Between a rock and a hard place: Sinophobia and religious nationalist sentiments in Vietnam

Tam Ngo

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President Xi Jinping’s launch of the “One Bell One Road Initiative” (OBOR or BRI) was met with a negative reaction in the Vietnamese public sphere, although the markedly rapid development of infrastructure connecting Vietnam and China would stimulate a number of trade sectors. The discussion focused on whether part of Vietnamese sovereignty should be given to China, even if only for a certain number of years (99 years was the proposed lease for the Van Don Port, for example). In Vietnamese belief, expressed in a saying “trần sao âm vậy” (“whatever happens in the world of the living, the exact happens in the world of the dead”), the world of the living is intricately connected to that of the spirits. This proposed project therefore investigates the reflection of various perceptions of BRI in contemporary Vietnamese religion. Concretely, it examines two newly emerged popular religious movements that build their legitimacy and popularity on the treacherous terrain of Sino-Vietnam relation. The first movement is the newly emergent Ho Chi Minh Cult, in which a number of cult leaders evoke Uncle Ho to return to lead the nation in spiritual warfare against the invasion of China’s ghost army. The second is a movement founded by a combination of female spirit mediums from lower social strata and highly educated intellectuals, business owners, and politicians. While the more privileged members of this group often benefit financially from Vietnam’s good relations with China, Sinophobia binds the group together. Conducting spiritual warfare against China, this group has adopted spiritually aggressive approaches. For example, by disguising as tourists, they chartered buses to bring them to Nanning, Guangzhou and Kunming, or flew to Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, to carry out spiritual attacks in China’s territory. The weapon employed by both groups constitutes a revised form of spirit writing.

By following the activities of these two religious movements, this project aims to address a number of empirical and analytical questions. How are the advantages and disadvantages of BRI reflected in the Vietnamese cosmological relation with China? One of the threats of BRI for Vietnam is the fact that Vietnam may be left behind once China completes its strategy to neutralize Vietnam’s geopolitical importance. In that relation, what kind of new civilizational imaginations are produced and what kind of identity formation can be anticipated? What does the employment of spirit writing in spiritual warfare against China in contemporary Vietnam reveal about Sino-Vietnamese civilizational imagination? 

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