ArticlePDF Available

In Search of Kilometer Zero: Digital Archives, Technological Revisionism, and the Sino-Vietnamese Border


Abstract and Figures

Bùi Minh Quốc left for the border in late 2001. His clandestine trip, which took nearly a month to complete on a 50cc Honda Cub motorcycle, retraced the perimeter of Việt Bắc, the name for the mountainous region that stretches across ten provinces in northeastern Vietnam. Quốc, a poet of considerable repute, documented the highpoints of the ride in verse. But the region’s rugged beauty, which holds a prominent place in official histories of the anti-colonial struggle against the French and those who collaborated with them, was not the real reason for his quest. Nor was the region’s more recent reincarnation as a socialist battleground during the Third Indochina War with the People’s Republic of China, a conflict that killed and wounded an estimated one hundred thousand people in the space of a month. Instead, Quốc’s self-appointed task was to find the current location of “Kilometer Zero” (Cấy số không) along the Sino-Vietnamese border—a difficult proposition since it appears nowhere on official maps of the country. Nonetheless, the toponym is commonly used to refer to the precise spot in Lạng Sơn Province where National Highway 1A, the only paved road to traverse the entire length of Vietnam, begins its long journey south.
Content may be subject to copyright.
In Search of Kilometer Zero: Digital
Archives, Technological Revisionism,
and the Sino-Vietnamese Border
Clark University
Bùi Minh Quc left for the border in late 2001. His clandestine trip, which took
nearly a month to complete on a 50cc Honda Cub motorcycle, retraced the peri-
meter of VitBc, the name for the mountainous region that stretches across ten
provinces in northeastern Vietnam. Quc, a poet of considerable repute, docu-
mented the highpoints of the ride in verse.
But the regions rugged beauty,
which holds a prominent place in ofcial histories of the anti-colonial struggle
against the French and those who collaborated with them, was not the real
reason for his quest. Nor was the regions more recent reincarnation as a social-
ist battleground during the Third Indochina War with the Peoples Republic of
China, a conict that killed and wounded an estimated one hundred thousand
people in the space of a month.
Instead, Qucs self-appointed task was to
nd the current location of Kilometer Zero(Cyskhông) along the Sino-
Vietnamese bordera difcult proposition since it appears nowhere on ofcial
maps of the country. Nonetheless, the toponym is commonly used to refer to the
precise spot in Lng Sơn Province where National Highway 1A, the only paved
road to traverse the entire length of Vietnam, begins its long journey south.
For many Vietnamese, Kilometer Zero is inextricably linked to i Nam
Quan, an arched gateway rst constructed perhaps as early as the fteenth
Acknowledgments: The Fulbright-Hays DDRA, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the University of
Michigan, and the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (Emory University) provided
nancial support that made this essay possible. Thoughtful comments from Christina Schwenkel,
Bruce Knauft, Andrew Goss, Juliet Feibel, Andrew Shryock, and three anonymous CSSH reviewers
greatly improved earlier versions. Due to the nature of the material presented, I have redacted the
names of all my Vietnamese interlocutors to protect their identities. All links are current as of
August 2008 unless otherwise noted. However, technological forms of revisionism, link rot,
and other factors may affect their continued viability. For this reason, copies of all electronic
materials cited below are available upon request.
Chùm ThơViết Trên Đưng Lãng Du Bng Xe Máy (Bunch of poems written wandering on the
road by motorcycle) (Dec. 2001),
David Elliot, ed., The Third Indochina Conict (Boulder: Westview Press, 1981).
Comparative Studies in Society and History 2008;50(4):862 894.
0010-4175/08 $15.00 #2008 Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History
century. Located in a narrow mountain pass, the gateway helped delineate the
ambiguous frontier then separating the pre-modern state of Great Viet (Đi
Vit) from territories under the administrative control of its powerful neighbor
to the north, the Empire of the Great Ming. i Nam Quan has since been rebuilt
on several occasions, most recently during the late twentieth century when
Soviet-style architectural inuences were giving way to neo-traditional ones
in both Vietnam and China (Figure 1).
The same structure has also been ofcially renamed at least six times, again
most frequently during the twentieth century. However, repeated efforts to
replace the old with the new have not been entirely successful, since several
of the structures previous names remain in common use today. They do so
because each of the names corresponds to a different moment in the life of
the nation,which enables government ofcials, dissidents, and segments
of the countrys diaspora to narrate the terms of Sino-Vietnamese relations
and their respective territorial claims in conicting ways.
The most conspicuous example of this is i Nam Quan itself, which means
Southern Gatein Sino-Vietnamese. Some Vietnamese reject the Sino-centric
view of the frontier implicit in this name and instead refer to the structure as the
Northern Gate(Bc-Quan). But a majority continues to use the Sino-
Vietnamese term since it is widely recognized and closely linked to the restor-
ation of Vietnameseindependence following two decades of imperial rule by
the Ming (14061427), the last time hostile Chineseforces occupied territory
south of the arched gateway for any substantial length of time until 1979.
Regardless of the name used, the gateway continues to hold a prominent
place in the historical imagination as the northernmost part of the country.
Indeed, when asked about the location of Kilometer Zero, most Vietnamese
will quickly respond with a line of verse schoolchildren continue to memorize
in state schools: Our country runs from Ai Nam Quan to the cape of Ca Mau
(Đtnưctachy dài từẢi Nam Quan đếnmũiCàMau).
These childhood
certainties were thrown into doubt in late 2000 when detailed rumors
emerged that the arched gateway and other sites of politico-historical signi-
cance now stood on foreign soil as a result of a treaty the Communist Parties
of Vietnam and China had negotiated and signed in secret two years earlier.
Despite concerted efforts by government ofcials to discredit the rumors,
they steadily gained strength as people inside and outside Vietnam began to
post different kinds of evidenceonline that allegedly showed where, how,
and why the countrys territorial boundaries had changed. Precise gures
varied depending on the sources and maps used, but the general consensus
Homi Bhabba, ed. Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990), 17.
Sections of Hà Giang and Cao Bng Provinces, which extend farther north than the posited
location of Kilometer Zero in Cao Lc District, Lng Sơn Province, were not added to Tonkin,
a French protectorate, until the late eighteenth century.
was that the Communist Party of Vietnam had transferred to China approxi-
mately 750 square kilometers of land and, after two more secretagreements
were reached in 2000, over 8,000 square kilometers of the Tonkin Gulf.
critics conjectured the agreements were a prerequisite the Chinese Communist
Party imposed upon the Vietnamese to the full normalization of bilateral
relations, which had yet to fully recover from the Third Indochina War. But
most claimed high-ranking Vietnamese ofcials had instead sold the nation
for personal gain, though opinions remained divided over whether the motiv-
ation for their treachery”—the Vietnamese expression (bán nưc) conveys
both meanings simultaneouslywas primarily political or nancial in nature.
For reasons I will explain, efforts to determine the factual basis of these con-
icting accounts were greatly hampered by technological revisionism.This is
FIGURE 1i Nam Quan. Authors photo (2006).
Ramses Amer, Assessing Sino-Vietnamese Relations through the Management of Conten-
tious Issues,Contemporary Southeast Asia 26, 2 (2004): 32045.
The Communist Party regularly employed this phrase to denounce Vietnamese who collabo-
rated with its various ideological enemies. Here, the phrase is used as a means to strategically
turn the Communist Partys own rhetoric back against itself. For related discussion, see Sergei
Oushakine, The Terrifying Mimicry of Samizdat,Public Culture 113, 2 (2004): 191214.
my term for the different ways materials in digitized form can be copied, modi-
ed, forged, or deleted online by others, but never entirely erased since
electronic traces always remain. Indeed, it was this continuing state of uncer-
tainty over the veracity and integrity of the materials posted online that
prompted Quc, a former Communist Party member, to embark on his fact-
nding mission to the Sino-Vietnamese border, which he completed in mid-
December of 2001.
His luck, however, did not last.
Security ofcials quietly arrested Quc at a train station outside Hanoi in
January 2002 before he was able to share his ndings with several other well-
known intellectuals the Communist Party regards as dissidents for publicly
articulating opinions that diverge from its own. Ofcials interrogated Quc
for three days and then escorted him back to central Vietnam, where he was
placed under house arrest without trial for two years. News of Qucs arrest
did not appear in the mass media, which the state still closely controls. None-
theless, information regarding what had happened spread quickly via different
social networks that link politically active Vietnamese inside the country with
those abroad, nearly all of whom interpreted his detention as proof the leaders
of the Communist Party had something to hide.
Since Vietnamese security ofcials do not yet have the resources to system-
atically monitor and to restrict what people read and send to one another online,
the Internet quickly became the primary medium where (mis-) information con-
cerning the secretterritorial agreements was exchanged.
Though the number
of Vietnamese with Internet access was at the time very modestonly
3 percent of the populationthis group nonetheless formed an important con-
stituency since nearly all of the adult users were well-educated urban pro-
fessionals, a substantial portion of whom either worked for the government
or had family that did. To prevent this group from being drawn into the
debate, high-ranking Party ofcials initiated a three-pronged crackdown,
which included the arrest of domestic computer users suspected of distributing
propagandaor revealing state secretsthrough the Internet, a public
relations campaign that offered alternate views on the territorial agreements,
and renewed efforts to control by technological means what was accessible
The above tactics and those used to counter them are featured in this essay.
But I should stress that their theoretical and methodological signicance is not
limited to those Vietnamese with a stake in the controversys outcome. Close
attention to the socio-cultural and technological practices in play here offers
important insights into how digital archives shape not only political dissent,
Interview N.D.H., Hanoi, Mar. 2002.
Interview N.V.M., Hanoi, Apr. 2002.
OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam in 20052006 (Cambridge, Mass.: OpenNet
Initiative, 2006).
but ofcial efforts to suppress it as well. Moreover, placing both within the
same analytical frame makes it possible to more fully understand how each pro-
duces the form and the content of the other as well as how they change over
time. Such concerns are of obvious signicance in authoritarian settings
where freedom of expression remains limited and in situations where states
and their nation(s) in diaspora nd themselves in conict.
But they also
extend to include the still broader question of how digital objectsthe
generic term for items that can be retrieved via the Internetare affected by
the spaces through which they move.
As others have noted, divergences between the digital archives and their physi-
cal counterparts are readily apparent in terms of their form, content, and modes
of access.
But surprisingly little attention has been directed at how digital
objects travel between virtual collections or the problem multiple and slightly
different copies of the same originalpose for those interested in determining
the provenance of a particular electronic item. Both problems intersect
with contemporary debates over intellectual property, especially ongoing
legal efforts to dene where copyright protection ends and fair usebegins
in online environments. The emphasis here however is on the political and epis-
temological problems that arise when digital materials are copied from one
archivetypically without permissionand then reposted on a different one.
