Vietnamese nationalism is a double-edged sword.
Vietnam has hedged its bets against China in recent years by making diplomatic and military overtures to the United States. But it seems Hanoi's rebalancing act goes only so far—especially when it fears that its domestic critics could use nationalism to undermine the regime.
On Monday, Vietnamese prosecutors hit Nguyen Van Hai, an influential dissident blogger in jail since 2008 for stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment before the 2008 Olympics, with a new charge: "propaganda against the state." Now the 60-year-old blogger faces the possibility that his time in prison will be extended by as much as 20 years. Two other journalists, Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan, were also charged.
Mr. Nguyen (better known by his pen name Dieu Cai), is a pioneer of citizen journalism. He infuriated the government by criticizing its failure to prevent Chinese intrusions in the Vietnamese portion of the South China Sea, as well as its decision to allow Chinese companies to mine for bauxite in Vietnam.
On the surface, such criticisms may seem to be in line with Hanoi's own increasingly hostile attitudes toward its northern neighbor. Hanoi has not hesitated to stir up nationalist sentiment against China in the past as an easy way to bolster public support. Vietnam will also hold joint naval exercises with the U.S. next week, the meaning of which can hardly be lost on the Vietnamese public.
So it may seem strange that the regime should now repress people who are in sympathy with its anti-China tilt. But Hanoi also fears a repeat of the anti-Chinese protests in 2007 and 2011, when it effectively ceded control of the nationalism "card" to its own people.
There's a parallel with anti-Japanese protests in China, which often begin as efforts to bolster the regime's nationalist credentials but become opportunities to criticize the government itself, ostensibly for being too accommodating toward Tokyo. Such criticism gains instant traction and can be difficult to suppress.
It is the common practice of dictatorships to allow public protests only when they are against some foreign enemy. And it is the habit of people living under dictatorship to use the regime's tools of control against it. Hanoi knows it will face increasing challenges from Beijing in the years ahead. It also knows it will face increasing domestic dissent. That leaves Dieu Cai and other brave Vietnamese to pay the price for the regime's attempts to maintain control.