In Search of Kilometer Zero: Digital
Archives, Technological Revisionism,
and the Sino-Vietnamese Border
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 peri-
meter of ViệtBắc, the name for the mountainous region that stretches across ten
provinces in northeastern Vietnam. Quốc, a poet of considerable repute, docu-
mented 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 social-
ist 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”(Cấysốkhông) 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.
For many Vietnamese, Kilometer Zero is inextricably linked to Ải Nam
Quan, an arched gateway ﬁrst constructed perhaps as early as the ﬁfteenth
Acknowledgments: The Fulbright-Hays DDRA, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the University of
Michigan, and the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (Emory University) provided
ﬁnancial 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 Đường Lãng Du Bằng Xe Máy (Bunch of poems written wandering on the
road by motorcycle) (Dec. 2001), http://baotoquoc.com/baotoquoc/?view=story&subjectid=957&
David Elliot, ed., The Third Indochina Conﬂict (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 (Đại
Việt) from territories under the administrative control of its powerful neighbor
to the north, the Empire of the Great Ming. Ải Nam Quan has since been rebuilt
on several occasions, most recently during the late twentieth century when
Soviet-style architectural inﬂuences were giving way to neo-traditional ones
in both Vietnam and China (Figure 1).
The same structure has also been ofﬁcially 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 structure’s 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 ofﬁcials, dissidents, and segments
of the country’s diaspora to narrate the terms of Sino-Vietnamese relations
and their respective territorial claims in conﬂicting ways.
The most conspicuous example of this is Ải Nam Quan itself, which means
“Southern Gate”in 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”(Bắc-Quan). But a majority continues to use the Sino-
Vietnamese term since it is widely recognized and closely linked to the restor-
ation of “Vietnamese”independence following two decades of imperial rule by
the Ming (1406–1427), the last time hostile “Chinese”forces 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”
(Đấtnướctachạy dài từẢi Nam Quan đếnmũiCàMau).
certainties were thrown into doubt in late 2000 when detailed rumors
emerged that the arched gateway and other sites of politico-historical signiﬁ-
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 ofﬁcials to discredit the rumors,
they steadily gained strength as people inside and outside Vietnam began to
post different kinds of “evidence”online that allegedly showed where, how,
and why the country’s territorial boundaries had changed. Precise ﬁgures
varied depending on the sources and maps used, but the general consensus
Homi Bhabba, ed. Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990), 1–7.
Sections of Hà Giang and Cao Bằng Provinces, which extend farther north than the posited
location of Kilometer Zero in Cao Lộc District, Lạng Sơn Province, were not added to Tonkin,
a French protectorate, until the late eighteenth century.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 863
was that the Communist Party of Vietnam had transferred to China approxi-
mately 750 square kilometers of land and, after two more “secret”agreements
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 ofﬁcials had instead “sold the nation”
for personal gain, though opinions remained divided over whether the motiv-
ation for their “treachery”—the Vietnamese expression (bán nước) conveys
both meanings simultaneously—was primarily political or ﬁnancial in nature.
For reasons I will explain, efforts to determine the factual basis of these con-
ﬂicting accounts were greatly hampered by “technological revisionism.”This is
FIGURE 1Ải Nam Quan. Author’s photo (2006).
Ramses Amer, “Assessing Sino-Vietnamese Relations through the Management of Conten-
tious Issues,”Contemporary Southeast Asia 26, 2 (2004): 320–45.
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 Party’s own rhetoric back against itself. For related discussion, see Sergei
Oushakine, “The Terrifying Mimicry of Samizdat,”Public Culture 113, 2 (2004): 191–214.
864 KEN MACLEAN
my term for the different ways materials in digitized form can be copied, modi-
ﬁed, 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 Quốc, a former Communist Party member, to embark on his fact-
ﬁnding mission to the Sino-Vietnamese border, which he completed in mid-
December of 2001.
His luck, however, did not last.
Security ofﬁcials quietly arrested Quốc at a train station outside Hanoi in
January 2002 before he was able to share his ﬁndings with several other well-
known intellectuals the Communist Party regards as dissidents for publicly
articulating opinions that diverge from its own. Ofﬁcials interrogated Quốc
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 Quốc’s 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 ofﬁcials 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 “secret”territorial agreements was exchanged.
Though the number
of Vietnamese with Internet access was at the time very modest—only
3 percent of the population—this 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 ofﬁcials initiated a three-pronged crackdown,
which included the arrest of domestic computer users suspected of distributing
“propaganda”or revealing “state secrets”through 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 signiﬁcance is not
limited to those Vietnamese with a stake in the controversy’s 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 2005–2006 (Cambridge, Mass.: OpenNet
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 865
but ofﬁcial 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 signiﬁcance in authoritarian settings
where freedom of expression remains limited and in situations where states
and their nation(s) in diaspora ﬁnd themselves in conﬂict.