The unauthorized movement of digital objects is noteworthy for several
reasons. First, reposting multiplies the number of locations where it is possible
to view the samedigital object. While this practice reduces the effectiveness
of Internet censorship, it increases the likelihood that copies will acquire unin-
tended meanings since the interpretive contexts they reappear in differ from the
objects original one. Second, reposting is not random; rather, it strategically
targets some virtual collections and the constituencies they serve, but not
others. Consequently, digital objects, particularly controversial ones, acquire
biographiesas they move through and between different computer networks
that constitute the Internet.
Third, reposting fosters the growth of interpretive
communities, which emerge to debate both the authenticity of the digital
objects in question and the signicance of the paths they travel. Over time,
See, for example, Michel Laguerre, Homeland Political Crisis, the Virtual Diasporic Public
Sphere, and Diasporic Politics,Journal of Latin American Anthropology 10, 1 (2005): 20655;
Aihwa Ong, Cyberpublics and Diaspora Politics among Transnational Chinese,Interventions
5, 1 (2003): 82100.
Margaret Hedstrom, Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past,Archival Sciences
2 (2002): 2143.
Igor Kopytoff, The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,in, Arjun
Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1986), 34.
the interplay between these objects, the directionality of their ows, and the
bodies of commentary that accumulate around them result in what Benjamin
Lee and Edward LiPuma have described as cultures of circulation.
While Lee and LiPuma used this term to conceptualize the mobility of
nance capital and the social imaginary it producesa unied cosmopolitan
culturea more general conclusion can be drawn from their effort to
provide a cultural account of the role circulation plays in the further globaliza-
tion of capitalism. Namely, spaces of circulation are not empty. Nor do spaces
of circulation passively transmit what passes through them. To the contrary, the
socio-cultural and technological practices that make different forms circulation
possible actively produce meaning as well, though we are rarely cognizant of
how this occurs.
The Internet offers a particularly tting example, since icons, pull-down
menus, and other graphic interfaces have fostered the illusion that we under-
stand how it works even though the processes and protocols that enable
materials to circulate online are anything but transparent.
To make these
interfaces less transparent, this essay focuses on how technological forms of
revisionism (reposting among them) have shaped both the form and content
of the transnational debate regarding the legitimacy of the territorial agree-
ments. Doing so also foregrounds a paradigmatic difference between archives
and their digital counterparts. Whereas the former are traditionally premised
upon the preservation of xed forms of information (typically documents),
the latter enable others to add, modify, and delete their contents in a variety
of ways.
Consequently, many of the theoretical and methodological assump-
tions that inform historiographic practice ofine do not necessarily hold online
due to the unstable and impermanent nature of what is posted on most digital
The inevitable questions digital objects invite regarding their authenticity
and integrity help explain why the controversy has not produced two neatly
opposed narratives. Instead, what one nds posted on the digital archives in
question are hundreds of competing accounts of territorial possession and
loss that critically engage each other rather than the late nineteenth-century
treaties, which transformed the Sino-Vietnamese frontier into an international
boundary. There are several reasons why this has occurred. Chief among
them is sharp disagreement over which sources can be used as a point of depar-
ture for determining when, how, and why Kilometer Zero has repeatedly moved
Cultures of Circulation: The Imagination of Modernity,Public Culture 14, 1 (2002): 21538.
Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli, Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transg-
uration, Recognition,Public Culture 15, 3 (2003): 391.
Slavoj Žižek, Cyberspace, or, the Unbearable Closure of Being,in The Plague of Fantasies
(London: Verso, 1997), 12770.
Rudi Laermans and Pascal Gielen, The Archive of the Digital An-Archive,Image and Nar-
rative 17 (2007): 3.
over the past century. Since nearly all of the facts are in dispute, efforts to locate
the surprisingly mobile Kilometer Zero have taken an unusual return. Accounts
of its movements are rarely freestanding ones; instead, they depend upon evi-
dencestrategically excerpted from other accounts, which are then recombined
into new ones to advance particular claims.
Such accounts, which frequently emulate academic conventions and include
footnotes and bibliographies to further buttress their arguments, are notable in
three respects. First, the composite nature of the accounts means they are best
understood not as separate texts,but as dynamic elements within a larger net-
worked wholeone where new interpretive possibilities are continually gener-
ated by the ways they reference each other and how these patterns change over
time thanks to reposting and other forms of technological revisionism.
Second, due to the unauthorized movement of digital objects across archives,
it is common to nd multiple accounts that use the same piece of evidence
(e.g., a border map) to advance conicting conclusions regarding the legiti-
macy of the territorial agreements. Lastly, the above practices, because they
both create and delete connections between divergent accounts, make it dif-
cult to determine with real condence where ideologically orthodox positions
on the changing nature of Sino-Vietnamese relations end and heterodox ones
To support these contentions, the next section provides further background
on the political and cultural tensions the search for Kilometer Zero made mani-
fest, since they directly inform the discussion that follows. I then provide
additional details on the emergence of Vietnamese-language digital archives
and why the very practices that enable computer users to overcome ofcial
efforts to control what crosses Vietnams digital frontier simultaneously limit
our ability to assess their provenance. I explicate this paradox through a case
study that partially reconstructs the social lives of three maps of Kilometer
Zero. More than a dozen different maps of Kilometer Zero can be found on
the Internet, but these three are of particular interest since government ofcials
leakedeach of them, along with other details regarding the territorial agree-
ments, to different publics inside and outside Vietnam. Consequently, close
attention to what strategically located individuals claim was disclosed, to
whom, and why, offers the means to examine how digital archives affect
how political secrets are negotiated and historical lies are constructed
At the end of the essay, I outline the broader signicance of these
socio-technological struggles.
Michael Riffaterre, Intertextuality vs. Hypertextuality,New Literary History 25, 4 (1994): 788.
Luise White, Telling More: Lies, Secrets, and History,History and Theory 39 (2000): 1122.
Kilometer Zero, unlike other sites the Communist Party of Vietnam ceded to
China, is not a physical structure or a clearly identiable part of the landscape,
though many Vietnamese continue to equate it with the i Nam Quan gateway.
Kilometer Zero is instead a symbolic marker, and for this reason its
precise whereabouts have repeatedly changed, especially during the twentieth
century when violent conicts erased the international boundary at some
moments and forcefully reasserted it at others. Thus, a focus on Kilometer
Zero and its movements makes visible concerns that a broader study of all
three secretterritorial agreements and the areas affected by them cannot.
Most obviously, the controversy surrounding Kilometer Zero brings Sino-
Vietnamese relations, which date back more than three millennia, into sharp
relief. Due to the Communist Partys continued stress on the unbroken tradition
of resistance against foreign aggressionin ofcial narratives, which project
the existence of a unied and coherent Vietnamese nationanachronistically
back through time, it is impossible to forget these relations were initially
forged in the context of empire. Although this is merely one aspect of a
vastly more complex history of interactionone long overdue for critical ree-
valuationmuch of what is now northern and central Vietnam was indeed part
of southern Chinafor a thousand years (111 B.C.E.938 C.E.).
The Period of Northern Domination(Giai đonBc thuc), as it is known,
informs the transnational debate over the territorial agreements in two impor-
tant ways. It helps establish the ofcial parameters of Vietnamese national iden-
tity, which is still formed in complex relation to what is imagined to constitute
It also serves as a point of departure for genealogies that
morally justify the Communist Partys monopoly on political affairs by posi-
tioning it at the end of long line of heroes who fought either to defend or
to liberate the Vietnamese nation.
Ongoing efforts to normalize relations
with China, of which the border agreements form a crucial part, therefore
invite difcult questions about the continued relevance of both narratives as
well as the preeminent place the Communist Party claims for itself within
Brantley Womack, China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006).
Keith Taylor, Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region,
Journal of Asian Studies 57, 4 (1998): 94978.
Patricia Pelley, The History of Resistance and the Resistance to History in Post-Colonial
Constructions of the Past,in, Keith Taylor and John Whitmore, eds., Essays in Vietnamese
Pasts (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 23245.
Of course, other narrations of the nationhave circulated, and continue to do so, among Viet-
namese, including academics employed by the state. See Tuong Vu, Vietnamese Political Studies
and Debates on Vietnamese Nationalism,Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2, 2 (2007): 175230.
Questioning these narratives, which have long dened what it means to be
Vietnamesein ofcial terms, does not mean rejecting them altogether,
however. Some elements of the narratives remain indispensable, a social fact
that helps explain why the border agreements have provoked so much contro-
versy among those preoccupied with the territorial integrity of the nations
Normally, irredentist claims are animated by the desire to
redeem those parts of the ethnic nation living under foreign rule. But in this
case the land in question has few permanent inhabitants beyond wandering
ghosts of the war dead. Yet, for many dissidents at home and critics abroad
this is more than sufcient. The ghosts are their ancestors and for this
reason, they claim, the Partys decision to cede any territory to the Chinese
undermines not only its claims to legitimacy, but betrays all Vietnamese who
sacriced their lives for the nation.
Such views, as I will show, are widespread online and appear to be gen-
uinely held; moreover, they serve a strategic purpose. The constant empha-
sis on the inviolability of the countrys boundaries obviates the need
to acknowledge a point the Communist Party of Vietnam has regularly
made in its defense. Namely, Chinese negotiators had to relinquish some
territory of their own to secure the agreements, including a narrow strip
of land China seized during the Third Indochina War when its troops
forcibly relocated Kilometer Zero approximately 400 meters south of its
pre-1979 position. That Vietnamese negotiators regained half of this
amount as a result of the secret1999 agreement, one self-proclaimed
patriot explained to me, was irrelevant. To lose one inch of soil from
the land border,he emphasized, is to commit a crime against the Father-
land (Đmtdùmttcđtbiêncương là có trng tiviTquc).
The next section provides further details on the role digital archives played
in shaping how such statements circulated and the political effects that
efforts to censor them produced both on- and ofine.
Digital archives no less than their non-digital counterparts are epistemological
experimentsthat result from the complex entanglementof their physical
structure with the materials they contain.
The information architecture deter-
mines not only how the content of a digital archive is internally structured and
outwardly presented, but also the particular ways users are permitted to access
Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu:
University of Hawai'i Press, 1994), 1619.
Interview T.T.Đ., Cao Bng, Mar. 2005.
Ann Stoler, Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content in the Form,in,
Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, and Grahame Reid, eds., Reguring the Archive (Dordrect:
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 83; Achille Mbembe, The Power of the Archive and Its
Limits,in ibid., 19.
their holdings.
Thus the very practices that organize an archive, categorize its
contents, and make retrieval possible, simultaneously create particular con-
gurations of factsat the expense of others, which helps dene the limits
of the thinkable at any given historical moment by shaping what questions
can be legitimately posed about the past.
But while form shapes content in
both cases, it does so differently in each.
Digital archives, as noted earlier, privilege exibility and change rather than
stability and preservation. Numerous factors have contributed to this shift away
from the classic read-onlymodel of an archive, chief among them the dra-
matic reduction in the cost of computer memory, bandwidth, and the emergence
of Web 2.0 technologies, such as social networking sites, wikis, and blogs that
now enable people to read-write.These new architectures of participation
have radically expanded how digital content is created, stored, used, and disse-
minated. They have also contributed to the ever-growing amount of
user-generated content available onlinethough the lifespan of much of it
remains comparatively short-lived due to continued changes in data storage
technologies and link rot,the process by which hyperlinks embedded in a
webpage die as the separate sites they connect to disappear, change, or redirect
to different servers on the Internet.
