actions,” said Nguyen Xuan Hien, a lawyer who printed his own placard reading “Get Real. Imperialism is so 19th century.”
“We have come to so that the Chinese people can understand our anger,” he said.
Vietnam’s government immediately protested the deployment of the oil rig on May 1, and dispatched a flotilla that was unable to break through a circle of more than 50 Chinese vessels protecting the facility. The Vietnamese coast guard released video of Chinese vessels ramming and firing water cannons at Vietnamese ships.
The latest confrontation in the disputed Paracel Islands, which China occupied from U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1974, has raised fears that tensions could escalate. Vietnam says the islands fall within its continental shelf and a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. China claims sovereignty over the area and most of the South China Sea – a position that has brought Beijing in confrontation with other claimants, including the Philippines and Malaysia.
The protest Sunday was the largest since 2011, when a Chinese vessel cut seismic survey cables leading to a Vietnamese oil exploration ship. Vietnam sanctioned protests for a few weeks, but then broke them up after they became a forum of anti-government sentiment.
In the past, journalists covering protests had been harassed and sometimes beaten and protesters bundled into vans.
It was a different scene Sunday in a park across the road from the Chinese mission, where speakers atop police vans were broadcasting accusations that China’s actions violated the country’s sovereignty, state television was on hand to record the event and men were handing out banners saying “We entirely trust the party, the government and the people’s army.”
While some demonstrators were clearly linked to the state, many others were ordinary Vietnamese outraged by China’s actions. Some activists chose to stay away because of the state’s involvement or implicit sanction of the event, according to online postings by dissident groups, but others showed up.
The United States has criticized China’s oil rig deployment as provocative and unhelpful. Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations who gathered Saturday in Myanmar ahead of Sunday’s summit issued a statement expressing concern and urging restraint by all parties.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded by saying that the issue should not concern ASEAN and that Beijing was opposed to “one or two countries’ attempts to use the South Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and co-operation between China and ASEAN,” according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.