But they also
extend to include the still broader question of how digital objects—the
generic term for items that can be retrieved via the Internet—are affected by
the spaces through which they move.
SPACES OF CIRCULATION
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
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 “original”pose 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 deﬁne where copyright protection ends and “fair use”begins
in online environments. The emphasis here however is on the political and epis-
temological problems that arise when digital materials are copied from one
archive—typically without permission—and 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 “same”digital 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
object’s 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
“biographies”as 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 signiﬁcance 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): 206–55;
Aihwa Ong, “Cyberpublics and Diaspora Politics among Transnational Chinese,”Interventions
5, 1 (2003): 82–100.
Margaret Hedstrom, “Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past,”Archival Sciences
2 (2002): 21–43.
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.
866 KEN MACLEAN
the interplay between these objects, the directionality of their ﬂows, 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
ﬁnance capital and the social imaginary it produces—a uniﬁed cosmopolitan
culture—a 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 ﬁtting 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 ﬁxed forms of information (typically documents),
the latter enable others to add, modify, and delete their contents in a variety
Consequently, many of the theoretical and methodological assump-
tions that inform historiographic practice ofﬂine 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 ﬁnds 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): 215–38.
Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli, “Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transﬁg-
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), 127–70.
Rudi Laermans and Pascal Gielen, “The Archive of the Digital An-Archive,”Image and Nar-
rative 17 (2007): 3.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 867
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-
dence”strategically 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 whole—one 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 ﬁnd multiple accounts that use the same piece of “evidence”
(e.g., a border map) to advance conﬂicting 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 difﬁ-
cult to determine with real conﬁdence 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 ofﬁcial
efforts to control what crosses Vietnam’s 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 ofﬁcials
“leaked”each 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 signiﬁcance of these
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): 11–22.
868 KEN MACLEAN
A SYMBOLIC BAROMETER
Kilometer Zero, unlike other sites the Communist Party of Vietnam ceded to
China, is not a physical structure or a clearly identiﬁable part of the landscape,
though many Vietnamese continue to equate it with the Ải 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 conﬂicts 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 “secret”territorial 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 Party’s continued stress on the unbroken tradition
of “resistance against foreign aggression”in ofﬁcial narratives, which project
the existence of a uniﬁed and coherent Vietnamese “nation”anachronistically
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 interaction—one long overdue for critical ree-
valuation—much of what is now northern and central Vietnam was indeed part
of southern “China”for a thousand years (111 B.C.E.–938 C.E.).
The “Period of Northern Domination”(Giai đoạnBắc thuộc), as it is known,
informs the transnational debate over the territorial agreements in two impor-
tant ways. It helps establish the ofﬁcial 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 Party’s 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 difﬁcult 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): 949–78.
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), 232–45.
Of course, other narrations of the “nation”have 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): 175–230.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 869
Questioning these narratives, which have long deﬁned what it means to be
“Vietnamese”in ofﬁcial 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 nation’s
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 sufﬁcient. The ghosts are their ancestors and for this
reason, they claim, the Party’s decision to cede any territory to the Chinese
undermines not only its claims to legitimacy, but betrays all Vietnamese who
sacriﬁced 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 country’s 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 “secret”1999 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 (Đểmấtdùmộttấcđấtbiêncương là có trọng tộivớiTổquốc).”
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 ofﬂine.
Digital archives no less than their non-digital counterparts are “epistemological
experiments”that result from the complex “entanglement”of 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), 16–19.
Interview T.T.Đ., Cao Bằng, 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., Reﬁguring the Archive (Dordrect:
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 83; Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its
Limits,”in ibid., 19.
870 KEN MACLEAN
Thus the very practices that organize an archive, categorize its
contents, and make retrieval possible, simultaneously create particular con-
ﬁgurations of “facts”at the expense of others, which helps deﬁne 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 ﬂexibility and change rather than
stability and preservation. Numerous factors have contributed to this shift away
from the classic “read-only”model 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 online—though 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-conﬁgured, 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 “secret”territorial 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 ﬁle transfers until 1994. At
that time, the country’s telecommunications infrastructure was so limited
Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern
Memory,”Archival Science 2 (2002): 1–19.
Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York:
Pantheon, 1972), 126–31.
Laermans and Gielen, “The Archive of the Digital An-Archive”:3.
