by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Reuters
THE SENTENCING of 22-year-old Nguyen Van Hoa to seven years in jail for online reporting on the massive fish die-off caused by pollution caused by a steel plant operated by the Taiwanese-owned company, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, should be something that the Taiwanese public pays more attention to. Yet as with other matters regarding the Formosa Ha Tinh industrial pollution disaster, likely the largest ecological disaster in Vietnamese history, the Taiwanese public has paid insufficient attention to the matter.
The fish die-offs began in April 2016, with millions of fish washing up on Vietnamese beaches in four provinces across the central shore of Vietnam, some 200 kilometers of shore. Although Vietnamese activists were quick to point to a recently constructed steel mill by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a subsidiary of Formosa Plastics, as the culprit, the Vietnamese government originally sought to deny because of Formosa Plastics’ 10.6 billion USD investment in the steel mill. The Vietnamese government first sought to claim that the cause of the fish die-offs were unknown, or that algae blooms could have been responsible.
With the massive protests breaking across Vietnam in 2016, mobilizing tens of thousands in a rare display of public protest against the government, the Vietnamese government eventually had to relent and fined Formosa Ha Ting Steel 500 million USD. Apart from that this was a paltry sum compared to the damages caused, what has been a cause of further protest has been the fact that it remains unknown whether the Vietnamese government has any real intention of forcing Formosa Ha Tinh Steel to pay. However, out of nationalistic defense of Taiwanese interests in Vietnam, this did not prevent the perception among some in Taiwan that the Vietnamese government had unfairly attempted to scapegoat Formosa Ha Tinh Steel.
The arrest of online activists such as Nguyen, then, are firm proof that the Vietnamese government did indeed act in defense of Formosa Ha Tinh Steel and sought to allow the Taiwanese company to get off the hook. Nguyen is accused of spreading “anti-state propaganda,” never mind that the Vietnamese government’s cover-up was to the extent of attempting to prevent doctors treating individuals affected by pollution from the spill from finding out the names of what chemicals were part of the pollutants released by Formosa Ha Tinh’s steel mill. Nguyen’s arrest comes on the heels of the sentencing another blogger that spread information about the fish die-offs, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, better known as “Mother Mushroom”, who was sentenced to ten years in jail for defaming the Vietnamese government.
Such events should be highly familiar to Taiwan. After all, in this past week, Taiwan saw the sentencing of Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-Che to five years in prison in China for discussing the experience of Taiwanese democratization with Chinese friends, something China billed as “state subversion.”
Likewise, the scale of demonstrations against the Vietnamese government’s handling of fish die-offs was comparable to other large-scale social movements in Asia in recent years, such as the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and opposition to the reinterpretation of Article 9 in Japan. The use of the Internet as a valuable means of sharing information not reported on within the media was seen in all of these movements, as occurred in Taiwan with the rise of “new media” run by young people in Taiwan to report on the news that mainstream news outlets controlled by Chinese business interests would not report on. Certainly, one is reminded of this with both Hoa and Quynh, Hoa’s online activism from a young age draws parallel to Sunflower Movement activists.
And questions regarding the trade-off between industrial development, the environment, and the health of the people have also been an issue that youth movements in Taiwan have organized around, with large corporations proving willing to pollute Taiwan’s air, water, and food supply in order to cut costs, while justifying this as a necessary measure for economic development. In Vietnam, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel sought to defend itself by claiming that that the fish die-offs were a necessary consequence of a trade-off between the environment and economic development, largely the same argument that large corporations have made in Taiwan when criticized on their environmental record. Sometimes the guilty culprit in Taiwan has been Formosa Plastics itself, the culprit of several large, high-profile environmental disasters in Taiwan.
Nevertheless, it may not be too surprising that there has been insufficient attention to fish die-offs in Vietnam as caused by a Taiwanese company, as well as nationalistic attempts to defend Formosa Ha Tinh Steel. For all the talk of a “New Southwards Policy” aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s economic ties with Southeast Asia in order to reduce dependency on China, this may simply take the form of economic exploitation of Southeast Asian labor by Taiwanese companies, rather than exploitation of Chinese laborers, as occurs through Taiwanese-owned companies that operate large factories in China.
Despite its rhetoric of seeking to build ties between democracies in Asia, Tsai administration, too, likely fears offending the Vietnamese party-state and would rather keep maintain ties with the party-state in order to have a possible ally against China. While the Tsai administration may tout Taiwan’s achievements as a democracy, this would be deciding to ally with an authoritarian regime over the Vietnamese people. But, this sort of hypocrisy, too, would not surprise, Taiwan having engaged in such measures multiple times in the past for the sake of having diplomatic allies against China. This continues in the present.