For these reasons, search engines remain indispensable for identifying and
retrieving information from multiple archives, even though the algorithms
they use continue to locate only a highly partial representation of what is actu-
ally available online at any given moment. Web 3.0 applications, currently
under development, promise to more fully integrate these separate archives
into a single, searchable one. Regardless of whether this occurs, a broader con-
clusion can already be drawn: meaning resides less in what digital archives
contain than in how the data is subsequently re-combined, re-congured, and
re-contextualized by others.
While most of the digital archives in question possess only limited inter-
activity, they do permit users to post, edit, copy, and link different materials
to them. Indeed, the transnational debate over the secretterritorial agree-
ments would have been impossible without these digital archives, because no
other interface currently exists for members of different publics to interact
with one another.
The technical conditions of possibility for this debate are
quite recent, however, since the Government of the Socialist Republic of
Vietnam did not authorize email or electronic le transfers until 1994. At
that time, the countrys telecommunications infrastructure was so limited
Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook, Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern
Memory,Archival Science 2 (2002): 119.
Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York:
Pantheon, 1972), 12631.
Laermans and Gielen, The Archive of the Digital An-Archive:3.
Michael Warner, Public and Counterpublics,Public Culture 14, 1 (2002): 4990.
it could only support a maximum of ten simultaneous users. Moreover, return
messages, when they arrived at the Institute of Information Technology in
Hanoi, frequently had to be delivered by hand. By 1999, the situation had
improved dramatically and the Communist Party, once ercely resistant to
the Internet, made sure the electronic version of its daily, Nhân Dân (The
People), was among the rst online.
Since then, the number and types of websites have exploded. Steps to
streamline administrative procedures and to cautiously promote the private
sector via different forms of e-government, a process that started in
2001, have also continued to progress, albeit slowly. Vietnamese-language
sites abroad have of course undergone far more rapid growth, in part because
they have faced fewer restrictions on content. The overall effect has been an
exponential increase in the amount of materials available online concerning
Vietnamese history, literature, religion, popular culture, politics, and so on.
This, coupled with the governments investment in the countrys information
technology infrastructure, has greatly accelerated the speed and volume with
which information, commodities, services, remittances, and cultural forms of
interest to Vietnamese now circulate globally.
These developments, although not unique to Vietnamese populations, have
nonetheless produced political effects particular to them. Most obviously,
digital archives have eroded many of the spatial and conceptual boundaries
ordinary people and state ofcials alike previously used to determine where
Vietnamended and its diaspora began.
As one sign of this, news-oriented
archives now permit a far wider array of Vietnamese, at home and abroad, to
follow current affairs, to discuss controversial issues online with others, and
in some cases to organize political action in response to them. Signicantly,
the source of such critical information is no longer limited to dissidents, but
now includes state-owned newspapers. Several of these papers, especially
Lao Đng (Labor) and TuiTr(Youth), have begun to regularly publish inves-
tigative reports on corruption and other forms of criminal misconduct involving
government ofcials, both online and in hardcopy. Although clear limits
continue to exist on what can be covered and whose misdeeds revealed, such
coverage has made it increasingly difcult for the Communist Party to convin-
cingly portray its members as the primary agents of unityand progress
within Vietnamese society.
Björn Surborg, On-Line with the People in Line: Internet Development and Flexible Control
of the Net in Vietnam,Geoforum 39 (2008); Dang Hoang-Giang, Internet in Vietnam: From a
Laborious Birth to an Uncertain Future,Informatik Forum 1999 (1),
Ashley Carruthers, Exile and Return: Deterritorializing National Imaginaries in Vietnam and
the Diaspora,(Ph.D. diss., University of Sydney, 2001).
Erik Mueggler, Money, the Mountain, and State Power in a Naxi Village,Modern China
17 (1991): 188226.
The growth in the coverage of actually existing forms of governance in
Vietnam has, of course, made it easier for international as well as overseas Viet-
namese human rights and media organizations to compile information and to
produce reports on the abuse of state power and resources. To limit the
impact these foreignreports might have upon domestic politics, the Commu-
nist Party has taken step to restrict the ability of computer users to access them
from within the country. To do so, state agencies in Vietnam emulate many of
the techniques pioneered by the Peoples Republic of China, including the per-
vasive use of rewalls, which normally combine hardware and software to
protect a network from unauthorized access or use by others.
However, in
this instance, the rewalls are congured to prevent broader access to the Inter-
net itself by means of lters that screen requests for information by cross-
referencing domain names and URL addresses against an evolving list of
blocked sites.
A Vietnamese ofcial who discussed this process with me explained his staff
simply zoned the Internet into one of two basic categories: greenor black.
The green Internet has social value,he explained. Whereas the black Internet,
meaning pornography and political tracts critical of the Communist Party, he
stressed, is poisonous(xuđc)and should be blocked for the peoples
benet(li ích cho nhân dân).
His views are still widely shared. When
asked, many if not most Vietnamese ofcials will justify the need for surveil-
lance, censorship, and state-sponsored propaganda as ongoing. They do so in
resolutely paternalistic rather than authoritarian terms. Nonetheless, attempts to
prevent access to the black Internetstill meet with mixed success despite a
state monopoly on gateways prior to 2003.
There are several reasons for this partial control. Due to intense competition,
both bureaucratic and nancial in nature, no single state entity is wholly
responsible for regulating access in Vietnam to the Internet.
This competition,
while signicant, is less relevant here than the fact that no single repository
with materials related to the Sino-Vietnamese border has achieved dominance.
Instead, dozens of digital archives of signicance have emerged, the majority of
which are hosted on servers located in the United States or France. Despite this
geographic clustering, the archives serve vastly different constituencies, a point
the mission statements of the organizations and individuals who maintain them
make clear.
These particularities further manifest themselves in the information architec-
ture of the digital archives, which can vary from the rudimentary to the highly
sophisticated, as does the degree of inclusiveness. Some archives, for example,
Nina Hachigian, The Internet and Power in One-Party East Asian States,The Washington
Quarterly 25, 3 (2002): 4158.
Interview N.V.G., Hanoi, Mar. 2002.
OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam,521.
only feature materials related to the Sino-Vietnamese border, whereas others
house thousands of documents on a much wider array of issues of concern,
of which this topic merely constitutes one. Equally crucial here is the lack of
connectivity. Only a fraction of the digital materials in question are hyperlinked
across archives. In some cases, this absence of connections signies the pre-
sence of inter-organizational rivalries. In others, the decision to self-publish
rather than cross-post reects a personal decision to appear ideologically
neutral and politically unafliated. Regardless of the reason, other factors
ensure security ofcials will remain unable to locate all of the digital archives
that contain materials related to the border controversy and then prevent access
to them from computers inside Vietnam.
First, the Internet continually copies much of itself through mirror sites,
proxy servers, and cache snapshots. These processes, originally intended to
reduce search and download times by redistributing exact duplicates across
different computer networks, also mean a copy is likely to exist somewhere
online even after security ofcials have censored the original. Second, state-
sponsored rewalls rely heavily on keyword searches to identify politically
suspect sites, which mean they often fail to prevent access to non-text based
forms of information and materials archived on sites that require passwords
to access.
Third, materials posted on the Internet commonly contain infor-
mation, such as lename extensions, not technically necessary for the web
pages they are embedded in to work properly. These details, which many
designers disparage as useless cruft,offer yet another way for computer
users to circumvent rewalls and locate information since rewalls rarely
screen for them. In sum, alternate pathways almost always exist. This is
because the Internet, like Deleuze and Guattarisrhizome,is multiple,
dynamic, and consists of a potentially innite number of interconnected
entry and exit points, including bits of code that are ordinarily invisible
to us.
To illustrate these points, a case study follows. In it, I partially reconstruct the
controversial lives of three separate maps of Kilometer Zero, each reputedly
leakedby government ofcials to different Vietnamese publics. The details
highlight why the very practices that enable these maps to circulate simul-
taneously limit our ability to assess their signicance.
Bùi Minh Qucs arrest in January of 2001 prompted demands from Vietna-
mese inside and outside the country for details on the secretterritorial
Sherman, Chris and Gary Price, The Invisible Web (Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc.,
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 58.
agreements. The pressure was sufcient to force an ofcial, if indirect,
response. During February and March, evidencethat the border negotiations
had been conducted fairly and equitably appeared on a number of government-
controlled websites. The items included digital versions of three articles orig-
inally published in hard copy in specialized Party journals, an English-language
version of the Governments 1982 white paper on the countrys maritime
claims, as well as speeches and interviews from high-ranking ofcials.
Critics of the agreements immediately emailed copies of these materials to
politically active individuals and groups overseas, who then reposted them
on their archives, often with additional commentary attached.
The discussion
that follows, however, is limited to the statements provided by Lê Công
Phng, the Deputy Foreign Minister, as they directly concern the location of
Kilometer Zero.
VASC-Orient, a state-owned news agency (now known as,
interviewed the Deputy Foreign Minister almost immediately after Qucs
detention. The transcript of their discussion was posted online shortly after-
wards, in early February.
In it, Phng offered intriguing details about the
border demarcation process, including the role he played as head of
the Committee on Border Affairs, which represented the Communist
Party of Vietnam during the negotiations. But, judging from the tenor of
his responses, the main purpose of the interview was to forcefully refute
accusations that high-ranking Party ofcials had sold land [and] conceded
the seas(bán nưc, nhưng bin) for personal gain. To counter these
claims, Phng noted the dispute was based on conicting interpretations
of the two nineteenth-century Sino-French treaties that established the
international boundary but failed to clearly delimit it on the ground.
After this, he directed the majority of his comments to the difference
between Kilometer Zero and i Nam Quan.
According to the Deputy Foreign Minister, Kilometer Zero and the arched
gateway had always been separate entities. The problem, he stressed, was a ter-
minological one, because most Vietnamese fail to carefully distinguish between
aborder gate(quan) and a frontier pass(i)two terms embedded in the
most widely used name for the arched gateway: i Nam Quan. Both, he
pointed out, are loan words from classical Chinese and each carries slightly
different meanings than their closest equivalents in modern Vietnamese.
Phân Đnh Biên GiiVìMc Tiêu BoVLãnh Thvà To Môi Trưng Hu Ngh[Deli-
miting the boundary with the aim of protecting territory and creating an environment of friendship]
(2 Feb. 2002).
For background, see Bureau of Intelligence and Research, International Boundary Study No.
38: ChinaVietnam Boundary (Washington, D.C.: Department of State, 1978).