Michael Warner, “Public and Counterpublics,”Public Culture 14, 1 (2002): 49–90.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 871
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 ﬁercely resistant to
the Internet, made sure the electronic version of its daily, Nhân Dân (The
People), was among the ﬁrst 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 government’s investment in the country’s 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 ofﬁcials alike previously used to determine where
“Vietnam”ended 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. Signiﬁcantly,
the source of such critical information is no longer limited to dissidents, but
now includes state-owned newspapers. Several of these papers, especially
Lao Động (Labor) and TuổiTrẻ(Youth), have begun to regularly publish inves-
tigative reports on corruption and other forms of criminal misconduct involving
government ofﬁcials, 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 difﬁcult for the Communist Party to convin-
cingly portray its members as the primary agents of “unity”and “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), http://www.interasia.org/
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): 188–226.
872 KEN MACLEAN
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 “foreign”reports 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 People’s Republic of China, including the per-
vasive use of ﬁrewalls, which normally combine hardware and software to
protect a network from unauthorized access or use by others.
this instance, the ﬁrewalls are conﬁgured to prevent broader access to the Inter-
net itself by means of ﬁlters that screen requests for information by cross-
referencing domain names and URL addresses against an evolving list of
A Vietnamese ofﬁcial who discussed this process with me explained his staff
simply zoned the Internet into one of two basic categories: “green”or “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”(xấuđộc)”and should be blocked “for the people’s
beneﬁt”(lợi ích cho nhân dân).
His views are still widely shared. When
asked, many if not most Vietnamese ofﬁcials 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 Internet”still 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 ﬁnancial in nature, no single state entity is wholly
responsible for regulating access in Vietnam to the Internet.
while signiﬁcant, 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 signiﬁcance 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
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): 41–58.
Interview N.V.G., Hanoi, Mar. 2002.
OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam,5–21.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 873
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 signiﬁes the pre-
sence of inter-organizational rivalries. In others, the decision to self-publish
rather than cross-post reﬂects a personal decision to appear ideologically
neutral and politically unafﬁliated. Regardless of the reason, other factors
ensure security ofﬁcials 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 ofﬁcials have censored the original. Second, state-
sponsored ﬁrewalls 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
Third, materials posted on the Internet commonly contain infor-
mation, such as ﬁlename 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 ﬁrewalls and locate information since ﬁrewalls rarely
screen for them. In sum, alternate pathways almost always exist. This is
because the Internet, like Deleuze and Guattari’s“rhizome,”is multiple,
dynamic, and consists of a potentially inﬁnite number of interconnected
entry and exit points, including bits of code that are ordinarily invisible
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
“leaked”by government ofﬁcials 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 signiﬁcance.
A MAP IN TEXTUAL FORM
Bùi Minh Quốc’s arrest in January of 2001 prompted demands from Vietna-
mese inside and outside the country for details on the “secret”territorial
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), 5–8.
874 KEN MACLEAN
agreements. The pressure was sufﬁcient to force an ofﬁcial, if indirect,
response. During February and March, “evidence”that 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 Government’s 1982 white paper on the country’s maritime
claims, as well as speeches and interviews from high-ranking ofﬁcials.
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.
that follows, however, is limited to the statements provided by Lê Công
Phụng, the Deputy Foreign Minister, as they directly concern the location of
VASC-Orient, a state-owned news agency (now known as Vietnam.net),
interviewed the Deputy Foreign Minister almost immediately after Quốc’s
detention. The transcript of their discussion was posted online shortly after-
wards, in early February.
In it, Phụng 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 ofﬁcials had “sold land [and] conceded
the seas”(bán nước, nhượng biển) for personal gain. To counter these
claims, Phụng noted the dispute was based on conﬂicting 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 Ải 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
a“border gate”(quan) and a “frontier pass”(ải)—two terms embedded in the
most widely used name for the arched gateway: Ải 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 Định Biên GiớiVìMục Tiêu BảoVệLãnh Thổvà Tạo Môi Trường Hữu Nghị”[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: China—Vietnam 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-proﬁt research group based in Hanoi, placed on its archive: www.viethoc.net.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 875
Thus, according to Phụng, 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 People’s Republic of
China. To emphasize this point, Phụng employed a semantic strategy of his
own. He repeatedly referred to the arched gateway as the “Southern Peace
Gate”(Mục Nam Quan), using the name Chairman Mao Zedong allegedly
gave to the structure in 1949 rather than the “Friendship Gate”(Hữu Nghị
Quan), the territorially more neutral name later adopted by HồChí Minh in
Phụng’s arguments failed to convince. Almost immediately after the inter-
view was posted online, ĐỗViệtSơn, a respected Party member since 1947,
submitted an open letter to the country’s four highest-ranking ofﬁcials. The
text of the letter implored the National Assembly, the country’s 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 Bạch Đằng 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 ofﬁcial histories, the ﬁrst battle ended a millennia of
“Chinese”imperial rule and created the political space for the independent
state of ĐạiViệt [Great Viet] to emerge.) To drive his point home, Sơn
reminded readers that the country’s feudal rulers, their other faults notwith-
standing, had refused to relinquish “one inch of soil, one small island”(một
tác đất, một hòn đảo) 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 ofﬁcials, including the President of China, to
counter statements made online by the Deputy Foreign Minister and other ofﬁcial
In most cases, the dissidents followed ĐỗViệtSơn’s example and
“borrowed history to comment on contemporary affairs”(mượnlịch sửđểnói về
hiệnđại). But instead of using allusions to express their concerns, as is normally
the case, the dissidents directly attacked the moral basis of the Communist Party’s
“ĐềNghịQuốcHội Không Thông Qua HiệpĐịnh Biên GiớiViệt Trung”[To suggest the
National Assembly not ratify the Sino-Vietnamese Border Agreements] (Feb. 2001), reposted:
For details, see Lê Đoàn Việt, “Hai Năm Sau Ngày CắmCộtMốc Biên Giới: Trách Nhiệm
Vẫn Còn Đó”[Two years after the placement of the border marker: (Our) responsibility
remains!], Liên Minh Việt Nam TựDo [Free Vietnam Alliance] (17 Dec. 2003), http://www.
