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On June 10, 2018, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Hanoi, Da Nang, Binh Thuan, Nha Trang, Binh Duong, Dong Nai, Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh City to protest against the government’s plan to create three new special economic zones that they fear will fall into the hands of Chinese investors.  Many protesters, including Catholics, held  placards that read “No Special Zone — No leasing land to China — Even for one day!” and “Leasing land to China is selling our country.”

Demonstrators were dispersed with force by police.  Over a hundred people were arrested and interrogated. 

The draft law would allow the establishment of three special administrative and economic units: Van Don in northern Quang Ninh province, Bac Van Phong in central Khanh Hoa province and Phu Quoc in southern Kien Giang province.  These special zones would offer investors greater incentives and fewer restrictions than available in the country at present.  Foreign investors would be allowed 70 to 99-year leases of land, and could benefit from various forms of tax exemption and immigration privileges in these zones.

While Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc insisted that the draft law would create favourable conditions to attract foreign investment to priority industries in these zones, which in turn would spearhead economic growth in the rest of the country, leading economist Vũ Quang Việt is not convinced.  He points out that the proposed incentives would only encourage property developments and casino projects, and would not enhance the hi-tech industries that Vietnam needs to boost its economy.  “These special zones would hardly attract any form of clean hi-tech industries…for the draft law mainly focuses on property and casino markets, and this directive must be re-examined.  The problem is that group interests are put first in any decision related to foreign investment or foreign loan, without any consideration of the potential long term risks and benefits.”

Academic and analyst Nguyen Quang Dy points to the appalling consequences of the other 18 special economic zones in Vietnam.  Most recently, the Formosa Steel Plant in Vung Ang, and Bauxite project in Tan Rai and Nhan Co have led to enormous damages to the environment and displacement of the local communities.  Without radical revisions of the structures of accountability and anti-corruption measures, Nguyen fears that the failures of these economic zones will be repeated again in these special zones.  Nguyen points to the influence of the “interest groups” (nhóm lợi ích) in the country, the new elite of Vietnamese businessmen and real estate investors who are allegedly working in collusion with Chinese investors. These interest groups only act on self interest without any regard for the impacts upon the economy, society, or national security. 

While China is militarizing and controlling the East Sea, forbidding Vietnamese citizens from fishing and drilling for oil in our own waters, they will surely look to expand their powers by taking control of strategic places on land.  Special economic zones are easy prey to their greed.  The interest groups in Vietnam might be colluding with the Chinese to influence and capitalize on this project.” Nguyen wrote.

Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, head of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Vietnam, maintains that the draft law “contains many risks and can potentially harm our national interests, especially our security and sovereignty.”

In his petition addressed to the National Assembly chairperson on June 8, Bishop Hop points out that the model of special administrative- economic units is now outdated and not suitable for economic development in the technological revolution era.

He insists that the heavy concessions on tax, land lease periods and deregulation in business sectors would “surely bring extraordinary profits to foreign speculators and interest groups at home.”

The prelate argues that the most important factors that attract long term foreign investments are proper economic policies, a reliable legal system, effective administrative structure and transparent judicial process, rather than short term concessions in some special zones.

Bishop Hop also points to the location of the three proposed zones: each of these has great strategic significance for national security and sovereignty, especially in the present climate when China is seeking to expand its influence in the region and building military bases in the South China Sea.

The prelate suggests that the government be attentive to the opinions of Vietnamese citizens at every level and hold a referendum on the draft before approval.

It is indeed a rare event since unification under Communist rule that Vietnamese citizens insisted on being heard in regard to a draft law.  Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop once again is on the side of the people, sharing in their joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties, and calling for greater participation of citizens in the common proc