Last week CNN International ran a segment on Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) and spent 10 days in jail last August after she criticised Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam. CNN correspondent Andrew Spencer interviewed the affecting Ms Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. In a followup article on Thursday, CNN’s Pamela Boykoff wrote that before Ms Quynh drove her motorbike down from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City for the interview, the blogger emailed to ask: “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” I’m curious what CNN’s response was.
It should have been “no”. Dozens of dissidents have been sentenced to multi-year jail terms in Vietnam over the past three years, usually for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” For many of those convicted, the fact that they gave interviews to foreign news organisations has counted as evidence against them. The US and European governments protest the arrests of democracy activists, but foreign intercession has never prevented the conviction of a Vietnamese dissident, except for a few who had foreign citizenship. (I’m aware of just one case in which a jailed Vietnamese democracy activist with close ties to American institutions was released without a trial due to US pressure.)
As for news organisations like CNN (or the ones I work for), we can do nothing to protect the dissidents we interview, apart from running critical reports on their arrests and convictions. The Vietnamese government largely ignores such press coverage, and foreign media don’t usually pay much attention either. It’s just one small story among many. The fact that Ms Boykoff’s article consistently misspells Ms Quynh’s name doesn’t give much reassurance that CNN is paying focused, long-term attention to the issue of Vietnamese democracy activism. Nor does the televised report’s use of a file-footage establishing shot of the old National Assembly building in Hanoi, which was torn down over a year ago. To a Vietnamese spectator watching the report, the use of that shot says: we don’t follow Vietnam very closely.
What responsibilities do news organisations have in these circumstances? Does Ms Quynh know what she’s getting into by going on CNN to criticise the Vietnamese government? Is she under the misimpression that the publicity will help protect her from arrest? I’ve interviewed a number of people like Ms Quynh, ordinary citizens rather than public figures who have fallen into dissident status without entirely meaning to, and who, having grown up in Vietnam’s cloistered information environment, may be strikingly naive regarding the nature of the Vietnamese state and the ability of foreign governments or organisations to intercede. I’ve also interviewed highly educated, self-conscious dissidents who knew precisely what they were getting themselves into and had a reasonable sense of what strategies were likely to be effective.
I’m happy to report the statements of this latter sort of dissident. Moreover, I’m obliged to. They’re political activists who are making news. My job is to report the news. They’re acting quite deliberately, and they can take care of themselves. With the less sophisticated dissidents, however, things get complicated. I sometimes feel that these are people who have been pushed over an emotional edge by the unfair treatment they’ve received, and are lashing out in a fashion that, in the end, will only hurt them. By running interviews with them, you’re essentially exploiting and to some extent egging on their self-destruction.
I’m not saying CNN shouldn’t have run the interview. It’s their call. But I hope that when Ms Quynh asked whether CNN could ensure they would be “safe”, they told her very clearly that they couldn’t, that what she was doing was not safe at all.
There exist rules of grammar and usage in English of which native speakers are unaware, and which become apparent only when foreigners violate them. Some of these rules are so arbitrary that you have to pity anyone who has to learn English as a second language, and wonder how English ever became the international lingua franca.
Take this lead sentence from an article in the Vietnam News this morning:
It was time for the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional irrigation system to better respond to socio-economic development and the impact of climate change, said Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Dao Xuan Hoc.
“It was time”? What’s that about? The article is relating a statement by an official in an interview. The author means to say “It is time”. The reason for the use of the past tense is that the author knows the rule that in English, statements by speakers related in the indirect style move back one tense, e.g. “He said she was going to the store,” “Barack Obama said BP was responsible for paying the cleanup costs.” If the statement is already past simple, it moves back to pluperfect: “She said she had studied physics before switching to communications.” And so on.
Compare: “Deputy Minister Dao Xuan Hoc said it was time for the Mekong Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional…” This is correct. But the author doesn’t know that when the cited statement comes before the speaker is identified, the tense doesn’t move back.
On reflection, this rule isn’t entirely arbitrary. The reason for the shift is that the clause “He said” already places us in the past tense, which pushes the dependent clause into the past tense as well. When that “he said” clause doesn’t show up until the end, it sounds bizarre to start in the past tense. Still, this is the kind of rule that’s really hard for a non-native speaker to absorb; it’s a wonder anyone does learn to speak or write English correctly, much less that it’s been selected as the language every international professional has to master. It’s just a very strange kluge of a language.
I saw this guy Sunday afternoon risking his life while attempting a routine maintenance task in our neighborhood here in Hanoi, and it reminded me of why US industry still remains potentially competitive in many sectors with industry in East Asian emerging markets. Things here are simply much, much less efficient. The country has extremely pressing infrastructure needs to fulfill just to ensure it won’t have continuing blackouts knocking out power to factories, traffic jams that prevent goods from getting to port, sewers that don’t flood streets with excrement every rainy season, and so on. And of course the incredible tangle of wires that is the residential power, phone, and internet system, which I hereby dub the Infrasnargle.
