EU "lacks in-depth knowledge about Chinese & Vietnamese totalitarian regimes"

The European Union lacks in-depth knowledge about the Chinese and the Vietnamese totalitarian regimes when entering the EU-Vietnam trade agreement and the handling of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) pandemic, writes Hoang Hai Nguyen.

The EU has a toxic dependence on information sources from the totalitarian regimes, leaving it overly exposed to events outside of its control. Luliu Winkler MEP, vice-chair of the European Parliament's Trade Commission said “in these troubling times on the international trade scene — due to increasing tensions and volatility — the EU is pushing for rules-based trade. We need Trade Agreements to ensure stability, protection and benefits for companies and consumers on all sides”. Bernd Lange MEP said “I am proud that the Socialists and Democrats group these past three years led the drive in the European Parliament to achieve concrete improvements for millions of workers in Vietnam”.

The EU is well aware of the human rights situation in Vietnam, for example, Pham Chi Dung, an independent journalist, was detained and charged with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandising information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. His arrest is most likely in connection to his outreach to the EU Parliament raising human rights concerns in Vietnam and for the EU to reconsider the trade agreement. “His detention sparked outrage in the EU Parliament, and president Sassoli raised his case; however the Vietnamese ambassador to the EU defended the arrest and compared Vietnam’s limitations to freedom of expression to those in place in Europe.”

A tale of the Scorpion and the Frog, just as a scorpion doesn’t forget to sting, and a totalitarian regime will not forget to control. Before getting too invested, the EU should understand the nature of the Vietnam communist regime and what the regime is and not who it is presenting to be. A few persuasive words and a very temporary and very misleading representation are all it needs for the Frog to let his guard down and forget/ignore what he already knew the Scorpion to be. Sometimes, brilliant people forget that the totalitarian regime is not their friend; it can be your friend for a while. Still, eventually, the totalitarian regime will sting you just as the Scorpion stung the Frog.

Melinda Taylor stated “the Agreement is thus built on future promises to adhere to key human rights standards, rather than a concrete record of compliance. There are, moreover, no clear provisions as concerns the timeline for such actions, and the potential consequences of non-compliance. The conclusion of the Agreement reduces the scope for using trade to obtain leverage in areas of concern, and the Agreement itself, as it stands, is likely to green-light future human rights violations.”

The EU is subjective when taking only one line of thought. In this instance, they believed that through business cooperation, they could change the behaviour of their partners without considering that these partners are capable of manoeuvring their way out of their obligation. Metaphorically speaking, the consequence of this is that when we are on the same boat with our partners, and they put a hole in the boat, then we all sink. The ideology is that the EU can influence the Vietnamese Government’s policies with trade. It could pressure its partner state into relaxing some of the draconian measures used to control their citizens. The EU thought they had the upper hand and were in control, and that their trading partner would not behave in ways that could negatively affect them.

The EU is of full knowledge that China and Vietnam are amongst the top 5 countries with strict censorship of information and oppressors of freedom of the press. All media channels are state-owned, and since late December 2019, there is fake news from the Chinese media of the spread of the virus. However, in reality, the virus from Wuhan was spreading exceptionally rapidly, causing the high number of deaths and the piled up of bodies in mass graves.

The EU and other European countries ignored information from independent sources. For instance, before the vote for the EU-Vietnam Trade Agreement, the EU Parliament was provided with the “Fighting over the Senh Field” report which the Vietnamese community in Europe has raised about the brutal attack on the people of the Dong Tam Village in Vietnam. The attack was over a land dispute between villagers and the Vietnamese authorities leading to the deaths of 4 people including an elderly leader of the Dong Tam Village. The EU Parliament blatantly disregarded the report.

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In the case of COVID-19, they only took into account information which came directly from the Chinese Government, which touted a low death rate of between 3 and 4%. It wasn’t until January 30th that the WHO released a statement regarding a new strain of COVID-19. At this time, the WHO was still recommending that countries continue to do business as usual, with no restrictions on travel and the export and import of goods. The WHO was not fulfilling its obligations to report and provide updated information promptly; this combination culminated in Europe being at the epicentre of the global pandemic.