For other opinions, see the thirteen-page chat-room debate that the Institute of Vietnamese
Studies, a non-prot research group based in Hanoi, placed on its archive:
Thus, according to Phng, the arched gateway and the international boundary,
although physically close to one another, were never the same despite popular
misconceptions to the contrary. By his reckoning, the arched gateway was
approximately 200 meters north of the position Kilometer Zero was moved
to in 1999, which meant it had always belonged to the Peoples Republic of
China. To emphasize this point, Phng employed a semantic strategy of his
own. He repeatedly referred to the arched gateway as the Southern Peace
Gate(Mc Nam Quan), using the name Chairman Mao Zedong allegedly
gave to the structure in 1949 rather than the Friendship Gate(Hu Ngh
Quan), the territorially more neutral name later adopted by HChí Minh in
the mid-1960s.
Phngs arguments failed to convince. Almost immediately after the inter-
view was posted online, ĐVitSơn, a respected Party member since 1947,
submitted an open letter to the countrys four highest-ranking ofcials. The
text of the letter implored the National Assembly, the countrys highest
elected body, not to ratify the territorial agreements since they ceded too
much territory. These views, Sơn noted, were not his alone, but were shared
by a number of old revolutionaries who belonged to the Bch Đng Club, an
unregistered group named after the northeastern river where Vietnamese
forces famously defeated troops invading from the north in 938, 981, and
1288 C.E. (According to ofcial histories, the rst battle ended a millennia of
Chineseimperial rule and created the political space for the independent
state of ĐiVit [Great Viet] to emerge.) To drive his point home, Sơn
reminded readers that the countrys feudal rulers, their other faults notwith-
standing, had refused to relinquish one inch of soil, one small island(mt
tác đt, mt hòn đo) to their more powerful counterparts to the north
despite repeated efforts by successive dynasties over the next ten centuries to
reassert their control.
The comparison struck a chord. During February and March, well-known dis-
sidents, many of whom were also former Party members, separately sent two
dozen letters of protest to state ofcials, including the President of China, to
counter statements made online by the Deputy Foreign Minister and other ofcial
In most cases, the dissidents followed ĐVitSơns example and
borrowed history to comment on contemporary affairs(mưnlch sđnói v
hinđi). But instead of using allusions to express their concerns, as is normally
the case, the dissidents directly attacked the moral basis of the Communist Partys
ĐNghQucHi Không Thông Qua HipĐnh Biên GiiVit Trung[To suggest the
National Assembly not ratify the Sino-Vietnamese Border Agreements] (Feb. 2001), reposted:
For details, see Lê Đoàn Vit, Hai Năm Sau Ngày CmCtMc Biên Gii: Trách Nhim
Vn Còn Đó[Two years after the placement of the border marker: (Our) responsibility
remains!], Liên Minh Vit Nam TDo [Free Vietnam Alliance] (17 Dec. 2003), http://www.
legitimacy by contrasting its decision to secretly relinquish territory with the
heroism of those who fought in the past to defend it.
Many dissidents, due to the nature of the criticism, took a further precaution
and emailed copies of the letters to their contacts abroad in the hope that if they
were arrested this would enable them to mobilize international opinion. Shortly
thereafter, politically-active individuals and organizations overseas began to cir-
culate their own essays, which featured different kinds of historical evidence,
some of it strategically excerpted from Party- as well as dissident-authored
accounts, to advance their own claims about how and why the countrys
borders had changed. By the end of April, only four months after Bùi Minh
Qucs arrest, more than two hundred different accounts could be found on
several dozen digital archives, as could a steadily growing number of French,
Chinese, and Vietnamese government documents, travelogues, chat room
threads, poems, patriotic songs, photographs, audio les, video footage, and
maps concerning the border.
Security ofcials, alarmed by this rapid proliferation of propaganda against
the state(tuyên truynchng Nhà nưc), moved to reinforce the countrys
digital frontier. As a rst step, hackers, allegedly hired by the Communist
Partys information agencies, mounted a denial-of-service attack on several
overseas sites, most notably the mirror site, which provided
an anonymous proxy that allowed computer users to bypass the rewall and
access such propaganda.
The attack ooded the sites server with infor-
mation requests and temporarily forced it ofine for repairs; however, it also
damaged parts of the countrys primary computer network managed by the
state-owned Vietnam Data Communication Company.
To avoid further
damage, security ofcials shifted their attention to removing controversial
materials located on servers inside Vietnam.
Among the rst things to disappear was the Deputy Foreign Ministersinter-
view with VASC-Orient. This failed to prevent overseas Vietnamese from repost-
ing extant copies onto other websites, often with substantial commentary added,
but it did mean domestic computer users would now have to circumvent the re-
wall to reach them.
The government land ofce (TrungtâmThôngtinLưutr
TưliuĐachính) also moved its entire digital archive ofine after critics declared
that a triangulation map posted on the agencys website proved the Communist
Party had ceded far more territory than the Deputy Foreign Minister had admitted.
Search results on le with author.
See also, Michael Lesk, The New Front Line: Estonia under Cyber-Assault,IEEE
Security & Privacy 5, 4 (2007): 7679.
Diu Vân, Chiến Tranh Internet BtĐu[The Internet war begins] (25 Feb. 2002), http://
For example, the U.S.-based Asia-Pacic Strategic Research Institute inserted fty-nine
explanatory notes to the original interview transcript, doubling its length: http://www.viettrade.
The archives sudden disappearance has made it impossible to verify the authen-
ticity of the digital copyreposted on (, a prominent pol-
itically oriented archive in Brussels that features hundreds of essays on the
Sino-Vietnamese border.
But comments attached to the map make clear that
the editors did not regard the lack of corroborating details as an evidentiary
problem, which needed to be resolved. Instead, they cited the missing archive
as proof of an ofcial cover-up, which they likened to an electronic version of
blind mansbluff(chơitròbtmtbtdê).
Since reposting limited the ability of security ofcials to censor materials
already online, they also took steps to suppress the controversy at its
source. During 2002 and 2003, police separately arrested eight cyber-
dissidents.Several were later charged with treason and, after brief trials,
sent to prison for emailing propagandaabroad regarding the territorial
agreements and what they perceived to be the unequal terms of Sino-
Vietnamese relations. While the crackdown sharply reduced the number of
open letters coming from well-known dissidents in Vietnam, it increased
the use of web-based email accounts, chat rooms, and instant messaging.
Such technologies are more difcult to monitor in real time and provide a
somewhat higher degree of anonymity; they are, however, far from foolproof.
Security ofcials, for example, arrested Lê Chí Quang, a lawyer, in early 2002
after an Internet Service Provider (ISP) informed them he regularly used a
cybercafé in Hanoi to send essays to a blacklisted reactionarygroup in
Once again, efforts to suppress the controversy failed to have their intended
effect. The highly publicized arrest inamed Vietnamese public opinion abroad
and prompted Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and related organ-
izations to issue public statements of concern. Domestic computer users, appar-
ently undeterred by the threat of prison, also continued to speculate online as to
what the Communist Party was hiding. So when critical statements next
appeared on TTVN Online, then the countrys most popular youth-oriented dis-
cussion forum, the Ministry of Public Security ordered it be shut down. The
Ministry of Culture and Information next issued a decree that made the
owners of cybercafés and Vietnamese ISPs legally responsible for what their
48 At the time of research, the rewall
blocked direct access to this within Vietnam. However, an
image search using cruft, that is, svr.png,made it possible to locate a cached copy on another
server. Storage limitations forced the to divide into a series of linked archives in late
2007, A reposted copy of the above map can be found at: http://
HSơ: Bang Giao Vit-Trung và VnĐBiên Gii, BinĐông[Folder: Sino-Vietnamese
relations, the land and maritime border problem], (n.d.),
Reporters without Borders, Vietnam,The Internet under Surveillance (Paris: Reporters
without Borders, 2003), 13337.
customers read and wrote online.
In response, the editors of
posted a short manual that explained how to circumvent the rewall and
what could be done to preserve their anonymity online.
The techniques worked, and information continued to ow abroad to over-
seas groups, which enabled some of them to engage in unprecedented forms
of coordinated action. The most visible example was the Vietnamese Federa-
tion to Protect the Fatherlands Territorial Integrity(HiĐng Vit Nam Bo
Toàn ĐtT), a coalition formed in 2002 to protest the agreements. Since then,
the seventy-one groups that make up the coalition have conducted dozens of
major events on four continents, including two international conferences on
the Sino-Vietnamese border, each of which attracted hundreds of participants.
Details of these events and those organized by related groups were regularly
posted online and then hyperlinked to other overseas websites. This strategy
made it easier to reach non-members and to involve them in digital forms of
advocacy, such as online petitions that called on the United Nations Security
Council to arbitrate the border dispute and the Vietnamese government to
release the imprisoned cyber-dissidents.
In the midst of these struggles, the Communist Party quietly posted a digi-
tized copy of the 1999 Land Border Treaty on the Nhân Dân (The People)
website in late August of 2002, though its locationan internal pagemade
it difcult to locate.
More strikingly, no mention of the Treaty was made in
the hard copy of the newspaper, which is the daily of record in Vietnam.
Instead, the text of the thirteen-page agreement was made available to those
with Internet access and then only temporarily, as it was removed from the
site approximately two weeks later. A copy of the scanned original was, of
course, reposted on websites overseas before it disappeared. This made little
difference, however, since the technical prose was far from transparent, and
the details, which primarily consisted of long lists of mountains and streams
identied by elevation rather their precise coordinates, revealed even less. Con-
sequently, the treaty was virtually meaningless without a copy of the ofcial
map. Yet, that crucial document was not included.
Again, critics of the agreements interpreted the decision to leaksome
details, but not others, as still another sign the Communist Party had not
acted in the countrys best interests. These criticisms forced the Deputy
Amnesty International, Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Freedom of Expression under Threat in
Cyberspace (London: Amnesty International, 2003), 1618.
Anonymous, Cm Nang Internet Cho Vit Nam: Chìa Khóa VưtTưng La[Internet manual
for Vietnam: Key to overcoming the rewall] (Aug. 2002),
For a reposted version:
Đoàn Vit, Hai Năm Sau Ngày.
The link,, is now dead. For a
reposted copy:
Foreign Minister, who was likely acting on instructions from his superiors, to
release yet further information regarding the land border in mid-September.
However, he did so in the Vietnam News, a state-owned daily that publishes
information only in English, which reduced rather than enlarged the number
of Vietnamese who could read the interview.
While it remains unclear if
Lê Công Phng did this for strategic reasons, the technical details he disclosed
were highly signicant and provided the basis for several counter maps, which
I discuss later.
The relevant parties, Phng explained, separately created provisional maps
of borderline orientationbased upon their respective assessments of the
nineteenth-century treaties that established, but did not fully delimit the inter-
national boundary separating northern Indochina from southern China. They
then compared the maps, which revealed signicant agreementexcept for
164 sites where overlapping territorial claims existed. These disputed areas,
collectively referred to as Areas C,totaled 227 square kilometers and
required thirty-ve rounds of talks between 1993 and 2000 to resolve. The
process, which involved large numbers of diplomats, government ofcials,
military personnel, lawyers, and technical experts, was designed to resolve
not only the long-standing territorial disputes, but to reestablish an environ-
ment of friendshipbetween Vietnam and China. This larger goal, Phng con-
tinued, justied both the climate of secrecy in which the negotiations were
conducted and the Communist Partys decision to make minor adjustments
to Vietnams borders. Toward this end both sides agreed to divide Areas C
in half in terms of total area, with China receiving one more square kilometer
than did Vietnam, according to Phng.
