You can’t please everyone, especially those who do their utmost to find fault with a country that has distinguished itself as a national role model in the midst of a global pandemic. Earlier this month, Foreign Policy (FP) published a slanderous and mean-spirited op-ed with the clickbait title Vietnam’s Coronavirus Success Is Built on Repression by Bill Hayton (BH) and Tro Ly Ngheo (Trợ Lý Nghèo translates as “poor assistant.”)
Like the author, whose Vietnam-related claim to fame is that he was a one-time BBC correspondent 13 years ago and who reports from his perch in the English countryside, his supporters are people who appear to have little to no substantive experience with the Vietnam of 2020. What unites them is their visceral dislike and, in some cases, hatred of the country and resentment of its phenomenal success in dealing with the coronavirus. As BH and FP know all too well, there is nothing like a little commie-bashing and red-baiting to excite the base.
It is both ironic and pathetic that BH lives in a country that has failed spectacularly at containing the coronavirus and that many of his sycophants live across the pond, which is the world’s leader in both infections and deaths. The essay and their cheerleading ring hollow to those of us who call Vietnam home.
The ABCs of Political Ax-Grinding
BH did what any good yellow salon journalist with an ax to grind would do, in this case, against the Vietnamese government and, by extension, the nation of Viet Nam. Just find the information that helps you grind your ax, even if you have to take it out of context. Next, identify those sources that confirm your view. So much for critical thinking or the importance of facts. Last but not least, find an establishment media outlet that is clueless or biased enough to publish it. Voilà!
Rather than give credit where credit is due, BH ascribes Vietnam’s success to nefarious factors, i.e., it is the result of a system of “repression.” Just like the red, white, and blue Republic of Vietnam (“South Vietnam”) supporters who have deluded themselves into believing that the US somehow “won the war” because it shifted from a centrally-planned to a free market economy “with socialist orientation,” BH and his ilk need to find some kind of coal-black lining for their anti-Vietnam cause in what most people, especially those who live in Vietnam, view as cause for celebration. Vietnam has been successful, but at what cost?, the authors ask gravely and rhetorically.
Dominic Newbould, a British education consultant based in Vietnam, observed on Twitter that “The implication of the article – reinforced by the title – is that VN’s success in fighting CoV is somehow unacceptable. And Hayton’s evidence is mostly hearsay and exaggeration. Hanoi is no more repressive than London or Washington – maybe less so.” He concludes with the $64,000 question: Why write it?
One reason is the government refused to renew BH’s visa after working as a BBC correspondent from 2006-07. In March 2014, he remarked somewhat wistfully on his website, “I haven’t been able to go back to Vietnam since 2007, so I’m feeling a bit out of touch. Perhaps they’ll give me another visa one day…” I guess butthurt does not begin to describe how BH felt after not being permitted to travel to Vietnam. It’s hard to be on the outside looking in when, especially when you’re a journalist. The end result is that you end up “out of touch” and running on empty in the realm of content.
BH’s motto appears to be “Never miss an opportunity for payback, regardless of its impact on your reputation.” We all have an agenda that falls somewhere on the good to evil spectrum. Anger, bitterness, and victimhood appear to be his primary motivation for writing this tripe. Hell hath no fury like an arrogant and self-righteous white, male, foreign journalist scorned.
When Your Hammer is Exposing Government Repression, Everything Looks Like a Nail
BH and his poor assistant got off to a rocky start by committing a journalistic faux pas in the first paragraph in which they used a Tweet taken out of context and without interviewing the person who wrote it.
When the Hanoi-based economic consultant Raymond Mallon returned home after a trip abroad in late March, he was immediately texted by the local police asking after his health. Vietnam is a state that not only knows where you live but also knows when you go away—and your mobile phone number.
Sounds sinister and scary, right? The repressive police state in action. Here’s Mr. Mallon’s response on a Vietnam Studies scholarly listserv:
Of course, it was not at all surprising that officials knew when we got back and that they had our phone number: we were required to provide this in a health declaration provided prior to departure. My surprise was the efficient way the information provided was used and the friendliness displayed to us by the official in question. For information, the reference to me appears to come from the following tweet.
Village VN police texted us to ask about our health after our flights back to Hanoi. We sent a picture of us with masks on watching tv. He sent a meme back with a pumping heart and asked if we were really wearing masks inside.
Touché! The first shot was fired. A short time later, another much larger shoe dropped.
Thanks, Ray for the clarification!
What I hear from friends and relatives in Vietnam is that there was tremendous public health work including tracking, tracing, and treating. People in neighborhoods that were quarantined who needed it received food and other necessaries from the government and people I heard from who were quarantined for 14 days in military centers received decent food and lodging at no cost.