876 KEN MACLEAN
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 country’s
borders had changed. By the end of April, only four months after Bùi Minh
Quốc’s 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 ﬁles, video footage, and
maps concerning the border.
Security ofﬁcials, alarmed by this rapid proliferation of “propaganda against
the state”(tuyên truyềnchống Nhà nước), moved to reinforce the country’s
digital frontier. As a ﬁrst step, hackers, allegedly hired by the Communist
Party’s information agencies, mounted a denial-of-service attack on several
overseas sites, most notably the hannamquan.com mirror site, which provided
an anonymous proxy that allowed computer users to bypass the ﬁrewall and
access such “propaganda.”
The attack ﬂooded the site’s server with infor-
mation requests and temporarily forced it ofﬂine for repairs; however, it also
damaged parts of the country’s primary computer network managed by the
state-owned Vietnam Data Communication Company.
To avoid further
damage, security ofﬁcials shifted their attention to removing controversial
materials located on servers inside Vietnam.
Among the ﬁrst things to disappear was the Deputy Foreign Minister’sinter-
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 ﬁre-
wall to reach them.
The government land ofﬁce (TrungtâmThôngtin—Lưutrữ
TưliệuĐịachính) also moved its entire digital archive ofﬂine after critics declared
that a triangulation map posted on the agency’s website proved the Communist
Party had ceded far more territory than the Deputy Foreign Minister had admitted.
Search results on ﬁle with author.
See also, Michael Lesk, “The New Front Line: Estonia under Cyber-Assault,”IEEE
Security & Privacy 5, 4 (2007): 76–79.
Diệu Vân, “Chiến Tranh Internet BắtĐầu”[The Internet war begins] (25 Feb. 2002), http://
For example, the U.S.-based Asia-Paciﬁc Strategic Research Institute inserted ﬁfty-nine
explanatory notes to the original interview transcript, doubling its length: http://www.viettrade.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 877
The archive’s sudden disappearance has made it impossible to verify the authen-
ticity of the digital “copy”reposted on Ykien.net (Opinion.net), a prominent pol-
itically oriented archive in Brussels that features hundreds of essays on the
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 ofﬁcial cover-up, which they likened to an electronic version of
Since reposting limited the ability of security ofﬁcials 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 “propaganda”abroad 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 difﬁcult to monitor in real time and provide a
somewhat higher degree of anonymity; they are, however, far from foolproof.
Security ofﬁcials, 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 “reactionary”group in
Once again, efforts to suppress the controversy failed to have their intended
effect. The highly publicized arrest inﬂamed 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 country’s 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
www.ykien.net/pictures/05_WEBMAP_SVR.png. At the time of research, the ﬁrewall
blocked direct access to this archive—www.cidala.gov.vn—from 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 ykien.net to divide into a series of linked archives in late
2007, http://ykien0711.blogvis.com/. A reposted copy of the above map can be found at: http://
“HồSơ: Bang Giao Việt-Trung và VấnĐềBiên Giới, BiểnĐông”[Folder: Sino-Vietnamese
relations, the land and maritime border problem], (n.d.), http://home.scarlet.be/mykvn/tl_viettrung.
Reporters without Borders, “Vietnam,”The Internet under Surveillance (Paris: Reporters
without Borders, 2003), 133–37.
878 KEN MACLEAN
customers read and wrote online.
