Winning the Hearts & Minds of Young Vietnamese

Note:  If you’re an employee of the US State Department, do not pass go, do not collect $200, close this tab immediately.  This post contains a “sensitive” Wikileaks cable that originated in the US Embassy-Hanoi and commentary on the same.  If you read it, you are breaking the law, not to mention disobeying  Madam Secretary. 

Please pardon the use of this nasty wartime slogan but it is so apropos.  This post and the Wikileaks diplomatic cable on which it’s based are about the US Mission’s charm offensive and the use of educational outreach activities designed to “win the hearts and minds” of young people here.  Ultimate goal?  To become the most popular kid on the block and to maximize American influence on Vietnam’s educational system and thus on the future shape of Vietnamese society.

The cable below is worth reprinting in its entirety.  The date:  Three years ago today.  The scene: the American Center in the Rose Garden Annex of the US Embassy in Hanoi.  The context: a “wide-ranging discussion” following the airing of the Secretary’s speech on internet freedom.  The underlying assumption of this type of interaction between Embassy officials and young Vietnamese – with the requisite rhetorical questions and predetermined outcomes – is  that the American Way is the Best Way.  On a micro-level it’s yet another example of do as we say, not as we do.

It’s also a crystal clear example of an American Center event as an exercise in soft power and is completely consistent with other outreach activities of the US Mission in Vietnam, albeit more explicitly political.   At many of these events you can be sure that a US Mission staff member is assiduously taking notes, some of which find their way into cables to other missions and Foggy Bottom (i.e., the State Department in Washington, D.C.).

The American Center

What is the American Center? It’s a “free information center providing specialized, accurate and authoritative information and programming on the United States for the Vietnamese public.”  Well, not exactly “authoritative information.”  It is, after all, a component of the USG’s public diplomacy mission – whose goal is to ensure that Vietnamese (and other foreigners) see mainly the good, not the bad and ugly, of America.  (There’s also an American Center in the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City.) 

It’s not exactly what Sen. J. William Fulbright had in mind when he proposed the creation of what has become the U.S. government’s flagship scholarship program. Fulbright once said about the objectives of educational exchange: “Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is–not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is — which by my reckoning is an ‘image’ of which no American need be ashamed.”  (From the foreword to The Fulbright Program: A History)

Do As We Say, Not as We Do (aka A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?)

Given the US government’s many human rights violations in the post-World War II era, including the years since 9/11 (think torture, extraordinary rendition aka “torture by proxy,” the murder of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, ad nauseum), I find it ironic that a “Human Rights Officer” led the discussion.  It reminds me of the expression “those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”  A lot of glass was broken that January afternoon back in 2010.  As a  friend put it. “Where’s America’s moral ground regarding human rights?  Our President has assumed the right to murder anyone anywhere in the world at his whim.  And he’s done it, leaked to the press the ‘kill list’ he keeps in the White House, brags about it.”

Only If We Agree With What They Say

Or, as Peter Van Buren, the State Department whistleblower (and, coincidentally, former head of the Educational information Branch and director of Education USA at the U.S. Department of State) who worked for a year at a forward operating base in Iraq and wrote a book about his experience, put it: ‎”Better, so the message goes, to sip the Kool Aid and keep one’s head down, while praising the courage of Chinese dissidents and Egyptian bloggers. The State Department is all about wanting its words, not its actions, to speak loudest.”  Hy·poc·ri·sy (noun) \hi-ˈpä-krə-sē also hī-\:  a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not.

Mr. Van Buren’s price for becoming a whistleblower?  As he wrote in Left Behind: What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012 “My case also illustrates the crude use of ‘national security’ as a tool within government to silence dissent. State’s Diplomatic Security office, its internal Stasi, monitored my home email and web usage for months, used computer forensics to spelunk for something naughty in my online world, placed me on a Secret Service Threat Watch list, examined my finances, and used hacker tools to vacuum up my droppings around the web — all, by the way, at an unknown cost to the taxpayers. Diplomatic Security even sent an agent around to interview my neighbors, fishing for something to use against me in a full-spectrum deep dive into my life, using the new tools and power available to government not to stop terrorists, but to stop me.”

Or, as Glenn Greenwald put it in a recent article about the detention of Imran Khan, the most popular politician in Pakistan, a vocal critic of US drone strikes and possibly that country’s next prime minister, with party’s supporters   “What makes this most ironic is that the US loves to sermonize to the world about the need for open ideas and political debate. In April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lectured the planet on how ‘those societies that believe they can be closed to change, to ideas, cultures, and beliefs that are different from theirs, will find quickly that in our internet world they will be left behind.’”

But I digress – sort of.  And now for the main event, the 2010 Wikileaks cable entitled Many Vietnamese Youth Trust Big Brother to Monitor the Internet.  As with many diplomatic cables, this one received wide distribution, including the US Embassy in Beijing, Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Rangoon, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, and Vientiane, as well as the US Consulate General in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, and Shenyang, in addition to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C.

Stay tuned for more commentary and analysis about education-related Wikileaks cables from the US Embassy-Hanoi and Consulate General-HCMC in Vietnam.  There aren’t many but they sure are interesting and revealing.


P.S.:  Speaking of free speech, American-style, can you guess, dear reader, how long a link to Peter Van Buren’s blog would last on any US Mission-Vietnam Facebook page?  Or whether his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People has found an honored place on the shelves of either American Center library?  I thought so…  The “open society” has its limits.


REF: A: STATE 4203; B: 09 HANOI 909


R 270328Z JAN 10


¶1.  (SBU) Summary: During a wide-ranging discussion at the American Center in Hanoi following the airing of the Secretary’s speech on internet freedom (Ref A) several participants parroted the Party line that the internet could be used to spread information that is harmful to Vietnamese society and should therefore be blocked.

Others, however, offered a contrary view, complaining that there is no true freedom of speech in Vietnam. A similar range of views were expressed on the broader topic of the media, with some participants supporting some degree of government censorship in the name of social order and others voicing frustration at the lack of press freedom.  Most participants agreed that censorship of social networking and foreign news sites is wrong and expressed disbelief that the government would read their private e-mail orrespondence.

“The line between freedom and censorship is always moving in Vietnam,” one participant noted. Most participants said they had access to high-speed internet at home and spend an average of 3-5 hours a day online. End Summary.

¶2.  (SBU) On Friday January 22, approximately 40 Vietnamese young people (ranging between the ages 20-30) gathered at the American Center in Hanoi to watch clips from the Secretary’s speech on Internet Freedom and discuss how the topic related specifically to Vietnam. After showing about 30 minutes of the speech, including a number of segments critical of Vietnam, the Embassy’s Human Rights Officer led a discussion about the role of the internet in the lives of Vietnamese youth and what involvement — if any — the government should have in monitoring and censoring its content.

¶3.  (SBU) Expecting the audience to be reserved and hesitant to comment on such a sensitive topic, Poloff began with a series of questions relating to internet access and common web activities.  Most of the audience said that they have high-speed ADSL connections in their homes. Those who don’t rely on internet cafes and their college campuses to go online. The majority of the audience said they have g-mail or yahoo e-mail addresses and spend an average of three to five hours a day online chatting with friends, e-mailing, gaming, catching up on pop culture, and blogging.

¶3.  (SBU) Participants offered various opinions as to why Facebook remained blocked in Vietnam (Ref B). Some blamed “technical difficulties,” while others acknowledged that the government was likely the source of the problem. All participants expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation, and noted that they use work-arounds to maintain their Facebook pages.  The participants were nearly unanimous that they would not to convert from Facebook to locally hosted social networking tools like; many laughed at the prospect. (Note: At the start of the event, there was a small celebration to commemorate the American Center’s Facebook page exceeding the mark of 1,000 fans in just over a month’s time. The speed of reaching 1,000 fans is notable given that the Facebook homepage has remained blocked in Vietnam throughout this time period. End Note.)

¶4.  (SBU) There was a long pause when Poloff asked what type of content should be allowed on the internet. Eventually a young man asserted that politically sensitive content and pornography should be censored, arguing that it is permissible to oppose GVN policies but not specific policymakers. Another participant added that the GVN does not have hard and fast rules on internet censorship, but that every citizen should recognize the impact their online comments could have and should therefore be “constructive.”

HANOI 00000090  002 OF 002

¶5.  (SBU) Another young man offered a dissenting opinion, however, arguing that because the government controls all forms of  media, Vietnam’s citizens don’t have the chance to raise their voices. “I am very frustrated,” he continued, lamenting that “We are all missing out on good opportunities.”  He specifically asked what the U.S. Embassy could do to “improve the situation.” Poloff noted the Department organizes public discussion sessions and also works behind the scenes in meetings such as the annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam to raise its concerns related to free speech.

A third young participant countered that most Vietnamese are easy going and very satisfied with life as provided by the government, which ranks as one of the highest in the world. Vietnam’s government, he insisted — becoming less laid back — does not limit the voice of its people; rather, some people “abuse their rights” and are threats to the government that the government is correct to suppress. Still another participant cautioned that “chaos” would ensue if people were allowed to openly criticize the government.  “Change should happen slowly,” he averred, adding that freedom of speech should be “restricted sometimes.” Another individual commented that the line between censorship and internet freedom is not fixed, insisting with disapproval that it is “OK in the U.S. to slander another person and post pornography on the internet.”

¶6.  (SBU) Poloff pushed the participants on this point, asking whether it was permissible to voice opposition to GVN economic policies and whether the government should be allowed to read personal e-mail or text messages. Most bristled at the idea of the Government blocking news sites and blogs that do not comment on political news and reading their private messages. Many expressed shock when Poloff said that the Government of China routinely blocks internet sites such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and the New York Times. Most participants said that Vietnam should not follow China’s example. Poloff shared the story of leading dissident Dr. Pham Hong Son, who was jailed from 2002 – 2006 for translating and posting online a State Department pamphlet entitled “What is Democracy” from the Embassy’s homepage. Most participants said they had not heard of Dr. Son, and expressed disbelief that he would imprisoned for such an activity.

¶7.  (SBU) Comment: The fact that such a wide-ranging discussion occurred, following the airing of a speech at times critical of the GVN’s actions, is notable in itself. While participants articulated a variety of opinions, all said that they depend on the internet to remain in touch with the larger world.  While several vocal participants proclaimed that they had no problem with the government censoring political content, most expressed apprehension when confronted with more specific questions about the government’s role in censoring news media and personal blogging and rejected as illegitimate the notion that security services could be reading their own e-mails.  Most participants acknowledged the importance of a free media in fighting corruption and environmental degradation. Of the quarter of the participants that offered views, the group appeared evenly divided between those who supported the Secretary’s message and those that argued in defense of Vietnam’s position. To conclude the event, PAS Officer noted that the attendees had just participated in the exercise of free speech and hoped that they would see the benefit of this type of open exchange.



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