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#3585, 5 March 2012
Censorship Struggle and Social Change in Vietnam
Amruta Karambelkar
Research Intern, SEARP, IPCS

Non-democratic states are known for controlling individual behaviour, censoring media, art and other forms of popular expression. The underlying logic is to prevent any challenge to state power. Violation of laws is therefore dealt with severity to communicate intolerance to certain actions. Vietnam follows a similar approach. It criminalizes and bans circulation of information that expresses opposition to the government. Nguyen Thanh Phong’s comic strip titled ‘The Murderer with Festering Head’ is the latest book to be banned. The ban however has not deterred the youth from reading it, as they access it online as well as in the black market. There are over one million Facebook users despite the site being blocked. What do these developments indicate about i) censorship struggle and ii) youth psychology in contemporary Vietnam as they ‘circumvent censorship’?  The article attempts possible explanations.
Ineffective Censorship

Article 88 of Vietnam Criminal code bans distribution of information that opposes the government. Government cracks down heavily on dissidents, (generally journalists and writers) particularly those expressing ideas antagonistic to the official policy and ideas of the Communist Party. Pornographic material is routinely seized and burnt. Government is more stringent with internet censorship. Internet cafes are instructed to track activities of users, to check if no secretive or reactionary information is accessed. However many of these rules are not followed. If caught for violation of laws, it can be resolved by paying bribe. Online gaming is not allowed, but gaming parlours are run in dark to avoid arrests.

In general, censorship laws in Vietnam are complicated, enabling an individual to tactically find space for their expression. As far as internet censorship is concerned, it is ineffective for technical weakness; Vietnamese firewall can be cracked easily. Besides, the internet censorship mostly covers sites in Vietnamese language or about issues in Vietnam; English language sites rarely receive government attention. Most of the online Vietnamese newspapers are published from abroad. Samantha Libby, with respect to visual art in Vietnam, makes an interesting revelation- authorities in Vietnam cannot understand what threatens them. People in Vietnam can purchase Nguyen’s book on amazon.com, from the black market and bloggers continue to write about freedom and democratic ideas.

The government views changing behaviour of the youth as threat to its authority. On the one hand it continues to deal strictly by arrests, while on the other hand it is trying to be accommodative in order to cope with its young population. Fearing advent of Facebook, government of Vietnam launched its social networking site named go.vn, and online games which are culturally correct. It is struggling to maintain its ideological influence on the youth.

The youth though; is mature enough make choices. 19 year-old student Do Quynh Trang endorses censorship on violent or sexually explicit content. But she chooses to buy a copy of ‘Killer with Festering head’ for its funny slangs; despite the warning that the book should be available only to those above 18 years of age. (The Associated Press, 2012)

Conscientious Objection

Government of Vietnam determines what its nationals should or should not watch. However, the attitude of youth seems to be rebellious. What is causing this attitudinal change amongst the youth?

The socio-economic reality of Vietnam today is completely different from how it is projected by the government. Contemporary artists present this quite effectively. Nguyen’s comic strip has popular slang and language specific to younger generation. It has cartoons that take a dig at military, corruption and also reflect upon economic disparities of contemporary Vietnamese society. The government and older generations have objections to such expression, which they see as being detrimental to their culture.

The value systems are changing with corresponding changes in the political system. This 9X generation (born in 90’s, after Doi Moi) has more choices to opt from and are more demanding. This change is a result of globalization of Vietnam where the youth is exposed to global commodities and services. Their lifestyle is not very different from their peers elsewhere. Vietnamese Diaspora is instrumental in passing information that the youth hitherto did not have and creating wider awareness in general. Thus, despite state control on information, the youth has access to desired information, implying that they seem dissatisfied by government control. Their aspirations are changing which cannot be met by their government.

Thus one reason for ‘circumventing censorship is sociological change amongst the youth on account of globalization. Another reason could be dissatisfaction with political class. Open economy has had impact on ruling class, making them sorts of elites. Ordinary people are expected to live in ascetic manner while political class follows a luxurious lifestyle. Laws are unevenly applied. To illustrate, watching international satellite television is limited to high level political leadership and bureaucrats, others have to watch national television only. Older generation with their communist belief systems may not be willing to challenge their indulgent ruling class, but the young populations like Nguyen and several bloggers choose to express their dissent. They attempt to show the true picture of their surroundings. In doing so, they take the risk to bypass censorship. 

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