In response, the editors of Opinion.net
posted a short manual that explained how to circumvent the ﬁrewall and
what could be done to preserve their anonymity online.
The techniques worked, and information continued to ﬂow 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 Fatherland’s Territorial Integrity”(HộiĐồng Việt Nam Bảo
Toàn ĐấtTổ), 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 location—an internal page—made
it difﬁcult 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
identiﬁed by elevation rather their precise coordinates, revealed even less. Con-
sequently, the treaty was virtually meaningless without a copy of the ofﬁcial
map. Yet, that crucial document was not included.
Again, critics of the agreements interpreted the decision to “leak”some
details, but not others, as still another sign the Communist Party had not
acted in the country’s best interests. These criticisms forced the Deputy
Amnesty International, Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Freedom of Expression under Threat in
Cyberspace (London: Amnesty International, 2003), 16–18.
Anonymous, Cẩm Nang Internet Cho Việt Nam: Chìa Khóa VượtTường Lửa[Internet manual
for Vietnam: Key to overcoming the ﬁrewall] (Aug. 2002), http://www.ykien.net/tl_internet.html.
For a reposted version: http://www.shcd.de/vietnam/tuonglua.html.
Lê Đoàn Việt, “Hai Năm Sau Ngày….”
The link, http://www.nhandan.org.vn/vietnamese/today/bai-ctluat.html, is now dead. For a
reposted copy: http://home.scarlet.be/mykvn/tl_hiepuocbgdl.html.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 879
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 Phụng did this for strategic reasons, the technical details he disclosed
were highly signiﬁcant and provided the basis for several counter maps, which
I discuss later.
The relevant parties, Phụng explained, separately created provisional “maps
of borderline orientation”based 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 signiﬁcant agreement—except for
164 sites where overlapping territorial claims existed. These disputed areas,
collectively referred to as “Areas C,”totaled 227 square kilometers and
required thirty-ﬁve rounds of talks between 1993 and 2000 to resolve. The
process, which involved large numbers of diplomats, government ofﬁcials,
military personnel, lawyers, and technical experts, was designed to resolve
not only the long-standing territorial disputes, but to reestablish “an environ-
ment of friendship”between Vietnam and China. This larger goal, Phụng con-
tinued, justiﬁed both the climate of secrecy in which the negotiations were
conducted and the Communist Party’s decision to make minor adjustments
to Vietnam’s 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 Phụng.
The solution, he continued, served as the basis for the 1999 agreement
and the ofﬁcial 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, ofﬁcials do not expect
it to be completed until late 2008.
Until then, the full contours of the border,
like the ofﬁcial map that depicts it, remain unknown.
The ﬁrst 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 ﬁttingly titled, “Reading Lê Công Phụng’s Interview,”which originally
“On the Settlement of Vietnam-China Border Issue”(14 Sept. 2002).
880 KEN MACLEAN
appeared in the twenty-ﬁrst installment of Đối Thoại(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 ofﬁcials seized and burned hard copies of the newsletter
that same month as part of their periodic efforts to stop the circulation of
“undeclared propaganda”(truyềnđơn không khai).
This effort did not
prevent the circulation of electronic copies, including one sent abroad using
hannamquan.com’s anonymous proxy. Hackers reputedly employed by state
security ofﬁcials shut the controversial site down ten days later, but by then
the essays had been reposted on a half-dozen different digital archives
Perhaps for these reasons, the true identity of the author,
Lý Công Luận, 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 “reason”or
“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 ﬁrst
independent state to arise after the “Period of Northern Domination”ended.
Over the next two centuries, successive Lý kings oversaw the establishment
of a prosperous and highly centralized state with sufﬁcient resources to
defeat repeated invasions from the north. The most famous of these occurred
in 1077 when General Lý Thường Kiệt routed Song Dynasty troops that
sought to cross the Cầu River after having forced their way through several
frontier passes, including the one where Ải Nam Quan was later built. To com-
memorate the victory, he composed a short poem, Nam quốcsơnhà(Rivers
and mountains of the South Nation), which many Vietnamese regard as their
ﬁrst 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 nước,
“Nhân Đọc Bài Phỏng Vấn Lê Công Phụng.”For a reposted copy: http://www.trungtam.de/
Security ofﬁcials placed Professor Trần 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 ofﬁcial visit to Vietnam. “ThưNgỏGửiTổng Bí ThưGiang Trạch Dân”
(20 Feb. 2002): http://www.ptdcvn.org/modules.php?name=News&ﬁle=article&sid=218.
Diệu Vân, “Chiến Tranh Internet….”Curiously, the maps have been deleted from some
reposted versions of the essay. See: http://www.mevietnam.org/lanhtho-lanhhai/lcl-trithucvn.html.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 881
bán đất, phảnbộitổtong) by signing the agreements. “A truly ungrateful
[act],”the author continued, that “repaid good with evil”(thậtlàvôơnbạc
nghĩa, lấy oán trảân).
To prove his point, Luận presented a graphic depiction of the land border,
which he claimed unidentiﬁed staff as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
“leaked”to 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 “national”status of the arched gateway and BảnGiốc, a famous waterfall
located along the international boundary in the neighboring province of Cao
Bằng. 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 country’s favor. However, Lê KhảPhiêu, 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 Luận to pose a
number of intriguing questions that he does not answer in his essay. Did the
“leak”signify factional disagreements within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
over the border demarcation process? Or was it a pre-emptive measure to
deﬂect criticism from the Ministry for failing to secure all of the disputed
points along the Sino-Vietnamese border? Alternatively, was the “leak”part
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 KhảPhiêu 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, Luận fails to cite
his sources. This makes particularly difﬁcult the task of assessing the maps
he offers, especially since the images Luận presents are not maps of the
border per se, but diagrams of the disputed “points”relative to the location
of the arched gateway and the BảnGiốc 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 ofﬁcial documents. Together,
these details lend credence to Luận’s claims concerning the “leak.”Yet, the odd
manner in which the diagrams are presented undercuts these same semiotic
882 KEN MACLEAN
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 difﬁcult 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, identiﬁes 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 deﬁne Sino-Vietnamese relations in conﬂicting
ways, Luận shifts the discussion to yet another historical moment—to 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 “Uncle”Mao and “Uncle”Hồ.Luận 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”(thời kháng chiếnchống Mỹ), which would place it
between 1954, when the rail line between Hanoi and the gateway was rebuilt
with Chinese assistance, and 1969, when HồChí Minh died. What Luận
offers instead is a snippet of one-sided dialogue where Mao Zedong notes
current arrangements for shipping military supplies and other goods across
China’s 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 line’s new terminus in Đồng Đăng. As a ﬁnal inducement, Mao further
promised to remove the infrastructure “when peace returned”(khi nào hòa
bình rồi). “Uncle”Hồ,Luận tells us, “happily consented”(vui vẻnhậnlời)
to these seemingly generous terms.
The anecdote helps clarify the signiﬁcance 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 People’s Republic of China
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 883
(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, Luận reminds us, the rail extension was not
removed after national reuniﬁcation in 1975 as allegedly promised. Instead,
the People’s 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 ofﬁcial
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 Luận similarly condemns the Communist
Party for its treachery, he notes it may have been inﬂuenced by the obligation to
“repay a debt of gratitude”(trảân), by which he meant the material assistance
the People’s Republic of China had provided in the past. But, Luận 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 KhảPhiêu’s weak bargaining position
relative to his Chinese counterparts, but also that he placed his older “sibling’s”
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 Luận (2002).
Interviews, Lạng Sơn, Aug. 2005.
884 KEN MACLEAN
importance of this particular mountain pass? Such questions rarely appear in
essays critical of the agreements. Again, Luận 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 Luận, the signiﬁcance 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
thủy), 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 ﬂow of positive and negative energy through the
mountain pass. The combination of “wind-water”also 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 “secret”agreement—but 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 “secret”agree-
ment was reached, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region announced it
would invest nearly U.S.$16 million to construct a “tourist belt”showcasing
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.
THE PURLOINED COMMUNIQUE
NguyễnNgọc Giao and the materials he circulated on the Internet provide the
ﬁnal example of technological revisionism. Giao is the editor-in-chief of Diễn
Đàn (Forum), an inﬂuential bilingual electronic journal based in France. Diễn
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: Conﬂicting Cosmologies between
State and Peasantry,”The China Journal 36 (1996): 47–65.
“Tourism Belt Forming along China-Vietnam Border,”Xinhuanet (15 Oct. 2002).
Interviews with cross-border traders, Lạng Sơn, Aug. 2005 and July 2006.
“Nam Quan: Ải, CửaẢi và Biên Giới”[Nam Quan: Frontier pass, border pass, and frontier],
DiễnĐàn 128 (2003), http://www.diendan.org/tai-lieu/bao-cu/so-128/mucluc-128/?searchterm=%
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 885
Giao’s arguments defy easy categorization and his actual position on the border
agreements, like the authenticity of his sources, remains open to conﬂicting
interpretations. However, what most distinguishes Giao’s contribution to the
debate is his evidence, which features two secret documents allegedly prepared
by the Politburo and then “leaked”to others.
The ﬁrst is “Communique No. 56,”a thirteen-page document dated 31 March
2002 that lists Phan Diễn, a standing member of the Politburo, as its author.
At ﬁrst 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 ofﬁcial 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 ofﬁcials holding provincial-level positions or higher. The
ofﬁcial seal and Phan Diễn’s barely legible signature are also present, as is a
note in bold text on the document’s footer: “Do not publish information by
way of the mass media.”However, as was the case with Lý Công Luận’s
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”(ĐộcLập, TựDo, Hành Phúc)—that appears on the
header of every ofﬁcial 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 ﬁles that are embedded within
Giao’s 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 “excerpt”also explains that the international
boundary, as then deﬁned, 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 afﬁxed to the Communique (Figure 3).
E1%BA%A3i%20nam%20quan; “TừNam Quan đếnBảnGiốc”[From Nam Quan to Ban Gioc],
DiễnĐàn 129 (2003), http://www.diendan.org/tai-lieu/bao-cu/so-129/mucluc-129/.
Partially reposted in “Nam Quan.”
i128nngiao4.jpg and i128nngiao5.jpg, ibid.
886 KEN MACLEAN
The map of “Area 249C”depicts 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 People’s 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 Giao’s 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, deﬁni-
tively proves Ải 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.
Giao’s contrarian spirit also extends to the question of whether the General
Secretary of the Party voluntarily stepped down or, alternatively, other inﬂuen-
tial ﬁgures 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 NguyễnNgọc Giao (2003) (128).
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 887
Giao’s account begins in mid-2000 when the political maneuvering in
advance of the Ninth Party Congress, scheduled for April the following year,
became particularly ﬁerce.
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 campaign”organized by ĐỗMười, the former
General Secretary of the Party, and Lê Đức Anh, the former President of
Vietnam, to block Lê KhảPhiêu’s 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 ĐứcMạnh, who is widely rumored to be HồChí Minh’s
Giao further claims the political elites behind the campaign also leaked infor-
mation regarding the territorial agreements to prominent revolutionary-era
ﬁgures, 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 ratiﬁcation 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 letter’s content reveals the dissidents’views were based less
on historical fact than on the disinformation campaign cleverly designed to
force Lê KhảPhiêu to retire. The claims, if true, suggest the boundary separ-
ating ofﬁcial narratives from dissident counter-narratives is less clear than is
Giao’s arguments did not go uncontested. Perhaps his most prominent critic
was Trương Nhân Tuấn, 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 d’Outres Mer in Aix-en-Provence,
France. To date, Tuấn 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, ﬁve focus
on Giao’s defense of the 1999 Land Border Treaty. While most of Tuấn’s objec-
tions to Giao’s analysis of the “secret”Communique are highly technical and
Giao, “TừNam Quan đếnBảnGiốc.”
Trần Quang Lê et al., “Kiến NghịThưcủa20CửTri Yêu CầuQuốcHộiCộng SảnViệt Nam
Không Thông Qua HiệpĐịnh Biên GiớiViệt 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), http://baotoquoc.com/baotoquoc/index.php?view=story&
“Biên GiớiViệt-Trung”[The Sino-Vietnamese border], http://truongnhantuan.ifrance.com/;
Biên GiớiViệt-Trung 1885–2000 [The Sino-Vietnamese border 1885–2000] (Marseille: Dũng
888 KEN MACLEAN
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,Tuấn reminds us, he would
need to have known high-ranking ofﬁcials in Vietnam willing to commit
treason, a potentially capital offense. While it is conceivable that Tuấn, 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 secret”Communique in his
essay, security ofﬁcials separately arrested eight people, ﬁve of whom later
received lengthy prison terms for emailing “disinformation”abroad. Alterna-
tively, Tuấn sarcastically points out, Giao has the skills of a “007 spy”(điệp
There is, of course, another possibility: someone else forged the documents,
which Giao later photographed. What makes this hypothesis particularly intri-
guing, according to Tuấn, is the map of “Area 249C”itself. The brightly
colored lines, each of which depicts a different boundary, foregrounds the
viewer’s eye and distracts attention away from the modern Chinese fonts that
faintly appear, along with topographic lines and roads, in the map’s back-
ground. The simpliﬁed characters, ofﬁcially used only by the People’s 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, Tuấn 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, Giao’s
essays can still be downloaded from other archives that have reposted them,
including the one maintained by Tuấn.