Here we recount the following events to allow people to grasp the vision and capability of the political and administrative apparatus of the EU:

1. On February 11th 2020, the vice-chairman, Luliu Winkler, of the European Parliaments Trade Commission and a member of the EPP, issued a statement saying that trading with Vietnam with set rules would be more beneficial than not having any rules in place.

2. On February 12th 2020, the chairman, Bernd Lange, of the European Parliament Trade Commission also declared that history shows that isolation does not change a country.

3. On March 8th 2020, Italy sealed off its border to the Northern Italian cities with a total of 16 million inhabitants, at this time the number of people infected with COVID-19 had passed the 10,000 mark.

4. On March 9th 2020, the EU cut short a plenary session scheduled for four days due to COVID-19. On the same day, Vietnam issued a travel ban on the citizens of 8 EU countries.

5. On March 14th 2020, the EU was alarmed when the US closed its borders with 26 EU countries. On the same day, Austria unilaterally closed its border with Italy, despite the EU principle of no borders within the Schengen Area.

6. On March 15th 2020, Vietnam refused entry to UK citizens and citizens of 26 Schengen countries.

7. On March 16th 2020, nine countries including the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Spain closed their borders to all foreigners despite the Schengen principle of free and unrestricted movement of people within the EU.

8. On March 17th 2020, the EU coordinated a joint decision with all member states resulting in a ban on entry into the 27 member states for the following 30 days. At the same time, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark had all declared a state of emergency. The WHO had announced a global pandemic after Europe became the epicentre of COVID-19. It appeared in the media that the Italian Government was using military vehicles to transport the bodies of the deceased who have died from COVID-19 to a mass grave.

The EU has continuously been playing “catch up” leading to the delay in its handling of the crisis.

When we look at China’s relations with other countries, business and trade between Taiwan and China are tight and huge; however, Taiwan has succeeded in controlling COVID-19 far more than Europe. Taiwan was not over-dependent on the WHO to provide information on the COVID-19. Taiwan had intercepted information about an unusual epidemic in Wuhan in January and sent its experts to Wuhan to learn about the situation and to obtain uncensored information.

Interestingly, the Vietnamese communist regime did not seem to trust its neighbouring communist partner in the north and quickly went into lock-down. They probably collaborated with a hacking group APT32 to get data from the Chinese state organisations working in Beijing to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

In my opinion, if the EU had in-depth knowledge of China and Vietnam totalitarian regimes, they would have undertaken an independent assessment of unofficial sources from December 2019 to January 2020. The EU would have a more unobstructed view, and therefore prepare for and consider strategies to deal with COVID-19 from the early stages. For example, they could put in place temporary travel restrictions of Chinese nationals and impose 14 days of self-isolation or quarantine for all people entering Europe. Had they followed this course of action, the impact on EU countries would be reduced significantly. Timeliness is the key when facing a pandemic. Always stop your enemies when they are crossing the river before they reach your bank.

While the Chinese state-owned media restricts freedom of information, including negative assessments of the state, China would block Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube and other social media platforms. The websites of foreign news agencies such as the BBC, Reuters, Bloomberg, Le Monde and many others are blocked from within the country. The Chinese Government uses Twitter and other agencies under its control to manipulate information further, spreading articles from democratic countries where demonstrations are being held to discredit the reputation of democratic states. At the same time, journalists from democratic states are not freely allowed to report these events from within China and occasionally censored with “black out” during the broadcasting of controversial segments.

YouTube and Facebook are banned in China or have cooperated to Hanoi’s censorship laws. The Vietnamese and Chinese governments continue to restrict all fundamental civil and political rights, including freedom of expression that is considered to be a threat to the Communist Party. Brave civil activists have been arrested or harassed, and some international bodies have been infiltrated, the WHO being an indisputable example.

Put simply, the EU and the Western democracies are playing a league soccer tournament with China and Vietnam, when the match is played on EU turf all is well. However, when played on Chinese turf (or Vietnamese turf), the rules change and, surprisingly, the Chinese (or the Vietnamese) would bend the rules and use their hands during the game. And who would be the referee handing out red cards?

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Hoang Hai Nguyen

Hoang Hai Nguyen

Hoang Hai Nguyen is a software entrepreneur ( and a democracy activist who is based in Brussels.

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