The solution, he continued, served as the basis for the 1999 agreement
and the ofcial map of the new boundary (1:50,000), which reportedly
covers thirty-four pieces of paper. Attached documents also outlined an ambi-
tious plan to erect 1,533 permanent markers along the new boundary by the end
of 2005. But due to a range of problems, including the deliberate misplacement
of some markers and the surreptitious removal of others, ofcials do not expect
it to be completed until late 2008.
Until then, the full contours of the border,
like the ofcial map that depicts it, remain unknown.
The rst counter-maps of the Sino-Vietnamese border appeared simultaneously
on several digital archives overseas on 4 February 2002, three days after
VASC-Orient published the transcript of its interview with the Deputy
Foreign Minister. The maps in question were embedded in an eleven-page
essay ttingly titled, Reading Lê Công Phngs Interview,which originally
On the Settlement of Vietnam-China Border Issue(14 Sept. 2002).
appeared in the twenty-rst installment of Đi Thoi(Dialogue), a popular
newsletter on Vietnamese politics that circulates via photocopies and emails
despite being banned.
Although the total readership of Dialogue is
unknown, security ofcials seized and burned hard copies of the newsletter
that same month as part of their periodic efforts to stop the circulation of
undeclared propaganda(truynđơn không khai).
This effort did not
prevent the circulation of electronic copies, including one sent abroad using
hannamquan.coms anonymous proxy. Hackers reputedly employed by state
security ofcials shut the controversial site down ten days later, but by then
the essays had been reposted on a half-dozen different digital archives
outside Vietnam.
Perhaps for these reasons, the true identity of the author,
Lý Công Lun, who admits only to being a resident of Hanoi, remains
unknown. Nonetheless, the pen name provides important clues on how to inter-
pret the maps in his essay.
The middle and personal names form a compound noun, public opinion,
which in the Vietnamese context asserts the right to pass moral judgment on
those who transgress the boundaries of acceptable conduct. This interpretation
is further emphasized by the surname, Lý, which translates as reasonor
common-sense,but is also modern gloss of a much older concept, the Con-
fucian virtue of propriety,the basis of morally correct behavior. The surname
also carries important historical connotations because the same word invokes
the considerable achievements of the Lý Dynasty, which established the rst
independent state to arise after the Period of Northern Dominationended.
Over the next two centuries, successive Lý kings oversaw the establishment
of a prosperous and highly centralized state with sufcient resources to
defeat repeated invasions from the north. The most famous of these occurred
in 1077 when General Lý Thưng Kit routed Song Dynasty troops that
sought to cross the Cu River after having forced their way through several
frontier passes, including the one where i Nam Quan was later built. To com-
memorate the victory, he composed a short poem, Nam qucsơnhà(Rivers
and mountains of the South Nation), which many Vietnamese regard as their
rst Declaration of Independence. Collectively, these historical events, which
children study in school, reinforce a point repeatedly made by other dissidents:
where the feudal rulers of the past defended the country against foreign aggres-
sors, the Communist Party betrayed the nation and [our] ancestors(bán nưc,
Nhân Đc Bài Phng Vn Lê Công Phng.For a reposted copy:
Security ofcials placed Professor Trn Khuê, the co-editor of Dialogue, under house arrest in
March after he emailed an open letter of protest regarding the territorial agreements to the President
of China shortly before his ofcial visit to Vietnam. ThưNgGiTng Bí ThưGiang Trch Dân
(20 Feb. 2002):
Diu Vân, Chiến Tranh Internet.Curiously, the maps have been deleted from some
reposted versions of the essay. See:
bán đt, phnbittong) by signing the agreements. A truly ungrateful
[act],the author continued, that repaid good with evil(thtlàvôơnbc
nghĩa, ly oán trân).
To prove his point, Lun presented a graphic depiction of the land border,
which he claimed unidentied staff as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
leakedto interested parties, who then provided him with a digital copy to
repost online. According to these inside sources, the Vietnamese and
Chinese Border Committees reached a compromise on all but ten of the 164
disputed points that constituted Areas C.Three of the ten points concerned
the nationalstatus of the arched gateway and BnGic, a famous waterfall
located along the international boundary in the neighboring province of Cao
Bng. Reportedly, the Vietnamese Border Committee advised the members
of the Politburo not to sign the treaty until all ten disputed points had been
resolved in the countrys favor. However, Lê KhPhiêu, the General Secretary
at the time, allegedly over-ruled them and opted instead to cede them to China
to further his own objectives.
These allegations, which may or may not be true, prompt Lun to pose a
number of intriguing questions that he does not answer in his essay. Did the
leaksignify factional disagreements within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
over the border demarcation process? Or was it a pre-emptive measure to
deect criticism from the Ministry for failing to secure all of the disputed
points along the Sino-Vietnamese border? Alternatively, was the leakpart
of a broader strategy designed to discredit the General Secretary and his sup-
porters, as others have alleged? None of these explanations are mutually exclu-
sive of one another. Nor do they explain what Lê KhPhiêu gained by ceding
territory to China. Although these questions will probably never be fully
answered, they serve a different purpose here, which is to raise doubts about
the legitimacy of the treaty by suggesting it was the result of political opportu-
nism rather than genuine respect for Vietnamese national interests.
Again, unlike most of the other critics of the agreements, Lun fails to cite
his sources. This makes particularly difcult the task of assessing the maps
he offers, especially since the images Lun presents are not maps of the
border per se, but diagrams of the disputed pointsrelative to the location
of the arched gateway and the BnGic waterfall. Both diagrams appear to
be scans of another document, the format of which suggests they were in
fact prepared by a skilled professional using a computer.
Moreover, the red
date stamp, barely visible on the bottom right corner of the diagram of the
waterfall, closely resembles those used to certify ofcial documents. Together,
these details lend credence to Luns claims concerning the leak.Yet, the odd
manner in which the diagrams are presented undercuts these same semiotic
bnlclbangioc.jpg, ibid.
claims to bureaucratic authenticity. Most conspicuously, the diagrams of the
arched gateway and the waterfall are both harshly cropped. Since no expla-
nation is offered for this, a crucial question arises: Was the decision to
remove the surrounding information based on its presumed irrelevance, or, con-
versely, did it threaten to reveal too much?
The abstract diagram of Kilometer Zero makes it particularly difcult to
answer this question because it consists of little more than several geometric
shapes. A circle depicts the location of the arched gateway, while a series of
arrows, which horizontally bisect these shapes, extends toward the right
margin of the scanned diagram where the graphics give way to a brief line of
text. Each arrow, and the text that accompanies it, identies different points
in space and, importantly, in time (Figure 2).
The visual elements reveal Kilo-
meter Zero to have moved three times and for quite different reasons: imperial
treaty (1887), military force (1979), and secret agreement (1999). But instead of
pursuing these themes, which dene Sino-Vietnamese relations in conicting
ways, Lun shifts the discussion to yet another historical momentto a time
when relations between the two socialist states was still fraternal, though
perhaps disingenuously so.
The moment in question features an apocryphal but not entirely implausible
conversation between UncleMao and UncleH.Lun does not provide
details to establish the historicity of their discussion, so its exact location
remains unknown. As does the precise year in which it may have happened,
though he notes the exchange occurred during the Period of Resistance
against America(thi kháng chiếnchng M), which would place it
between 1954, when the rail line between Hanoi and the gateway was rebuilt
with Chinese assistance, and 1969, when HChí Minh died. What Lun
offers instead is a snippet of one-sided dialogue where Mao Zedong notes
current arrangements for shipping military supplies and other goods across
Chinas southern border to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to be inconve-
nient. (At the time, all cross-border cargo had to be unloaded, transported
through the gateway, and then reloaded on a different train, since they operated
on different gauge tracks.) To speed delivery, Mao offered to extend Chinese
wide-gauge track into Vietnamese territory and to construct a storage depot
at the lines new terminus in Đng Đăng. As a nal inducement, Mao further
promised to remove the infrastructure when peace returned(khi nào hòa
bình ri). UncleH,Lun tells us, happily consented(vui vnhnli)
to these seemingly generous terms.
The anecdote helps clarify the signicance of the other symbolic element
featured on the diagram of Kilometer Zero: two sets of parallel lines that
represent the different gauge tracks used by the Peoples Republic of China
bnlclnamqua.jpg, ibid.
(1.2 meters) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (0.9 meters), respect-
ively. In the diagram, the wide-gauge Chinese track extends 400 meters
beyond the arched gateway, well south of the international boundary estab-
lished in 1887. Moreover, Lun reminds us, the rail extension was not
removed after national reunication in 1975 as allegedly promised. Instead,
the Peoples Liberation Army used the track to re-supply troops after it
seized a sizeable strip of Vietnamese territory along the length of the northern
border during the Third Indochina War. While large-scale military operations
ended a month later, violent skirmishes continued for years and all ofcial
border crossings remained closed until 1991. According to local residents, it
was during this period that Chinese troops moved or destroyed many of the
colonial-era border markers, including those on either side of Kilometer Zero.
Taken together, the diagram and the tale offer an account that differs from
those of most other critics. Although Lun similarly condemns the Communist
Party for its treachery, he notes it may have been inuenced by the obligation to
repay a debt of gratitude(trân), by which he meant the material assistance
the Peoples Republic of China had provided in the past. But, Lun stresses, the
decision to cede territory ultimately lies with the former General Secretary, who
he portrays as a younger brother honoring an earlier promise to his older
brother(đàn anh), the Communist Party of China. The word choice is stra-
tegic, since it emphasizes not only Lê KhPhiêus weak bargaining position
relative to his Chinese counterparts, but also that he placed his older siblings
interests ahead of his own compatriots.
Why were Chinese negotiators so intent on regaining the arched gateway as
part of the 1999 territorial agreement? Why did this swathe of uninhabited land
matter so much, especially as modern weaponry has rendered moot the military
FIGURE 2 Diagram of Kilometer Zero. Source: reposted in Lý Công Lun (2002).
Interviews, Lng Sơn, Aug. 2005.
importance of this particular mountain pass? Such questions rarely appear in
essays critical of the agreements. Again, Lun is an exception, and he shifts reg-
isters from historical forms of evidence to cultural ones to support the validity
of his unusual diagram.
According to Lun, the signicance of the arched gateway lies in its physical
placement within the surrounding landscape; together, these man-made and
natural features produce an auspicious alignment of wind-water(phong
thy), the Vietnamese expression for geomancy. The arched gateway, like
other structures built to conform to these principles, is oriented along a north-
south axis to facilitate the ow of positive and negative energy through the
mountain pass. The combination of wind-wateralso served as a border
alarm: people living nearby reported having felt a sudden chill each time
Chinese soldiers illegally entered Vietnamese territory. Such claims offer one
explanation of why Chinese negotiators agreed to move Kilometer Zero 200
meters north to secure the 1999 secretagreementbut no farther. It was
the geomantic power of the mountain pass as a whole that prompted the
struggle over this particular section of the border: whoever possessed it
would be ensured of good fortune and prosperity in the market-driven future.
