Rising tensions in Vietnam as Chinese cyberwarriors launch “biggest ever” attack

Photo: Save Viet Nam Sea/Facebook

By Dung Phan

At dawn and dusk a nationwide network of loudspeakers blares out an odd mix of socialist ideology and patriotic songs for 30 minutes. No-one really notices. It has become part of northern Vietnamese people’s lives – whether they like it or not.

However on Friday, some loudspeaker system at a major international airport sent a different message. It was a male voice distorting Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea disputes. And the website of a national airline, and flight information screens at Vietnam’s two biggest airports, were also attacked. As part of this aggressive action customer databases were stolen and published online.

Transportation Deputy Minister Nguyen Nhat acknowledged the incident, alleged to be by the 1937CN group, calling it the biggest cyberspace raid ever seen in the country. The group is known as one of the biggest hacker groups in China, hacking Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ government websites in 2013 and 2015 respectively.

Ever-increasing reactions

This cybercrime happened just two days after a Vietnamese customs officer wrote a highly offensive term on two pages of a female traveller’s Chinese passport which showed a map where the nine-dash line would be. Meanwhile, border authorities at Da Nang City and southern Phu Quoc Island have refused to stamp Chinese passports that show the disputed line as an illustration on their pages.

These were among many other outrageous reactions between Vietnam and China. All of which came in the wake of the verdict by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that China has no historic title over the disputed waters.

Right after the tribunal’s ruling, at least 30 activists, some of whom chanting, “Down with China invasion” held a protest against China’s rejection of the verdict but they were soon detained on waiting buses by security forces. Another separate group of Vietnamese demonstrators in Hanoi also held signs reading, “Thank you Philippines, you have a brave government” in front of the Philippines embassy.

These days, theses protests and peaceful demonstrations, usually referred to as “rare” on Western media, come as no surprise in Vietnam. Anger has spread from the elite of the intellectuals to the masses of the workers.

It was not so long ago that rioters ransacked hundreds of foreign companies when China deployed an oil rig near the Paracels, South China Sea features claimed by Vietnam. Police later had to swarm city centres as they were afraid of any further protests which could act as a platform for public frustration over domestic issues ranging from the sluggish economy to corrupt officials

Many analysts said the protest movement was evidence that the motivations went deeper than nationalism. Instead, this had to do with graft and inefficient responses from the government to a number of recent crises.

On Friday afternoon, Vietnamese people expressed their surprise online that the government gave the state press freedom to cover the controversial airport hacking incident. Critics, however, remind us that the government has a record of using patriotic sentiment when politically convenient.

They believe the government is stirring up nationalist sentiments in order to distract public attention from other critical issues, especially sea pollution. Regular protests are being held every Sunday, calling for stronger action to address a significant incident of river pollution by a chemical company which killed fish, and livelihoods, in their thousands.

This has triggered demonstrations nationwide, with large numbers of protesters crowding the tree-lined boulevards of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to demand better environmental protections. The Vietnamese government estimates that some 41,000 fishermen and over 176,000 people reliant on fishing have been affected by the incident.

The newly re-elected Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, who is seen as pro-Chinese, broke his silence over the environmental disputes, stating that the mass fish death “more or less affected the election process.”

The recent election was a “bad joke”

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch hits back at this saying, “Vietnam’s election is a bad joke from a one-party dictatorship.” He added, it was “Nothing more than a ruse wrapped in red banners and propaganda statements to deceive the international community”.

But is that a fair summary? The constitution allows anyone to run for a seat in the National Assembly – providing they pass the process. At times, the Communist Party has quietly encouraged non-party members to do this, encouraging the impression that a form of democracy does exist in the country.

However, in the most recent elections the government disqualified many independent candidates, proving that, it “is not about democracy or accountability, but rather about continuity of the ruling Communist Party’s power,” says Robertson. Only two independent candidates went on to win seats.

All change

Although these efforts did not succeed as the independents hoped, prominent Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Quang A said the difference this time is that a wider range of candidates even put themselves forward.

“For the first time, we saw militant candidates nominating themselves, liberal candidates, candidates who wanted to talk about human rights, candidates who wanted to talk about social issues,” Quang A said. “This was new and it scared the authorities.”

Among this chaos of patriotism, credibility and calls for democracy the government will need to make a careful choice about what to prioritise. And the success of this cyber-attack opens up another front for authorities to defend against. And with so many other pressing issues, it may be the one they are least prepared for.