The ringtone on my wife’s cell phone abruptly called us awake at 8:30am on Saturday. The caller ID displayed the name of one of my closest friends and colleagues in Kunming, yet I wondered why he was calling my wife. “Comrade, good morning,” rang out his thick Sichuanese accent. This was a standard greeting among my circle of friends, but calling someone comrade in China has long gone out of fashion.
“There’s something I have to tell you.”
So it turns out he spent the previous day at his workplace, a local university, holding meetings with top administration and security brass discussing how to prevent the university’s students from attending a protest scheduled for Sunday, the next day. He told me that a group of Vietnam war veterans from China’s 1979 punitive invasion of Vietnam received approval from the local civil affairs bureau and the local public security bureau to march on the Vietnamese consulate in downtown Kunming. The scheduled march was in reaction to the growing movement of anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam that left more than 20 Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese dead in the previous week.
The starting point was the city’s main pedestrian square at Nanping Street; the march would commence at 9am and finish at 2pm at the consulate. His call was a warning for me to lay low – for all foreigners to lay low – because foreigners, especially Caucasian foreigners could serve as a potential target for angry, nationalistic protesters. He was also calling to warn me to stay far away from the protest. He knew I had a penchant for observing and writing about protests in Kunming, and my actions in the past had landed me and subsequently him only by guilt of association in a little trouble with local security officials.
To help place the gravity of the situation squarely on my shoulders, he told me of how he spent the previous evening having meetings with the students under his supervision, pleading them not to attend the protest – even though it was a legal protest – for fear that it may turn violent or take a turn toward other issues that were suppressed and mulling around in the hearts and on the minds of disgruntled people in Kunming. In fact, his work group in cooperation with a successful commercial real estate form had arranged a 5 kilometer eco-walk scheduled for Sunday morning, but due to the protest he decided to cancel the event. His university and the firm apparently poured a good deal of money into the event so he was quite put out by the cancellation. “Right now, we will do what it takes to ensure stability at any cost.” I had heard those words too many times in the last 18 months living in Kunming.
His parting words before hanging up were also ones familiar to me: “Stay at home and have a good time with your wife.”
This season of South China Sea’s flare-ups and shenanigans is heating up once again. To provide a quick rundown of the last 10 days: China parks it’s billion dollar oil rig 150 miles off the coast of Vietnam near Da Nang; rams a few curious Vietnamese ships, super soaks other onlookers with high pressure water hoses; foreign ministries respond with sabers rattling; protests broil in Vietnam; Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese factories burn; people die unnecessarily due to this tricky, inane, orderless, yet extremely critical game of cartography, resource grabbing, and interpretation of the current world order. And to round out the week, the first organized civil response in China comes from….Kunming?
In some ways Kunming makes sense. The pathway of China’s 1979 spring invasion of Vietnam cut through southeastern Yunnan province into Vietnam’s Lao Cai province. The three month war was a tough decision for the newly installed Deng Xiaoping. He sought to punish Vietnam for its humanitarian invasion of Cambodia to take out the Khmer Rouge and install a new caretaker government, in some ways Deng thought this would help make good on his warming commitment to US-China relations. Many of the troops sent to Vietnam were stationed in Yunnan, Kunming specifically. Many did not return. In total approximately 70,000 soldiers and civilians died in the three month conflict.
Both sides claimed pieces of victory. In the end, China chalked up fewer casualties and proclaimed the incursion’s main purpose was to scare the Vietnamese before retreating. The Vietnamese army valiantly as always pushed back most of the encroaching forces as the PLA entered the provinces to the north of Hanoi. The caretaker government in Cambodia was not handed over to the Khmer people 1979. Officially the caretaker government left in the early 1990s, and some argue that the pro-Vietnamese caretaker government is still in power. To me a China’s claim to victory holds little water – just like its 9 dash line that lays claim to the near entirety of the South China Sea (which by the way holds a ton of water, fish, and most importantly energy resources.)
But then again there is little about Vietnam’s South China Seas claims that make much sense either.
From my experience interacting with locals, very few Kunmingers, and Chinese people in general, under the age of 50 know the story and context of the 1979 war. I was not surprised to learn that a group of organized veterans still operated in Kunming given that veteran groups from WWII were still active in Yunnan and much is done in this city to preserve WWII related heritage. But how many were there and how many would show up for the march on Sunday? An organized effort that received government approval and raised the alarms of state related institutions like my friend’s university would likely bring out at least one hundred people. Would they be able to rally more than 1000 Kunmingers under the intense midday sun similar to the anti-PX protests (not government sanctioned) of nearly exactly one year ago?
Would the protesters flip and set cars alight? Wait, Vietnam doesn’t produce cars. Would they target people who appeared to be Vietnamese? Wait, I won’t finish that sentence.
On Saturday evening, a crowd of Kunming’s expats gathered for the soft opening of a New York style pizzeria. The chatter was (sort of) abuzz with talk of the next day’s scheduled march and protest. Over the previous two days word of the march had spread, for better or worse, among the community via the popular Chinese social media app WeChat, and now the gathering enabled the conversation to go from digital form to the soon-to-be-obsolete vocal communication style characterized by eye contact and hand gestures.
“Did you see how close China’s oil rig is to Vietnam’s shoreline? It’s totally in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.”
“What’s an Exclusive Economic Zone?”
“Yo, this South China Sea shit’s been going on for years. All these countries play around with each other like they’re still in middle school.”
“That 9 dashed line just showed up in on China’s official maps in 1954.”