Contrast Vietnam’s low infection rate and no deaths with what we are facing here in the US:
As of now (posted on 13 May), there are 83,082 people killed by COVID-19 including 21,845 in NY. About half of those who died are elderly people living in nursing homes, in all the states that reported nursing home deaths. The lack of PPE has meant that the most vulnerable patients in some cases were left to die without every effort being made to save them. With the stay at home orders being prematurely relaxed in some areas, doctors estimate that the death toll could rise to hundreds of thousands.
Nurses have literally died from lack of PPE. Contract tracing and follow-up has yet to be done and is only in the planning stages now, months after the pandemic started here. Millions of people who have lost their jobs have also lost their health insurance and those who have had to be treated in hospital will be receiving huge bills that they have no way to pay. People who never had health insurance are sometimes afraid to go to the hospital and quite a number have been found dead in their houses from COVID-19.
Our national government has told us that corporate profits are more important than our lives, as the open up businesses in areas where COVID spread is going up. And some politicians have told the elderly who are old and vulnerable that we should be ready to die to protect the economy!
So, I would gladly have a polite official come to my home to inquire about my health or to tell me that I had been exposed by others so I could be proactive about my health and not endanger others!
A Trip to the Rhetorical Woodshed
That is the intellectual equivalent of taking BH and his mystery co-author to the proverbial woodshed. The shellacking continued with these two comments.
It is interesting that some authors try to find repressive government and communist actions as the success for stopping the virus in VN never questioning why the pandemic goes on strongly in the US where our government wasted time blaming China for the pandemic and nothing was done. Of course, the US ended up doing much the same as China but making it “voluntary”, ha, in the US and we still have a strong pandemic going on. When in VN a very few years ago, I saw community organizations in action as well as the union movement and the Communist Party getting things done with some expedience and community involvement. Here in the US our democracy is hardly working. From the top down, Trump to local governments, corporations pay for elections and buy the politicians elected and we are getting nowhere on anything except profits and wealth for the few. Which is a more democratic system?
A small note on this rather odd article: why does the caption on the first photo declare a perfectly helpful and truthful Public Service Announcement (PSA) on the habitual and proper wearing of masks to be a “propaganda poster”?
To be sure, there are lots of propaganda banners in Vietnamese public life. But this is a run-of-the-mill PSA, employing the “enemy” metaphor for the virus as has been done the world over, one of many PSAs that are essential tools in an effective anti-pandemic arsenal.
That Foreign Policy reflexively employed “propaganda poster” for a normal PSA in communist Viet Nam can be seen as, well, …propaganda.
It also speaks volumes about this article. When your hammer is exposing Vietnamese government repression, everything looks like a nail. I don’t believe this very tragic and dangerous pandemic should be used as a nail. (It’s also a bit disrespectful to Vietnamese civil society that is rightfully proud of the Covid response.) And when one decides nonetheless to use Covid-19 as a nail, the result is the troubling array of poor examples that others have already pointed out, from the misuse of a (decontextualized) tweet to the wandering Frenchman. Do we really believe that he was passively “shadowed” for two weeks, and did “Tro Ly Ngheo” not bother to ask him if he was interviewed and health-checked (as he should have been) at previous stops prior to Hội An?
A Rising Chorus of Criticism
Criticizing a country that saved lives while politicians in both our (USA) and his (UK) country recklessly contributed to a horrific death toll is peak misplaced pettiness. And terribly exploitative. What a time to cultivate his resentment towards Vietnam and what a high profile topic to exploit to get attention. (TBM, LinkedIn)
I clearly was not the only netizen to call bullshit on BH’s hatchet job. Here are some of my favorite comments from Facebook and Twitter.
The following comments, mostly from Vietnamese, are in response to the Foreign Policy Facebook page post about the article. Quite a few netizens referred to it as “fake news;” some even reported it as such.
JN: I’m living in Vietnam. The police went knocking at my door (and) asked me some questions like: “did you travel before the 11th of march” then checked the stamps on my passport. I’m still traumatized by that interaction… Just kidding I’m feeling so lucky to be in this country during this time. Also, the article forgot to mention the catchy song, the collective effort, the volunteers, the rice ATM, and much more… ❤️
NTT: Totally absurd and stupid. Go and ask more people in Vietnam what they think before jumping to any conclusions. It’s no good making up a fictional character to make it sound true. FYI, I have reported this page as spreading fake news.
PKH: …What’s even the point of this article? Criticizing us for doing better than you can?
HVBL: It’s funny that you’re representing 96 million people in Vietnam to think we are being suppressed. I feel happy and proud of my country, and I believing the government, they have tried so hard and did very well, so stop lying and worry about the epidemic in your country.
