Vietnam smothered anti-China protests on Sunday with a massive security crackdown after deadly riots triggered by a territorial dispute with Beijing spooked foreign investors and the country's leadership alike.
As patrol ships from both countries remained locked in a standoff close to a Chinese oil rig in a disputed patch of the South China Sea, Beijing said it had evacuated 3,000 nationals from Vietnam — some of whom were injured — and was sending five ships to tranport others wanting to leave.
The first two Chinese passenger ships arrived at Vung Ang early Monday, said an official in the central Vietnamese port who didn't give his name because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
Each ship can carry 1,000 people, he said. The port at Vung Ang is part of a massive Taiwanese steel mill complex that was overrun by an anti-China mob last week.
China also said that it would suspend some of its bilateral exchange plans with Vietnam and that it was advising Chinese people not to visit the country.
China's decision to deploy the massive oil rig on May 1 in an area both countries claim has been widely seen as one of its most provocative steps in a campaign to assert its sovereignty in the waters, which are believed to be endowed with billions of barrels worth of oil. It triggered fury in Vietnam and the worst breakdown in ties between Hanoi and Beijing in years.
The deployment came just days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited several Asian allies engaged in territorial disputes with China. On May 12, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told China’s foreign minister that the action was ‘provocative.’
Tensions have been mounting between the China and Vietnam despite their sharing of a political ideology. Both nations are run by communist regimes that since the 1990s have embraced free market capitalism while retaining large state sectors and powerful internal security systems.
Last weekend, Vietnam permitted anti-China protests that drew thousands of people, a rare step that allowed it to amplify state anger against Beijing. Doing so was risky for authorities: Dissident groups joined the protests, and by Tuesday and Wednesday, the rallies had morphed into riots targeting factories believed to be owned by Chinese companies, though many of those hit were Taiwanese. Two Chinese nationals were killed and more than 100 wounded.
Vietnam's state-security apparatus on Sunday ensured no one was able to protest, with thousands of police and security officers flooding southern Ho Chi Minh City and the capital, Hanoi. Police were posted outside well-known dissidents' houses, preventing them from leaving, according to activists.
On Sunday, China arranged two chartered flights to bring thousands of people, many of them injured, home to its southwestern city of Chengdu, while five ships were on their way to Vietnam to bring out more people.
Sixteen critically injured were evacuated separately, aboard a chartered medical flight in the morning, China's foreign ministry said.
"The severe violence targeting foreign companies in Vietnam since May 13 has caused casualties and property losses for Chinese nationals. This has destroyed the atmosphere and conditions for bilateral communication and cooperation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Sunday.
Several arrests were made in Hanoi and commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City within minutes of groups trying to start protests, according to witnesses, as Vietnam's communist rulers stuck to their vow to thwart any repeat of last week's violence in three provinces in the south and center.
"I want to send a message that if we don't stop China today, tomorrow it will be too late," said demonstrator Dao Minh Chu, as he was pushed away from the park near China's embassy, where last week around 500 people gathered without interference from authorities. Those protests were covered enthusiastically by state media, a sign of state sanction.
Some users in Vietnam on Sunday reported having trouble accessing Facebook, a popular medium for Vietnamese to get news and photos of demonstrations from activists. The government keeps a low-level and sporadic block on popular social media platforms.
Vietnam's government routinely arrests free speech activists and others challenging one-party rule, and anti-China protests have been one of the few opportunities for public gatherings. But several well-known activists said they had been prevented from leaving their homes on Sunday.
"I think the best way is to allow people to protest," said La Viet Dung, a frequent anti-China protester, adding that police visited him late Saturday asking him not to attend. "They say they are preventing people from protesting because they are worried about extremist actions and violence, but that is not logical."