It's times like these that I'm glad I no longer work for a state-affiliated news organization. Over the last month an environmental catastrophe has rocked central Vietnam, and the reporting on it has been a perfect illustration of how the state media works to emphasize or suppress certain aspects of a story.
Early last month, thousands of dead fish began washing ashore in north-central Ha Tinh Province, the first hint of a disaster that has since spread over 200 km down the coastline to the Da Nang area. This story didn't gain any traction in the media until later last month, when the scope of what was going on became apparent. All kinds of ocean life, including sea birds who feed on fish, was washing ashore, sometimes already in stages of decomposition.
Fishermen stopped fishing, and attention centered on a steel mill operated by a Taiwanese company called Formosa. The firm is building Southeast Asia's largest steel plant in the Vung Ang Economic Zone in impoverished Ha Tinh, and divers working on the port connected to the plant reported a sickening plume of chemicals being emitted from a wastewater pipeline which ran from the plant into the sea. There were reports of multiple divers complaining of ailments after swimming near the pipeline, and one was even diagnosed with copper poisoning.
Social media sites, which are very active here, lit up in response to all of this news. Formosa came under withering fire from people around the country, and the company responded with awe-inspiring arrogance. One official stated at a press conference that Vietnam had to either "choose steel, or choose fish." Apparently the country can't have both the environment and an economy. Formosa quickly distanced itself from this incredibly tone-deaf official, but the firm continued to deflect any criticism, though they did claim they would get to the bottom of the issue.
The government eventually stepped in and swore to determine the cause of the mass fish kill, but several officials have shown aptitude for chronic foot-in-mouth disease, as they quickly blamed the disaster on other toxins, or possibly a red tide. State outlets like Tuoi Tre even ran stories showing images of red sea water, but they appear to have been clumsily Photoshopped. (It's difficult to work out what's true and what isn't here, but given how much government-sanctioned environmental destruction I've seen over the years I'm inclined towards skepticism of any official 'explanation'.)
Suffice to say, none of this has satisfied the people of Vietnam. Last weekend, over the course of the Reunification and May Day holidays, demonstrations were held in several major cities, including Saigon. Crowds marched against Formosa holdings signs saying "I choose fish" in Vietnamese and "Get out Formosa", among other slogans. It appears that the authorities largely allowed these demonstrations to proceed, which doesn't happen very often. Of course, there was absolutely no mention of any such events in the local press. There were, however, videos and images of security forces getting violent with a few protesters, but again it's hard to tell exactly what happened (it also doesn't help that I can't read Vietnamese social media posts).
There are a lot of disparate factors at work in this story - it is obvious that the government, despite its pretty words, has sacrificed the environment for development throughout the country, and this angers many people. Tons of dead fish washing up on beaches in four provinces is a very visceral illustration of this, and people have seized on it. The fact that Formosa is Taiwanese doesn't help, as Taiwan is often lumped in with the intense national antipathy towards China, even though it is a separate country. (During riots in reaction to China placing an oil rig in Vietnamese waters two years ago several Taiwanese factories were damaged.) This is also an issue that the government hasn't been concretely implicated in yet (i.e. bribes or disregard for regulations, though proving any of that would be just about impossible anyway), so officials are likely more willing to let people blow off some steam about it.
Of course, in the end it could be possible that Formosa had nothing to do with the fish kill. The government hasn't released any test results from the area, and they don't actually have any obligation to do so, anyway. But this episode has definitely shaken people. I have several friends who are refusing to eat seafood for now, and people who rely on the sea for a living in central Vietnam must be suffering immense financial losses.
As a self-described environmentalist, my hope is that this disaster marks the beginning of a shift in how the environment is viewed in Vietnam. Many people do care about the space around them, but social education is poor. Some have noted the irony in protesting against pollution while many people here freely litter on a daily basis, throwing plastic bags into storm drains and leaving food containers on beaches. It's easy to blame a huge corporation with moronic leadership for dumping harmful chemicals into the environment; the harder part will be changing the everyday behavior of people around the country.
Here are some links if you'd like to read more on this issue: