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Are ‘authoritarian’ governments ‘backing’ each other up?

American citizen William Nguyen of Vietnamese descent, is 33 years old this year.

In the middle of last year, Nguyen hogged media headlines when he was beaten, dragged and arrested by plainclothes Vietnamese policemen in Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam on 10 June.

(Video of Nguyen being manhandled by Vietnamese authorities)

Born and raised in Houston, Nguyen had travelled to Vietnam on a tourist visa while preparing to graduate from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore not long after with a master’s degree.

The 2008 Yale University graduate of southeast Asian studies documented a mass demonstration unfolding in the city centre of Saigon where netizens gathered to express anger towards the government against a new cybersecurity law that restricts online communication and a proposed measure to establish three new special economic zones that will potentially lease land to Chinese companies for up to 99 years.

This sparked violent protests across some parts of the country with the worst hit being the coastal Binh Thuan province. Nguyen was convicted with a seven-year prison sentence for ‘disturbing public order’, but escaped prison term upon deportation back to Singapore.

On Aug 17th 2018, he shared his side of the story in a public statement posted to his Facebook wall:

“I participated in the protests alone, unaffiliated with any organization, because I believe in the power of the individual. There is immense value in contributing one’s voice, in hurling one’s self against the seemingly impenetrable barrier of authoritarianism.”

He went on: “When done in unison, as happened on June 10th, 2018 in Vietnam, it is enough to put existential cracks in the system.”

Vietnamese citizens’ profound anti-Chinese sentiments dates all the way back to the time when the Han Dynasty conquered and subjugated what is now northern Vietnam, over some two millennia ago.

The recent rising contention owes it to the ‘aggressive’ manner in which China is asserting control over the largely disputed South China Sea and its ever-invasive trade and investment policies.

Unwelcome visitor seeking answers

A distressing note was written across Nguyen’s Facebook page on 8 Jan, relating a bizarre incident that took place in Singapore.

His classmate, apparently female, was allegedly being paid a visit by ‘Chinese embassy officials’ based in Singapore – right at her ‘doorstep’.

“I suppose this would be a good time to throw in a related anecdote about Chinese reach in the region,” Nguyen’s cryptic post began.

“It was relayed directly to me by the person involved; I’ve only told a few close friends about this, mostly bc it’s so audacious, it stretches the bounds of reality: While I was imprisoned in #Vietnam, officials from the Chinese (!) embassy in Singapore (!) showed up on a classmate’s doorstep (!) to interrogate her about whether I had any links to #democracy groups in Vietnam or China.”

Nguyen stopped short of offering further details surrounding the exchange that took place between his friend and the alleged ‘Chinese officials’.

Is China’s surreptitious influence and growing climate of intimidation in this region a myth?

Closer to home, Singapore has just emerged as the first-hand spectator to witness the remarkable downfall of Malaysia’s sixty-year-old growing kleptocratic regime that had kept the world at the edge of their seats for so long.

On 7 Jan 2019, Wall Street Journal(WSJ) famed journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope published yet another unsettling revelation for public consumption.

According to minutes from a series of previously undisclosed meetings reviewed by the WSJ, senior Chinese leaders had in 2016 offered to bail out Malaysia from its multibillion-dollar 1MDB graft scandal.

In the article subtitled : ‘The secret discussions show how China uses its political and financial clout to bolster its position overseas’; Chinese officials were revealed to have told visiting Malaysians that it would use its influence to try to get the US and other countries to drop their probes of allegations that allies of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak and others plundered the fund known as 1MDB, the minutes showed.

The article went further to point out that ‘the Chinese also offered to bug the homes and offices of Journal reporters in Hong Kong who were investigating the fund, to learn who was leaking (the) information to them.’

Malaysia, in turn, must offer lucrative stakes in railway and pipeline projects for China’s One Belt, One Road programme of building infrastructure abroad, as well as allowing Chinese navy ships to dock at Malaysian ports.

China was immediate to pursue its regional ambitions with the acquiescence of a desperate economic vassal.

In addition to that, on Monday (7 Jan), ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute impeccably released a comprehensive survey that polled 1,008 respondents from all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including people in government, academic and business communities, civil society and the media regarding China’s growing reach in Southeast Asia.

73 percent of the respondents viewed China as having the greatest economic influence in the region and was also believed to have more clout politically and strategically than the United States.

As China becomes more powerful and influential in international relations, amid US waning influence in this region, Beijing will fundamentally change the international system as we recognise today.

recent article in The Diplomat dated 3 Oct 2018, claims that the world according to China by 2049 would be ‘a world of political authoritarian and economic hyper-capitalism and neomercantilism.

It wrote: ‘China’s vision is defined by Xi Jinping’s phrase “One World, One Dream,” which is a modern form of tianxia, or “all under heaven.” This concept serves as the foundation of China’s imperial ideology – the Chinese conception of how the world should be ordered…What China will want in 2049 dovetails with what China wants today or wanted in its imperial past.’

In retrospect, Reuters news agency reported that the authors of the Jan 7th ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey had written: “This result … is a wake-up call for China to burnish its negative image across Southeast Asia despite Beijing’s repeated assurance of its benign and peaceful rise.”

The survey result rendered that fewer than one in 10 saw China as “a benign and benevolent power” with nearly half saying that the PRC possessed “an intent to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence”.

China seems to have not shed its burly impression when news emerged in November 2018 that it had already erected a new “platform” at the otherwise untouched Bombay Reef in the Paracel Islands that are also claimed by both Taiwan and Vietnam. This, according to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies on its 20th November report.

This latest development was also what rekindled anti-Chinese sentiments sweeping across Vietnam against its own government’s continued engagement with Beijing.

‘Authoritarian’ governments ‘backing’ each other up?

Relating back to Nguyen’s 8th Jan Facebook post about his classmate, he didn’t fail to raise the distressing point that such an unwelcoming gesture, almost to the point of absurdity, could somehow actually take place in real-life, implying that something more sinister is brewing within, which must be approached with an air of caution.

“That they were able to find her address, randomly show up at her place to interrogate her, and do it with impunity on foreign soil raises many disturbing questions,” he continued writing.

“The Chinese Communist Party helps underpin the existence of many other authoritarian states in the region, either directly or indirectly. This is particularly true of the #Vietnamese Communist Party, which the CCP helped birth, raise, and sustain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the PAP turns a blind eye to such “meddling”. One-party states gotta “one-party”, he stated.

Nguyen ended his post with a #nowyouknow hashtag.

However, what we at TOC fail to understand is, had it been true that unknown strangers were to drop by a female’s house uninformed, either it be day or night, wouldn’t it have occurred to the student that a police report should be lodged immediately? Just for the record.

Carlton Tan,  correspondent for the Asian Correspondent, once wrote in his noteworthy piece called : ‘Lee Kuan Yew Leaves a Legacy of Authoritarian Pragmatism’.

In it quote, unquote : ‘Cherian George, director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship, in 2005, described the PAP’s authoritarianism as a form of “calibrated coercion”, an intelligent way to maintain the hegemony of the state while keeping people happy. Lee’s benevolent authoritarianism has become an art, but the principle remains the same – keep the people well fed and they won’t revolt.’

Can Singaporean PAP government afford to “turn a blind eye”, in Nguyen’s word, towards an incident in which Chinese officials from the China Embassy of Singapore dropped by an innocent student’s private residence to ask whether her classmate, Nguyen himself, would have any connections to ‘democracy groups in Vietnam or China’? These two countries are already exasperating international community with their not-so-rosy human rights records.

Such incident is unacceptable and should have been left to the realms of cinematic marvel and should never have taken place in a country that has been indisputably touted as the safest country in the world.

As the saying goes: “You scratch my back, I scratch yours”, is Singapore’s PAP really receptive towards increasing perception that continues to label it as an ‘authoritative regime’, to be placed in the same basket as those who take on extreme measures to suppress political opponents and anti-regime activity?

Or would the Singaporean government take heed and ban such surreptitious method of inquiry that may terrorise its residents and citizens within its territory.

How far will the Chinese go when they finally solidify their presence here in this region?

“I think the issue of sovereignty for Vietnamese, especially in the face of a rising China, is worth defending,” Nguyen said in a Sept 10th 2018 article titled ‘Do Anti-Chinese Protests Pose a Threat to Vietnam’s Authoritarian Rulers?’

Nguyen’s continuation of his Aug 17th public statement on his Facebook :
“I’ve always believed that if you are fortunate enough to be born in the first world, to live a life of freedom and privilege, you should use it to help others around the globe achieve the same. Values extend beyond an arbitrary system of national borders. And human dignity trumps it altogether”.

During the time of Nguyen’s custody in Vietnam, his sister and many members of the Yale community rallied behind him. They ran an effective social media campaign that secured his deportation from Vietnam with the aid of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.