There are, of course, other possibilities. Immediately after the secretagree-
ment was reached, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region announced it
would invest nearly U.S.$16 million to construct a tourist beltshowcasing
important historical and cultural sites located along its land border with
Vietnam. While none of the Vietnamese traders with whom I spoke was
aware of the timing of this announcement, which was not reported in
Vietnam, they agreed their government should pursue a similar strategy.
their view, improving cross-border trade was more important than the question
of how many meters Kilometer Zero had moved at different moments in time.
NguynNgc Giao and the materials he circulated on the Internet provide the
nal example of technological revisionism. Giao is the editor-in-chief of Din
Đàn (Forum), an inuential bilingual electronic journal based in France. Din
Đàn features essays on a wide variety of topics, especially cultural and literary
matters, but also current affairs. In recent years, Giao has contributed a dozen
essays to the journal, one-third of which addressed the controversial border
agreements. Of these, the essays published in April and May of 2003 are
most relevant since they directly pertain to the location of Kilometer Zero.
See also, Ole Bruun, The Fengshui Resurgence in China: Conicting Cosmologies between
State and Peasantry,The China Journal 36 (1996): 4765.
Tourism Belt Forming along China-Vietnam Border,Xinhuanet (15 Oct. 2002).
Interviews with cross-border traders, Lng Sơn, Aug. 2005 and July 2006.
Nam Quan: i, Cai và Biên Gii[Nam Quan: Frontier pass, border pass, and frontier],
DinĐàn 128 (2003),
Giaos arguments defy easy categorization and his actual position on the border
agreements, like the authenticity of his sources, remains open to conicting
interpretations. However, what most distinguishes Giaos contribution to the
debate is his evidence, which features two secret documents allegedly prepared
by the Politburo and then leakedto others.
The rst is Communique No. 56,a thirteen-page document dated 31 March
2002 that lists Phan Din, a standing member of the Politburo, as its author.
At rst glance, the Communique, which has a large box with the word secret
typed in bold in the upper-left corner, appears consistent in both format and
style with other ofcial documents of its kind. The bottom of the document
includes the requisite bullet-point list indicating to whom it was sent: Party
members and state ofcials holding provincial-level positions or higher. The
ofcial seal and Phan Dins barely legible signature are also present, as is a
note in bold text on the documents footer: Do not publish information by
way of the mass media.However, as was the case with Lý Công Luns
diagram of the Sino-Vietnamese border, a more careful examination raises
questions regarding its authenticity.
Most obviously, the Communique is missing the motto—“Independence,
Freedom, and Happiness(ĐcLp, TDo, Hành Phúc)that appears on the
header of every ofcial document in the country, which by its very omission
makes it a forgery. Other features support this conclusion. The Communique is
a scanned reproduction rather than a photograph of the original document; but
more crucially, it consists of two separate .jpg les that are embedded within
Giaos account of Kilometer Zero.
In other words, the rest of the Communique,
nearly everything of substance that falls betweenits header and its footer (approxi-
mately twelve pages of text) has been excised without explanation. Giao, appar-
ently unconcerned with such matters, proceeds to quote from page eight.
According to the excerpt,the boundary pillar representing Kilometer Zero
is still in its original location, as agreed in the 1886 procès-verbal between
France and the Qing court and shown on an unnamed 1894 map of the
border markers. However, the excerptalso explains that the international
boundary, as then dened, did not bisect the arched gateway. Instead, it cuts
farther south, which Giao asserts is consistent with the text of the 1999 Land
Border Treaty. These explosive claims are depicted graphically in the other
secret document provided by Giao: a map entitled Area 249C (Friendship
Gate),which was allegedly afxed to the Communique (Figure 3).
E1%BA%A3i%20nam%20quan; TNam Quan đếnBnGic[From Nam Quan to Ban Gioc],
DinĐàn 129 (2003),
Partially reposted in Nam Quan.
i128nngiao4.jpg and i128nngiao5.jpg, ibid.
The map of Area 249Cdepicts three different boundaries. The key, located
in the bottom right-hand corner, explains that the uppermost line, in orange,
follows the boundary initially desired by Vietnam during negotiations to
resolve the 164 border points claimed by both Communist Parties. The bottom-
most line, in green, indicates the boundary proposed by the Peoples Republic
of China. A third line that snakes unevenly between the other two, in red, marks
the boundary both sides secretly agreed to in 1999. By Giaos assessment, each
country received approximately 50 percent of the total area of the territory in
question, which meant the negotiations were resolved equitably. More impor-
tantly, Giao declares the evidence,which he reposted in the essay, deni-
tively proves i Nam Quan and Kilometer Zero were never one and the
same. And, though he knows he will be attacked for saying so publicly, Giao
declares this means the arched gateway has always stood on Chinese soil.
Giaos contrarian spirit also extends to the question of whether the General
Secretary of the Party voluntarily stepped down or, alternatively, other inuen-
tial gures forced him to do so. Whereas most accounts attribute this outcome
to his own political miscalculations, Giao provides an alternative version of
events that locates the origins of the controversy in a skillfully organized, trans-
national campaign to discredit him. By doing so, Giao effectively substitutes
one public secret for another.
FIGURE 3 Map of Area 249C. Source: reposted in NguynNgc Giao (2003) (128).
Giaos account begins in mid-2000 when the political maneuvering in
advance of the Ninth Party Congress, scheduled for April the following year,
became particularly erce.
While the details are too arcane to discuss fully
here, one deserves brief mention because it bears on the search for Kilometer
Zero. It concerns a whisper campaignorganized by ĐMưi, the former
General Secretary of the Party, and Lê Đc Anh, the former President of
Vietnam, to block Lê KhPhiêus efforts to win reelection. According to
Giao, the men compiled a list of seven charges against Phiêu, which included
the now hackneyed accusation that he ceded too much territory to China to gain
backing for a second term. While it remains unclear whether the charges had a
factual basis, the campaign apparently worked; Party delegates voted to replace
Phiêu with Nông ĐcMnh, who is widely rumored to be HChí Minhs
illegitimate son.
Giao further claims the political elites behind the campaign also leaked infor-
mation regarding the territorial agreements to prominent revolutionary-era
gures, many of who have left the Communist Party to become dissidents.
During the height of the controversy, twenty of them sought to use their
moral prestige to convince the National Assembly to delay ratication of the
agreements until further details, including maps of the proposed borders,
were released and publicly debated.
But according to Giao, careful examin-
ation of the open letters content reveals the dissidentsviews were based less
on historical fact than on the disinformation campaign cleverly designed to
force Lê KhPhiêu to retire. The claims, if true, suggest the boundary separ-
ating ofcial narratives from dissident counter-narratives is less clear than is
commonly believed.
Giaos arguments did not go uncontested. Perhaps his most prominent critic
was Trương Nhân Tun, who holds a doctorate in physics, but has become an
authority on the territorial agreements due to his careful work with colonial-era
sources held at the Centre des Archives dOutres Mer in Aix-en-Provence,
France. To date, Tun has posted more than seventy research papers related
to the Sino-Vietnamese border on his digital archive, which served as the
basis for his 850-page book on the topic.
Of these documents, ve focus
on Giaos defense of the 1999 Land Border Treaty. While most of Tuns objec-
tions to Giaos analysis of the secretCommunique are highly technical and
Giao, TNam Quan đếnBnGic.
Trn Quang Lê et al., Kiến NghThưca20CTri Yêu CuQucHiCng SnVit Nam
Không Thông Qua HipĐnh Biên GiiVit Trung[Petition of twenty voters requesting the
National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam not ratify the Sino-Vietnamese
Land Border Treaty] (18 Nov. 2001),
Biên GiiVit-Trung[The Sino-Vietnamese border],;
Biên GiiVit-Trung 18852000 [The Sino-Vietnamese border 18852000] (Marseille: Dũng
Châu, 2005).
draw upon his interpretation of colonial-era documents, he makes several other
points that are far more devastating by virtue of their simplicity.
For Giao to have photographed the Communique,Tun reminds us, he would
need to have known high-ranking ofcials in Vietnam willing to commit
treason, a potentially capital offense. While it is conceivable that Tun, who
resides in France, had such contacts in the government, the political context
makes such an exchange highly unlikely. During the period Giao allegedly
obtained and reposted excerpts from the top secretCommunique in his
essay, security ofcials separately arrested eight people, ve of whom later
received lengthy prison terms for emailing disinformationabroad. Alterna-
tively, Tun sarcastically points out, Giao has the skills of a 007 spy(đip
viên 007).
There is, of course, another possibility: someone else forged the documents,
which Giao later photographed. What makes this hypothesis particularly intri-
guing, according to Tun, is the map of Area 249Citself. The brightly
colored lines, each of which depicts a different boundary, foregrounds the
viewers eye and distracts attention away from the modern Chinese fonts that
faintly appear, along with topographic lines and roads, in the maps back-
ground. The simplied characters, ofcially used only by the Peoples Republic
of China and Singapore, are much easier to read than the stylistically more
complex ideographs still favored by residents of Hong Kong, Macau,
Taiwan, and most overseas Chinese communities. For this reason, Tun con-
cludes the mysterious map is probably not of Vietnamese origin. Moreover,
by defending its accuracy, Giao appears to be, if not a spy, then an apologist
for the Communist Party of China. To date, Giao has not responded publicly
to these pointed allegations nor has he written any further essays on the Sino-
Vietnamese border. His only response has been to remove the essays. But
thanks to the ease with which digital materials can be replicated, Giaos
essays can still be downloaded from other archives that have reposted them,
including the one maintained by Tun.
What are we to make of these factually suspect maps and the political struggles
their unauthorized movements helped sustain both on- and ofine? What
broader desires and anxieties did these conicting depictions of the Sino-
Vietnamese border make manifest? Ofcial statements, such as those offered
by Deputy Foreign Minister Lê Công Phng, either downplay the concerns
at the heart of the controversy or ignore them altogether. Instead, the rhetorical
emphasis is on the larger process of political and economic normalization,
Góp ý vi ông NguynNgc Giao vchquyncaVit-Nam ti Nam-Quan và thác
Bn-Gic[Opinions contributed to Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Giao regarding the border problems at
Nam Quan and the Ban Gioc Waterfall],
of which the 1999 Land Border Treaty is a part. For example, state ofcials,
when asked about the location of Kilometer Zero and the national status of
the arched gateway, often refuse to answer; instead, they prefer to talk about
the Principle of the Sixteen Characters(Phương châm mưi sáu ch). The
slogan, also adopted in 1999, is shorthand for the ofcial values said to now
dene bilateral relations: Good-neighborly friendship, all-round cooperation,
long-term stability, and orientation towards the future.Old suspicions, in other
words, have no place in the new economic order of things, which currently
places a premium on expanding cross-border trade.