HP: …Vietnam is always under target because of its uncertain unlikely label “communist”. You think Taiwan succeeded because of mass testing? That’s just extremely naive. Tracing and isolation are always the keys to avoid outbreak…
LI: Social distancing for a few months so that people can stay healthy is not wrong. The wrong thing is in the name “freedom” to save the economy, not the people.
TT: Oh, I love this repression ♀. Foreign Policy is an international laughingstock.
NT: I don’t see the loss of human rights here. The government has wholeheartedly (worked) for the people and I believe in my Government.
JA: Then Bill Hayton and Nguyen Phuong Linh earn money by making fake news? Do you two feel shameful on what you wrote in articles like this? #stoplying
CT: Western winning over covid19 is just like American won the Vietnam war. FAKE.
HN: Fake news from an anti-communist guy, almost (all) Vietnamese feel safe when our government do that.
TL: Fake news for sure. Don’t be jealous with our success
NDQ: The bad guys always try to sabotage Vietnam and this site is an example.
VAN: Nothing is as filthy as the American media; they always misrepresent and slander about Communism. I live in Vietnam, there are many other people around me, and we always abide by Vietnam’s anti-epidemic policy, which is why we are now back to normal.
TSH: So that’s why you guys always be the loser. Both in Vietnam War and Covid-19 War!
NTN: This is absurd. The information in this article is biased and does not come from any scientific research, which makes it become irrelevant and does not reflect the whole opinion of Vietnamese people.
NDT: We feel very comfortable.
LN: Haha, America is the funniest creature on earth, aren’t they? An entire circus.
@DominicNewbould: This is a sensible and accurate response to lazy and sloppy writing in the @ForeignPolicy “opinion piece” by Hayton from last week. Vietnam’s success against Covid is built on concern for human lives. That’s all. (Reference to FAIR’s response, linked below.)
Replying to @DominicNewbould and @ForeignPolicy: I don’t think “lazy and sloppy” at all. I think quite carefully calculated to denigrate another country’s achievements purely based on that country’s political system. Who exactly is using propaganda?
HDleart @hle1352 replying to @bill_hayton: Political opposition financed by the U.S. These groups have ties with former south puppet regime. Their goal is to create civil disorders with disinformation and fake news. They’re worse than covid-19.
Last but not least, Caroline Mills, one of whose Tweets was the basis for the article, according to BH, doesn’t pull any punches in this thread in which the Man Himself chimes in. Again, sans interview, BH simply lifted a Tweet by Ms. Mills and used it as grist for his anti-Vietnam mill.
Caroline Mills, who runs a small island resort near Hoi An, described on Twitter in late February how this surveillance worked in the case of one French visitor. According to Mills, the Frenchman had been flagged with a higher than normal temperature on arriving in Bangkok some 20 days earlier. After two days passing through Cambodia, he arrived in Vietnam. Unknown to him, the Vietnamese authorities monitored his entire journey through the country for 18 days. Within minutes of Mills logging his arrival at her hotel with the immigration service’s database, she received a call from the police. Officers were at the hotel to interview and test the Frenchman within 15 minutes.
Here is Ms. Mills’ passionate and expletive-laden response in a Twitter thread in which BH makes a cameo appearance:
caroline mills @misscvietnam: In case any of you think I’m awful, I disagree with every word that prick Bill Hayton wrote, and to be honest if he doesn’t understand the importance of track and trace, then he is an even bigger prick. Fuck you Bill.
Replying to @misscvietnam: Please indulge me here. I’m really proud of Vietnam’s efforts to put the people first and success we have had over repressing the spread of covid 19. The transparency, clear information and support we have been provided with has been incredible.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: Especially when compared with countries like the UK. Essex alone has had more than 1000 deaths (I fact checked that with my Dad, Mad Dog Mills. He lives down the road). Note: BH lives in Essex.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: Track and trace has been a huge factor in Vietnam’s success in keeping cases below 300, with no deaths to date. I posted about this, and how amazing that was. It made me feel safe to keep the resort open, and to accept guidance from authorities that I could trust.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: Just like the UK, in Vietnam we all have counties. Ours, like the Cham Islands and other poorer rural areas, has a big problem with TB. I’ve tweeted about that before because I am working with a government-funded scheme to set up free testing and health care for the island.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: As I have tweeted previously, because of TB, the government here went further than other counties to protect us. I was shitting myself and offering to close down way before it was requested – because TB, Covid…
caroline mills @misscvietnam: The local government supported me through that. We had meetings, they provided me with a doctor and both police and military support (we’re a military island, quite near Chu Lai and the contested islands that some bloke from Essex rants about). Nice fellas.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: After the flight from the UK delivered us our first new cases in three weeks, track and trace accelerated. People that arrived on international flights after that were asked to fill out health and travel declarations including flights taken, hotels stayed, etc.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: When a new case was reported that information was shared publicly online, with timelines of places visited. That meant if we had been in contact we knew fast and could get ourselves tested for free.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: Identities were protected, and anyone with any knowledge of Covid (which we all had thanks to our government’s clear communication) was happy to have the opportunity to get a test. I had one, it was vile.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: Have we been repressed? I don’t think so at all. I think we’ve been given the respect and trust to beat this together, and we are doing an excellent job.