“Maybe the anti-PXers will show up to the protest again and then it could get really ugly. Wait…maybe the Uighers will plan another attack? And do you think things will be different now that Kunming’s police forces can carry armed weapons? What’s happening to our city? This used to be a really cool place to live!”
“Those Vietnamese love to play games, they learned how from the Soviets.”
“I’m totally going to wear my bright red “Made in Vietnam” shirt with the big yellow star tomorrow.”
“Maybe that’s not the best idea.”
“What’s an Exclusive Economic Zone? And dude, where’s my beer?”
Those who watch the Sino-Vietnamese relationship closely know that the situation is not getting any better despite the rosy accolades of year-on-year bilateral trade increases, strengthened cooperation on the (lately not-so-successful) repatriation of illegal Uighur immigrants from Vietnam back to China, and a new high-speed rail and road network connecting Vietnam to China. Watching the relationship from Yunnan province only amplifies the growing crevasses.
Looking locally and outside of the South China Sea conflict, foreign direct investment between Yunnan and Vietnam is on the decline and according to the Vietnam Ministry of Industry and Trade office in Kunming, several key Yunnanese invested projects in Vietnam have been put on hold. Last year Vietnam Airlines suddenly cancelled its daily flight from Kunming to Hanoi. Two years ago you could readily buy Vietnamese Banh My sandwiches from food carts in downtown Kunming, and now none are to be found. Enrollments of Vietnamese nationals into Kunming’s university level Chinese language programs are on the decline and are eclipsed by students from Thailand and Laos. This spring, neighboring Guangxi province closed the border to watermelon imports from Vietnam which gouged prices at home in Vietnam and angered many farmers.
The list goes on, but I must mention that the yearly China-Vietnam Friendship Tennis Tournament which traditionally ushers in Kunming’s Southeast Asia Expo has been suspended for the last two years. Both sides suspect each other of stacking the line-up with semi-pro players and accuse each other of foul play.
Waking on Sunday morning, the day of the march, I pondered the deterioration of this relationship. It was clear that more were losing than winning, but how many of Kunming’s everyday citizens are directly affected by the recent cooling and would the protesting veterans be able to gather enough onlookers into their fold in order to make an impactful statement?
I also pondered my friend’s advice on whether or not to go observe the march – but only for a few seconds. With my smart phone charged to the max and ready to live-tweet the march as I had done for the past anti-PX protests in Kunming, I mounted my electric motorbike and made way to the protest zone, picking up a concerned friend along the way. He promised to help navigate the security arrangements citing experience recently gained on a week-long trip to Pakistan.
I’ve learned in the past 18 months that the signals of a protest in China begin to appear well before arriving on site, and given this sanctioned protest site was staged for the same site as last year’s initial anti-PX protest, I had a well developed strategy to lay low and observe from afar lest I be spotted and photographed by the local security apparatus. As we approached the downtown pedestrian square at 9:15 just after the march was scheduled to begin, we saw very little increased security presence. From 100 meters away it was easy to see the center of the pedestrian square was cordoned off by local police forces to create a space the size of two football pitches. Local police mingled in and out of the zone, and some middle-aged men sat in the shade of some trees on the periphery of the zone.
So far no sign of a protest presented itself. No banners, no t-shirts, no slogans, no face masks, just a nearly empty square. In fact, the most conspicuous aspect was the plain clothes policemen scattered around the square. Always slightly overweight, deep tan, same crew-cut, off-color collared polo, and the signature man bag containing who knows what – the uniform of the Chinese plain clothes policeman is always easy to spot. I also spotted a fellow blogger sitting in the shade inside the protest zone – his blond locks and European pedigree always stand above the crowd at Kunming’s protests in which he often finds himself smack in the middle of.
There still wasn’t any action, so my friend and I ducked into an adjacent shopping mall and rushed up to the a 2nd floor Starbucks to find a seat on a sofa beside a window overlooking the square. Needless to say the position of our perch made us feel more like spectators at a sporting event than at China’s first anti-Vietnam protest of the 2014 season. We were free to comment and tweet at will. No security forces were going to bother us there. My VPN was on line and the connection was kicking.
From our bird’s eye viewpoint, we observed a line of ten paddy wagons parked on the southern edge of the square. A small platoon of SWAT police in riot gear made rounds of the square. Still no protesters. A WeChat message popped up on my cell phone from the blond blogger sitting inside the zone. “Situation normal, just loads of police presence, no sign of protesters….Another Kunming couldn’t care less story.”
And that was just it. Kunming really couldn’t care less. We estimate that fewer than ten veterans showed up. Their t-shirts with Chinese flags gave them away. At about 10:30am, the veterans formed a half-circle in the middle of the square and were escorted around half of the square by uniformed police. Their march lasted less than a minute. A cameraman from the local television station sitting on a shaded bench missed the procession because his boredom turned to a brief chance to catch a nap.
At 10:45am, the cameraman picked up his bags and went home. Nothing to see here folks. By 11am the temporary fences were removed, and the pedestrian square exposed to the intensity of the midday sun once again filled with local shoppers making their way through Kunming’s commercial downtown.
I was relieved that nothing happened. Perhaps word came down from high for the veterans to cool their guns since the Vietnamese government was making good on its commitment to control the anti-Chinese movements and violence within its own borders. The last thing our little city needs is to have its blue sky reputation tarnished by another incident making the international news and filling the Sinosphere and the South China Seas with flotsam and jetsam.