Recent statistics bear this view out. In late 2003, Vietnam and China estab-
lished a Joint Committee on Economic and Trade Cooperation. Within a year,
cross-border trade reached a record U.S.$7.2 billion and it continues to surge.
Current forecasts project bilateral trade to surpass U.S.$15 billion by 2010,
which will further strengthen Chinas economic signicance since it is
already the largest source of Vietnams total imports and the third biggest
market for its exports.
From this perspective, Chinas economic growth has
certainly been a crucial component of Vietnams own rapid development, par-
ticularly in the countrys north.
By contrast, those opposed to the territorial agreements typically reject the
possibility of rapprochement and view the Principle of the Sixteen Characters
to be dangerously revisionist. Lê Chí Quang, as noted earlier, made these
widely shared concerns explicit in his controversial eight-page essay, Hãy
Cnh Giác viBcTriu(Beware of imperialist China). The outspoken direct-
ness with which the Hanoi-based lawyer expressed himself prompted many to
conclude Quang purposefully sacriced himself to expand the transnational
debate to include the threat China allegedly poses towards Vietnams sover-
eignty. If this was Quangs intent, he succeeded. Security ofcials arrested
him in February of 2002, approximately one month after poet Bùi Minh
Quc, and he was later sentenced to four years in prison followed by three
years of house arrest for emailing propaganda against the Government of
the Socialist Republic of Vietnamabroad. The sentence prompted an outpour-
ing of support from not only Vietnamese organizations overseas, but also
foreign politicians and advocacy groups around the world. Among them,
Human Rights Watch, which awarded Quang a prestigious Hellman/
Hammett Prize in recognition of the persecution he faced because of his polit-
ical views.
Concerns regarding Chinas territorial ambitions are not limited to dissidents
like Lê Chí Quang or prominent critics overseas, however. Ordinary people
President Hus Visit to Further Promote Sino-Vietnamese Relations,Peoples Daily Online
(30 Oct. 2005).
China, Vietnam to Enhance Economic, Trade Cooperation,Xinhua (22 Mar. 2006); World
Trade Organization, Country Prole: Vietnam (Geneva: World Trade Organization, 2005).
regularly express them on different electronic forums, including chatrooms
inside Vietnam where the need to borrow history to talk about the present,
remains strongest. Surprisingly, the person most commonly cited is not a mili-
tary hero, but Nguyn Trãi (13801442), the celebrated Confucian poet-scholar
who served as an advisor to General Lê Li during his successful guerrilla cam-
paign to expel Ming Dynasty forces from ĐiVit. To commemorate the
victory that ended two decades of foreign rule (14061427), Nguyn Trãi com-
posed Bình Ngô Đi Cáo(A great proclamation upon the pacication of the
Wu), which is widely regarded as the rst clear expression of a Vietnamese
national identity.
The choice to reproduce this poem, either in part or in
whole, is particularly telling since Nguyn Trãi was later accused of treason
and executed. Two decades later, King Lê Thánh Tông overturned the
charges and granted a full pardon to his physical remains. For those familiar
with this famous episode, references to the poem provide an indirect way to
convey to others that they expect history to judge the imprisoned cyber-
dissidents (Lê Chí Quang among them) to be patriots rather than traitors.
Such references highlight the continued relevance of the Period of Northern
Dominationto contemporary Vietnamese politics as well as its central contra-
diction. On one hand, the era heralds the initial diffusion of bureaucratic models
and procedures from Chinato Vietnam”—a complex and contested process
that, ironically, made the rst pre-modern state of ĐiVit organizationally
possible. On the other hand, this same process of diffusion, which continues
today, means that ofcial efforts to dene a national subject were and remain
very much dependent upon the constitution of an alien one: China.
these tensions remains difcult because cultural forms and practices drawn
from northern Vietnam continue to be privileged over those of other regions
in the name of the nationas a whole. This despite the fact the north was
and remains today the most thoroughly Sinicized part of the county. So
much so that one critic, when speaking with me, disparagingly described
state socialism with Vietnamese characteristics as China Lite,by which he
meant a copy that was less than authentic due to its derived nature.
Another critic echoed this point, but in more idiomatic terms. He said the
relationship between Vietnam and China was: Like lips to teeth; when the
lips are gone, the teeth are cold(nhưrăng vi môi; môi hthì răng lnh).
The proverb, he explained, normally meant when one neighbor suffers so
does the other. But in this instance it was intended as a warning. Not all neigh-
bors are equal,he pointed out. China remains the neighbor with teeth.
For a critique of this narrative, see Liam Kelley, Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and
the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005).
Interview N.K.V., Hanoi, July 2006.
Taylor, Surface Orientations in Vietnam: 951.
Interview V.H.P., Hanoi, July 2002.
Interview N.A.H., Lng Sơn, Aug. 2005.
The conicting views outlined above suggest it will remain impossible to con-
stitute Vietnamwithout taking Chinainto account for the foreseeable
future. The same can also be said about the continued salience of the
nationas a master symbol. Clearly, emotional appeals to protect Vietnams
territorial integrity still exert a powerful mobilizing force for many Vietnamese,
even as large numbers of them seek ways to reduce barriers to the freer ow of
people, information, capital, consumer goods, and cultural forms across the
countrys borders. Such tensions are not unique to Vietnamese populations;
nonetheless, they have taken on particularly Vietnamese forms due to the pro-
liferation of digital archives with political content.
These archives now enable Vietnamese with Internet access to obtain a far
greater range of detailed information on actually existing governance in
Vietnam, including investigative reports on corruption and other forms of of-
cial misconduct, than was possible only a few years ago. These same archives,
because of their interactive features, also permit people who visit them to
express their views on current affairs and to comment on the previous postings
of others. Both developments offer ethnographically rich insights into how
Vietnamese differently conceptualize the rapid changes taking place following
two decades of reforms collectively known as Renovation(Đimi) and the
countrys gradual reintegration into the global order of things.
However, it would be premature to equate the digital archives and the forms
of interaction they enable with the emergence of a universal public sphere.
A signicant number of obstacles continue to make it difcult for Vietnamese
to openly and rationally debate politically sensitive issues with others who hold
divergent views without fear of personal or legal repercussions. This holds true
for many Vietnamese communities abroad as well as those in Vietnam. More-
over, efforts to engage in discussions across these differences, such as those
described in this essay, have directly contributed to the increase in the
number and type of restrictions on freedom of expression online in Vietnam,
rather than their decrease.
Thus it remains unclear whether these discursive
spaces, which on the surface promise greater transparency and accountability,
will actually strengthen civil liberties over time much less contribute to the
emergence of multi-party politics in what remains one the worlds last single-
party states.
Regardless of what the future holds, the controversy that the search for Kilo-
meter Zero set in motion remains notable for several other reasons.
Nancy Fraser, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually
Existing Democracy,in, Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1992), 10942.
OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam,421.
Surprisingly, the competing accounts of territorial possession and loss did not
neatly reproduce the ideological positions of the Cold War era, which literally
divided Vietnam in half and later plunged the entire region into violent chaos
for decades. Admittedly, the accusations and counter-accusations commonly
found in these particular narratives were not wholly absent from the debate,
as genuine reconciliation between those who supported different national pro-
jects in the past has yet to occur.
However, the overwhelming focus of the
accounts was upon a quite different issue. Namely the authenticity and integrity
of the evidencethey contained regarding if, how, and why the Sino-
Vietnamese border moved at different moments in time.
Efforts to resolve doubts about both concerns were made vastly more com-
plicated by different forms of technological revisionism, reposting among
them. These practices, since they permitted interested parties to copy,
modify, forge, and delete what others could access online from inside as well
as outside Vietnam, facilitated the movement of evidenceacross digital
archives at some moments and arrested it at others. Close attention to the parti-
cularities of these movements and the signicance that different interpretive
communities attributed to them revealed how technological forms of revision-
ism shaped the conditions of possibility for both political dissent and ofcial
attempts to censor it. These same forms of revisionism also explain why the
same piece of evidence,such as a map of Kilometer Zero, could be used
to advance quite different claims regarding the legitimacy of the border
Signicantly, these claims were not limited to the agreements; they extended
more broadly to the ofcial parameters of Vietnamese nationalism. The Com-
munist Party has long justied its continued monopoly on political affairs in
moral terms by positioning itself at the end of a long line of heroes who
fought to defend or to liberate the Vietnamese nationfrom foreign aggres-
But, as the case study demonstrated, this particular history of the
present has become increasingly problematic. The territorial agreements have
enabled some Vietnamese (both resident and in diaspora) to publicly call for
a more strident form of nationalism than the Communist Party nds politically
acceptable given the complexities of its current relationship with China.
John Borneman, Why Reconciliation? A Response to Critics,Public Culture 15, 1 (2003):
Patricia Pelley, Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2002), 14247.
The ongoing dispute over the South China Sea and its resources offers a perfect example. For
the past ve decades, both states have used a wide range of historical, legal, and extra-legal
methods, including lethal force, to assert their overlapping sovereign claims to much of the
South China Sea, which all Vietnamese speakers pointedly refer to as the Eastern Sea(Bin
đông) to denaturalize the Sino-centric connotations of the more widely used toponym. Further
discussion of this conict and the role technological forms of revisionism have played in it are
beyond the scope of this essay, however. For background, see Stein Tönnesson, Locating the
Since this development has helped confuse rather than clarify where orthodox
positions on the changing nature of Sino-Vietnamese relations end and hetero-
dox ones begin, the long-term implications of this new development remain
unknown. Nonetheless, they illustrate why further attention needs to be
directed at how digital objects circulate within and across different social
spaces and the effects these have upon the ways eventsare documented,
manipulated, and understood by others. Until we take these spaces and their
effects seriously, both will remain transparentand thus analytically invisible
to us.
South China Sea,in, Paul Kratoska, Remco Raben, and Henk Nordholt, eds., Locating Southeast
Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space (Singapore: Singapore National University
Press, 2005), 20332; Vietnamese in Second Anti-China Rally over Disputed Islands,Agence
France Press (16 Dec. 2007). For a reposted copy:
... Organizers of several of the initial demonstrations told foreign reporters that they were using the dispute to protest the government's long-history of acceding to their Chinese counterpart's policy demands, including those related to the South China/East Sea, and the repression of those people who publicly speak out about it (Dou and Paddock 2014). People who hold this view commonly accuse members of the Party-state of "selling the country" by granting territorial concessions and/or making deals that benefit them personally at the expense of the "nation" ( MacLean 2008). Security forces arrested nearly two-dozen "dissidents" immediately prior to the second planned demonstration in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, giving credence to these claims. ...