Anyway, it’s too nice a day for this and I’m off to the beach now.
Bill Hayton @bill_hayton – replying to @misscvietnam: It was your tweet that gave me the idea to write the article. But I understand why you might feel the need to distance yourself from it. I hope the season gets better from here.
caroline mills @misscvietnam: If my tweet had been the inspiration you would have done well to have discussed this with me before flying off on a tangent. However, thank you for your kind wishes. Stay safe.
Now that’s what I call a good, old-fashioned tongue-lashing. If this Twitter thread were a boxing match, it would be a 1st round knockout with BH licking his wounds.
A few days after BH’s article appeared, FAIR’s (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) Janine Jackson wrote a scorching piece entitled Foreign Policy Sees ‘Repression’ in Vietnam’s Fight Against Coronavirus (Subtitle: In the US, government may surveil you, but at least it doesn’t protect your health.) She concludes by stating the obvious: The piece is clearly trying to say: Don’t envy another country’s pandemic response because it comes at too high a cost. That might be food for thought, except that Foreign Policy doesn’t seem to want you to bother thinking very much at all.
Another effective antidote to BH’s poisonous rant is an excellent 18-minute interview with Dr. Guy Thwaites, Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit and Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Program in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).
The Pivotal Role of Social Solidarity
BH devoted so many brain cells and bytes to hitting nails with his oversized anti-repression hammer that he failed to notice the rather large and imposing elephant in the room, the people of Viet Nam whose cooperation was key to the success of the government’s yeoman’s efforts to contain COVID-19.
Mike DiGregorio, country representative of Asia Foundation, Vietnam expert, and long-term Hanoi resident, and his co-authors had this to say about their contribution in an essay that serves as another potent antidote to the toxic anti-Vietnam propaganda served up by BH and his poor assistant. In Vietnam: a COVID-19 success story, they begin by introducing the reader to the real Vietnam, not the one that BH and company are obsessing over, devoting the remainder of the article answering the question in the second paragraph.
On the surface, Vietnam is a country of notorious rule breakers. Even the most casual visitor is made quickly aware of the unruly nature of everyday life. A cyclist heads straight through a red light because his daughter is late for nursery school; another speeds 50 meters the wrong way up a one-way street because that is the shortest distance to her front door.
So how does a country that can barely get its citizens to comply with traffic regulations achieve the impressive results it has in managing the COVID-19 pandemic with no deaths and less than 300 cases in a country of 96 million?…
Part of the answer is transparency, which is related to people’s willingness to cooperate and follow official advice, guidelines, and instructions. It’s neither rocket science nor is it a strategy that can only be implemented in “authoritarian” systems. That is the lie BH and Foreign Policy want their readers to swallow.
The Brookings Institution published a research report entitled Reopening Vietnam: How the country’s improving governance helped it weather the COVID-19 pandemic in which the authors conclude that “Vietnam’s story moves beyond the simple distinction of regime type to challenge us to think deeper about bureaucratic capacity and responsiveness within all forms of government.”
Success is the Best Revenge
The latest validation of Vietnam’s extraordinary accomplishment is that it ranks second in the world and first among Southeast Asian countries in terms of the people’s satisfaction with the government’s response to COVID-19, according to an international survey About 94% of Vietnamese felt that providing the public with accurate information helped them to deal with the pandemic, contributing to their nation’s stellar performance in the war against the coronavirus.
80% of Vietnamese are optimistic that the economy will recover quickly in the post-Covid-19 era. An international survey conducted the second week of May revealed that 97% have confidence in their government’s handling of the pandemic and 88% believe that the situation is improving. The government has set an ambitious economic growth target of 5% this year.
As of 24 May, Vietnam has a grand total of 325 cases of COVID-19, including 267 who have recovered, zero deaths, and 58 active cases. Most of the latter are repatriated Vietnamese who have tested positive while in quarantine. There have been no community transmissions since 16 April. In tragic contrast, the US has over 1.6 million total cases and a death toll approaching 100,000, while the UK has 257,154 total cases and 36,675 deaths. The question on many people’s minds is Who’s your Daddy, USA and UK?