What are we to make of these factually suspect maps and the political struggles
their unauthorized movements helped sustain both on- and ofﬂine? What
broader desires and anxieties did these conﬂicting depictions of the Sino-
Vietnamese border make manifest? Ofﬁcial statements, such as those offered
by Deputy Foreign Minister Lê Công Phụng, 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 với ông NguyễnNgọc Giao vềchủquyềncủaViệt-Nam tại Nam-Quan và thác
Bản-Giốc”[Opinions contributed to Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Giao regarding the border problems at
Nam Quan and the Ban Gioc Waterfall], http://home.scarlet.be/mykvn/tnhantuan04.html.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 889
of which the 1999 Land Border Treaty is a part. For example, state ofﬁcials,
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 mười sáu chữ). The
slogan, also adopted in 1999, is shorthand for the ofﬁcial values said to now
deﬁne 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 China’s economic signiﬁcance since it is
already the largest source of Vietnam’s total imports and the third biggest
market for its exports.
From this perspective, China’s economic growth has
certainly been a crucial component of Vietnam’s own rapid development, par-
ticularly in the country’s 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
Cảnh Giác vớiBắcTriều”(Beware of imperialist China). The outspoken direct-
ness with which the Hanoi-based lawyer expressed himself prompted many to
conclude Quang purposefully sacriﬁced himself to expand the transnational
debate to include the threat China allegedly poses towards Vietnam’s sover-
eignty. If this was Quang’s intent, he succeeded. Security ofﬁcials arrested
him in February of 2002, approximately one month after poet Bùi Minh
Quốc, 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 Vietnam”abroad. 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-
Concerns regarding China’s territorial ambitions are not limited to dissidents
like Lê Chí Quang or prominent critics overseas, however. Ordinary people
“President Hu’s Visit to Further Promote Sino-Vietnamese Relations,”People’s Daily Online
(30 Oct. 2005).
“China, Vietnam to Enhance Economic, Trade Cooperation,”Xinhua (22 Mar. 2006); World
Trade Organization, Country Proﬁle: Vietnam (Geneva: World Trade Organization, 2005).
890 KEN MACLEAN
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 Nguyễn Trãi (1380–1442), the celebrated Confucian poet-scholar
who served as an advisor to General Lê Lợi during his successful guerrilla cam-
paign to expel Ming Dynasty forces from ĐạiViệt. To commemorate the
victory that ended two decades of foreign rule (1406–1427), Nguyễn Trãi com-
posed Bình Ngô Đại Cáo”(A great proclamation upon the paciﬁcation of the
Wu), which is widely regarded as the ﬁrst clear expression of a Vietnamese
The choice to reproduce this poem, either in part or in
whole, is particularly telling since Nguyễn 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
Domination”to 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 “China”to “Vietnam”—a complex and contested process
that, ironically, made the ﬁrst pre-modern state of ĐạiViệt organizationally
possible. On the other hand, this same process of diffusion, which continues
today, means that ofﬁcial efforts to deﬁne a national subject were and remain
very much dependent upon the constitution of an alien one: China.
these tensions remains difﬁcult because cultural forms and practices drawn
from northern Vietnam continue to be privileged over those of other regions
in the name of the “nation”as 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 với môi; môi hởthì răng lạnh).
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., Lạng Sơn, Aug. 2005.
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 891
The conﬂicting views outlined above suggest it will remain impossible to con-
stitute “Vietnam”without taking “China”into account for the foreseeable
future. The same can also be said about the continued salience of the
“nation”as a master symbol. Clearly, emotional appeals to protect Vietnam’s
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 ﬂow of
people, information, capital, consumer goods, and cultural forms across the
country’s 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 ofﬁ-
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”(Đổimới) and the
country’s 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 signiﬁcant number of obstacles continue to make it difﬁcult 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 world’s last single-
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), 109–42.
OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam,4–21.
892 KEN MACLEAN
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 “evidence”they 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 “evidence”across digital
archives at some moments and arrested it at others. Close attention to the parti-
cularities of these movements and the signiﬁcance that different interpretive
communities attributed to them revealed how technological forms of revision-
ism shaped the conditions of possibility for both political dissent and ofﬁcial
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
Signiﬁcantly, these claims were not limited to the agreements; they extended
more broadly to the ofﬁcial parameters of Vietnamese nationalism. The Com-
munist Party has long justiﬁed 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 “nation”from 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 ﬁnds 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), 142–47.
The ongoing dispute over the South China Sea and its resources offers a perfect example. For
the past ﬁve 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”(Biển
đông) to denaturalize the Sino-centric connotations of the more widely used toponym. Further
discussion of this conﬂict 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
IN SEARCH OF KILOMETER ZERO 893
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 “events”are documented,
manipulated, and understood by others. Until we take these spaces and their
effects seriously, both will remain “transparent”and thus analytically invisible
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), 203–32; “Vietnamese in Second Anti-China Rally over Disputed Islands,”Agence
France Press (16 Dec. 2007). For a reposted copy: http://ykien0711.blogvis.com/2007/12/16/
894 KEN MACLEAN