Full-text available
The conflicts shaping territorial claims and counter-claims to overlapping areas of the South China Sea threatens to significantly damage Sino-Vietnamese relations, destabilize regional security arrangements, and alter the geopolitical status quo. The governments of both countries routinely invoke historical documents, commission scientific studies, and cite legal principles to justify their competing claims in the maritime region and the resources contained therein. The role different types of energy infrastructure play in the state-level disputes have received little attention, however. This essay addresses this oversight. In it, I foreground the complex ways not yet built infrastructure affect Sino-Vietnamese relations as well as our theoretical understanding of “the state”, especially with regard to Vietnam. Not yet built infrastructure refers to more than the assemblage of things that will be built in the future to power the economy, such as oil rigs, natural gas pipelines, and refineries. The concept also includes the ideological positions that presuppose the materialization of blueprint plans in physical form, i.e., the broader goals such infrastructure is meant to achieve. Towards this end, the article focuses on how state actors and their proxies conceptualize the likely impacts not yet built infrastructure will have upon their respective interests once construction is completed. The case study highlights how the need for energy security strengthens national security at some moments, weakens it at others, and both at still others.
... Third, the transformation of disconnected private experiences into shared public ones has also contributed to a broader trend. Namely, the gradual diversification of the processes that shape historical production (Trouillot 1995: 26), many of which increasingly fall outside the direct control of the Party/state and its agents (MacLean 2008: in press). 4 The reasons for the proliferation in the number of different pasts and the forms of commemoration that mark them are complex. ...
Full-text available
In 2006, the Museum of Ethnology organized a special exhibit on everyday life in Hanoi during the “subsidy period”, the term increasingly used to describe the decade of high socialism that began in 1975 with the reunification of a divided Vietnam and ended in 1986 with the official introduction of market reforms known as Đi mi (Renovation). The representational strategies, which linked the collectivism of the past with the individualism of the present, prompted a nationwide discussion regarding the significance of a moment that previously had no clear name or place in official accounts due to the severe hardships it produced. The details presented demonstrate how the rehabilitation of this decade has expanded the political boundaries of what state institutions can present as having historical and ethnographic value in Vietnam as well as opened new avenues for comparative studies with (former) socialist states elsewhere.
In May 2018, Ho Chi Minh City officials declared that they had lost the original planning maps to the city’s most important urban development project. The case of the missing maps revealed core tensions about urban planning in the city, galvanized popular resistance to city planning authorities, and prompted a series of investigations into government misdeeds. While it is common to criticize maps as artifacts of state power, this case shows how citizens can reappropriate the meaning of maps and transform them into a form of quasi-legal evidence that demands accountability and responsiveness from state officials in a non-democratic single party state. The transformative entanglement of maps and people, however, works reciprocally – just as social groups can transform the meaning of maps, maps also participate in the transformation of social groups. The concept of “cartographic action” seeks to account for the entangled relationship among maps, political life, and social action.
Full-text available
This article analyses the dynamics of official and unofficial religious nationalism in the Vietnamese border town of Lào Cai. In 1979 it was one of many Vietnamese towns that were reduced to rubble during the short but bloody war between Vietnam and China. The normalization of Sino-Vietnamese relations in 1991 allowed a booming border trade that let Lào Cai prosper, while the painful memory of this war continued to haunt the town and the daily experiences of its residents, both humans and gods. Since the Vietnamese state forbids any official remembrance of the war, Lào Cai residents have found a religious way to deal with their war memories that skilfully evades state control. By analysing narratives about the fate of the gods and goddesses that reign in the Father God Temple and the Mother Goddess Temple—two religious institutions located right next to the border—this article shows that it is in the symbolism of the supernatural that one can find memories of the war and of the changing social landscape of Lào Cai and reconstruct its history.
Spirit writing is a rare form of trance mediumship in contemporary urban Hanoi and part of the resurgence of popular religious practices in late Socialist Vietnam. This article explores the transmission of otherworldly messages from heroic political and military leaders of the past via an urban female spirit medium and examines practices of translation, decoding and implementing celestial directives. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, the paper investigates how efforts to execute instructions from the beyond are intertwined with mediation, materiality, and technology. Drawing on an analysis of messages from the spirit of Hồ Chí Minh and other heroes of the past, this paper argues that spirits interfere in Vietnam’s current political matters by questioning issues of injustice and by advising the authorities with regard to ritually safeguarding the country’s borders.
Full-text available
This article argues that application of the term “cybercrime” is overly expansive and by this nature exclusive of lesser deviancies, or “microdeviations.” These relatively minor deviant actions are frequently encountered online but are ineffectively checked by regulation. Their banal nature contributes to normalization, informing manufactured uncertainty and moral panic. Several examples of microdeviation are explored emphasizing the intersection of normalization and anxiety and the potential impact on digital spaces. While this issue is only part of the greater societal impact of informationalization, it nonetheless raises important questions as the global north progresses toward harmonizing Internet regulations.
Full-text available
This essay examines the ongoing “fight against corruption” in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The PMU-18 scandal (ca. 2005–2007), the country’s largest to date, is featured as a way to explore how different initiatives to audit the financial-moral practices of officials at all levels of government shape one another in contemporary Vietnam. This focus, which considers the material consequences of different discursive positions, reveals a curious paradox. Namely, the dominant regulatory approaches in use today define the primary source of bureaucratic corruption and thus the forms of intervention best suited towards its reduction in terms that are most often associated with the other. “Socialist” approaches, which are conventionally thought to rely upon techno-scientific and administrative modes of regulation, also called for external performance audits and other business management techniques to provide greater incentives for individuals to engage in ethical forms of self-regulation, whereas “neoliberal” approaches, which normally abhor regulatory mechanisms, recommended the reintroduction of centralized command-and-control measures to limit the ability of government officials to abuse their public positions for private gain. This outcome suggests that both regulatory regimes and the techniques used to promote accountability may have more in common than is commonly thought as it also raises the possibility that recombinant forms now exist. The patterns also provide comparative insights into (trans)national efforts to guide the conduct of conduct in settings that are neither Western nor liberal.
Full-text available
This essay is about the colonial order of things as seen through its archival productions. It asks what insights about the colonial might be gained from attending not only to colonialism’s archival content, but also to its particular and sometimes peculiar form. Its focus is on archiving as a process rather than to archives as things. It looks to archives as epistemological experiments rather than as sources, to colonial archives as cross-sections of contested knowledge. Most important, it looks to colonial archives as technologies of rule in themselves. Its concerns are two: to situate new approaches to colonial archives within the broader ‘historic turn’ of the last two decades, and to suggest what critical histories of the colonial have to gain by turning further toward a politics of knowledge that reckons with archival genres, cultures of documentation, fictions of access and archival conventions.
This article analyses the relationship between China and Vietnam since 1975 with a focus on developments since full normalization of relations in late 1991. The study encompasses the major developments in the relationship, i.e. the deterioration of relations that took place during the late 1970s, the period of continued conflict and tension in the 1980s, the process of normalization of relations between China and Vietnam in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and, the developments since full normalization relations. In analyzing the deterioration of relations, the continued conflict situation as well as the normalization process the following issues are discussed and assessed: differing perceptions of the Soviet Union, relations to and influence in Cambodia, the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, and territorial disputes. The analysis of the period following full normalization of relations focuses on the expansion of relations as well as on the impact and management of contentious issues, in particular the territorial disputes between the two countries. The article concludes with an evaluation of the progress made, lessons learned, and the remaining challenges in managing disputes in Sino-Vietnamese relations.
In their three thousand years of interaction, China and Vietnam have been through a full range of relationships. Throughout all these fluctuations the one constant has been that China is always the larger power, and Vietnam the smaller. Yet China has rarely been able to dominate Vietnam, and the relationship is shaped by its asymmetry. The Sino-Vietnamese relationship provides the perfect ground for developing and exploring the effects of asymmetry on international relations. Womack develops his theory in conjunction with an original analysis of the interaction between China and Vietnam from the Bronze Age to the present.
This essay reviews the study of Vietnamese politics, specifically the debates about Vietnamese nationalism that have preoccupied scholars. The field has undergone two growth spurts——one in the mid 1960s and the other since the mid 1980s. These periods of growth were precipitated by Cold War politics and political developments in the United States and Vietnam, and the debates on Vietnamese nationalism evolved in a way that corresponded to trends in the field as a whole. When the field shifted, the tone of the debates and the major arguments advanced also shifted. Clearly, politics has had a deep impact not only on the development of the field but also on its scholarship.
Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 49-90 This essay has a public. If you are reading (or hearing) this, you are part of its public. So first let me say: Welcome. Of course, you might stop reading (or leave the room), and someone else might start (or enter). Would the public of this essay therefore be different? Would it ever be possible to know anything about the public to which, I hope, you still belong? What is a public? It is a curiously obscure question, considering that few things have been more important in the development of modernity. Publics have become an essential fact of the social landscape, and yet it would tax our understanding to say exactly what they are. Several senses of the noun public tend to be intermixed in usage. People do not always distinguish between the public and a public, although in some contexts this difference can matter a great deal. The public is a kind of social totality. Its most common sense is that of the people in general. It might be the people organized as the nation, the commonwealth, the city, the state, or some other community. It might be very general, as in Christendom or humanity. But in each case the public, as a people, is thought to include everyone within the field in question. This sense of totality is brought out in speaking of the public, even though to speak of a national public implies that others exist; there must be as many publics as polities, but whenever one is addressed as the public, the others are assumed not to matter. A public can also be a second thing: a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space, as with a theatrical public. Such a public also has a sense of totality, bounded by the event or by the shared physical space. A performer on stage knows where her public is, how big it is, where its boundaries are, and what the time of its common existence is. A crowd at a sports event, a concert, or a riot might be a bit blurrier around the edges, but still knows itself by knowing where and when it is assembled in common visibility and common action. I will return to both of these senses, but what I mainly want to clarify in this essay is a third sense of public: the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation -- like the public of this essay. (Nice to have you with us, still.) The distinctions among these three senses are not always sharp and are not simply the difference between oral and written contexts. When an essay is read aloud as a lecture at a university, for example, the concrete audience of hearers understands itself as standing in for a more indefinite audience of readers. And often, when a form of discourse is not addressing an institutional or subcultural audience, such as members of a profession, its audience can understand itself not just as a public but as the public. In such cases, different senses of audience and circulation are in play at once. Examples like this suggest that it is worth understanding the distinctions better, if only because the transpositions among them can have important social effects. The idea of a public, as distinct from both the public and any bounded audience, has become part of the common repertoire of modern culture. Everyone intuitively understands how it works. On reflection, however, its rules can seem rather odd. I would like to bring some of our intuitive understanding into the open in order to speculate about the history of the form and the role it plays in constructing our social world. 1. A public is self-organized. A public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself. It is autotelic; it exists only as the end for which books are published, shows broadcast, Web sites posted, speeches delivered, opinions produced. It exists by virtue of being addressed. A kind of chicken-and-egg circularity confronts us in the idea of a public. Could anyone speak publicly without addressing a public? But how...
Authoritarian states and illiberal democracies do not all try to maximize their control of the Internet. In fact, one‐party regimes that welcome the Internet are not even more likely to fail than those that attempt to protect themselves from its influence.