All of these contribute to the fact that Vietnamese workers are vastly less productive than American ones. PPP-adjusted output per worker in the Vietnamese manufacturing sector in 2008 was $8100. For Chinese workers, it was $22,000. For American workers, it just passed $300,000 this year. (I’m not really clear on why we’re using PPP-adjusted figures here; for purposes of comparing competitiveness in exports, the flat dollar value seems more appropriate. But regardless, it’s clear that workers in the US economy can produce vastly more value per hour.)
That said, Vietnam is frantically investing in infrastructure improvements, and if we want to keep American workers competitive, we need to do the same.
Big Toe, the greatest breakdancing outfit in Vietnam, won the Southeast Asian regional hip-hop dancing championships in Malaysia on May 15 and will compete in the world championships in South Korea this summer. Here they are making a bunch of Dutch guys look clumsy and slow. But this doesn’t really capture what’s great about Big Toe, which is their social commentary. They do routines that are essentially hip-hop-based enactments of vernacular street culture scenes: in one they become motorbikes and riders jostling in traffic while a frantically popping and locking policeman tries to control them; in another they become spikey-haired gangsta teens trying to pick up a girl in a coffee shop, while avoiding (or perhaps welcoming?) the attentions of a gay waiter. It’s incredibly sharp stuff that might get axed by a Vietnamese government censor, but fortunately with dance there are no words and nothing for a censor to axe. Very, very sharp.
Anyway, here you can appreciate their raw skills if not their auteurship. Also, I have a personal stake here: my daughter had the honor of taking two lessons in hip-hop dancing from Big Toe’s founder and leader, the amazing 36-year-old Viet Thanh, a few years ago before he got too busy with the troupe to teach.
My colleague Erica Grieder at The Economist has a nice post up relating Joachim Kalka’s essay on coins in the New Left Review to the possibility that increasing use of debit cards will lead to a more cash-free economy. Strangely, it seems to me that electronic innovations have actually led to more cross-country differences in modes of payment over the past 40 years, rather than less. In the Netherlands, for instance, credit cards are rare; tighter regulation meant they never had the explosion in credit card offerings that hit the US in the ’80s. On the other hand, they were using debit cards much earlier and more ubiquitously than the US.
Meanwhile here in Vietnam, the economy is exceptionally cash-based, considerably more so than in, say, Africa. Here, in fact, they have no checks. Never have. Hence, they’ve never sent bills through the mail: there’s no way to pay them. They send actual human bill collectors around to collect your phone bill, water bill, electric bill, etc. in cash at your door. This is only now beginning to change, with options for electronic bill payment at ATMs or via mobile phone. But while it’s an exceptionally cash-based economy, it’s not coin-based. In fact, for decades, there were no coins at all. It was all paper money. There are still a bunch of antique Chinese coins floating around, with square holes in the middle; they’re used for jewelry and decor. A few years ago, though, the government decided to start issuing coins, because they last longer and are in the long run cheaper to circulate. The result is this:
This is a roll of Vietnamese 5000-dong coins (about $0.25). Here’s the thing: nobody will accept them. I mean, official shops will, and probably chain supermarkets and so forth. But taxi drivers won’t, people in the market won’t, and basically most individual owner-proprietor businesses won’t. Why not? Because they’re afraid they won’t be able to spend them, because nobody will accept them. It’s a completely irrational collective-action problem. The things are issued by the Vietnamese government; they’re clearly unfakeable at any reasonable cost, who would want to fake a $0.25 coin anyway, and if they did, who would care? You could just let it circulate, it wouldn’t do any harm. But for some reason your average Vietnamese person will simply not accept their own government’s coinage as legal tender. They only trust the banknotes. Craziest thing.
I somehow missed this story for almost an entire day: a mobile phone accessory salesman in Ho Chi Minh City says he’s seen a prototype Apple iPhone 4G. He posted a blog entry, including video and pics, on the Vietnamese gadget geek site Tinh Te. He says the device was recognized as an Apple iPhone when he plugged it into his MacBook, and has screenshots to prove it.
It’s basically impossible to keep anything secret in Vietnam. It’s basically impossible to keep anything secret in China. It’s entirely unsurprising that Apple’s industrial operations there are leaking like a sieve. The main difficulty in determining whether or not this 4G iPhone is real or not lies in the fact that Vietnam is currently completely flooded with cheap fake Chinese iPhone knockoffs. My assistant has one. It says it was manufactured in “Clifornia”. So take this all with a grain of salt. But the video on the Tinh Te site looks very convincing.
Here’s a picture of a real and a fake iPhone 3G.
Here’s a sight I saw in Ha Giang province last week.
This is how people all over the hilly parts of northern Vietnam are making room to build the cement and brick houses they can suddenly afford: they bring in a bulldozer and wipe out part of a hill. I find it disgusting. I understand that the new landscape reflects the autonomous preferences of a person who, for the first time in their lives, has access to a modicum of wealth and well-being. To me, this is less important than the fact that it is an ugly and irreversible despoilment of the landscape. The long-term erosion problems are a significant but in a sense separate issue.
Here, in contrast, is how the landscape looks when it hasn’t been bulldozed and people are living in wooden, rather than concrete and brick, houses.