Vietnam, China and the Boat People
© 2007 by Peter Brush
The war in Vietnam ended as it began: an armed conflict between Vietnamese factions. The price of losing a civil war is always high. Some saw no future in the new Communist state. Many left, either by choice or by force. The exodus began in 1975 and continued into the 1980s. Although commonly referred to as ‘boat people,’ refugees departed Vietnam by air, land and sea. Different groups left for different reasons. The largest of these refugee groups were ethnic Chinese known in Vietnam as Hoa. This article describes the Chinese minority in Vietnam and examines what caused hundreds of thousands of them to leave their homeland after the war.
The histories of China and Vietnam have always been connected. China ruled Vietnam as a colony for a thousand years. Since the beginning of the Christian era Chinese officials, soldiers, and colonists settled in Vietnam. Skillful and industrious, the Chinese were especially successful in commerce and industry. After the French conquest in the nineteenth century, Chinese and French interests shared control of the Vietnamese economy. Under the French, the Chinese in Vietnam enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and held special economic privileges. Chinese migration to Vietnam rose during the colonial period. The Chinese in Vietnam were considered foreigners by the Vietnamese and their assimilation was discouraged.
In 1954, as a result of the Geneva Accords, French control ended and Vietnam was partitioned. The Chinese owned most private factories and processing plants. Chinese-owned commercial networks extended to all areas of the country. The Vietnam war stimulated growth in much of the South Vietnamese economy, resulting in important Chinese roles in a variety of new areas such as banking, cement, steel, and construction of military bases. Chinese in the south looked to Taiwan for leadership. These southern Hoa were mostly urban and engaged in trade and industry. They took advantage of the flood of American capital associated with the war. By 1972, 28 of 32 banks in Saigon were Chinese-owned. According to a South Vietnamese government official, the Chinese ruled the economy “from top to bottom.” Hoa owned most of the factories and plants. The rice trade was almost entirely in their hands.  In North Vietnam, by contrast, the Chinese comprised less than one per cent of the population, and did not occupy a dominant position in the national economy.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army completed its conquest of the south. The refugee flow began in April with the fall of Saigon. This can be seen as an extension of the defeat of the South Vietnamese Army and general collapse of the government of Vietnam (GVN). With the final outcome no longer in doubt, in a short time 130,000 Vietnamese who had been associated with the Americans and GVN were evacuated, first by air and later by sea. Their destination was the United States. They left mostly in small fishing vessels and in secret, in order to avoid detection and punishment by the Communist government.
After mid-1978 the composition of the boat people changed. While the first group was predominately ethnic Vietnamese, the second group was mostly Hoa. Unlike the earlier Vietnamese, the Hoa left in large vessels, some carrying thousands of passengers. They no longer left by stealth but with government knowledge and under government supervision. In some cases over 85% of the refugees fleeing Vietnam were Chinese.
This change is due to the unique status of the Chinese community in Vietnam. They comprised Vietnam’s largest minority, numbering about 1.3 million by war’s end. Historically, the government of China maintained strong ties to the Chinese community in Vietnam, acting as spokesman for the Hoa and responding to their requests for help. Although Vietnamese rulers had long sought to exert control over Chinese immigration, little was done to interfere with their cultural and economic life. After the partition of Vietnam in 1954, both Saigon and Hanoi sought an end to the favored status of the Hoa and their full integration into Vietnamese society.
Saigon took an especially firm hand. Ethnic Chinese in Vietnam had traditionally retained their Chinese citizenship. In 1956 Saigon unilaterally imposed Vietnamese citizenship on all Vietnam-born Chinese and threatened to deport to Taiwan those unwilling to cooperate. The previous year Hanoi and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) reached an agreement whereby Hoa in the north would be encouraged to voluntarily adopt Vietnamese citizenship. The status of Hoa in the south would be decided after reunification. The position of the Hoa in the north was enviable: they could keep their Chinese citizenship, visit China, and were not subject to conscription.
After unification in 1975, the goal of the Communist government was to bring order to a society ravaged by years of war. The primary problem for the new regime was to institute changes in the economic sector. Western countries provided almost no assistance. Aid from China was greatly reduced, thereby limiting available development options. The reconstruction policies adopted, which included the formation of new economic zones and the nationalization of private enterprise, contributed to the exodus of the Hoa.
The end of the war presented the Vietnamese government with new opportunities to reduce the power and influence of the Hoa and finally force their integration into the new nation. In early 1976, the government ordered all Chinese to register their citizenship status. Those who insisted on retaining Chinese citizenship were taxed heavily and discriminated against occupationally. In September, Chinese newspapers were ordered closed, followed by the closing of Chinese-run schools. In 1978 the Vietnamese government announced that it intended its Chinese citizens to become citizens of Vietnam at some point in the future.
Fighting during the war with the United States had badly disrupted food production. Hundreds of thousands of peasants had moved from the countryside to the cities to escape military operations and to gain employment in service jobs associated with the large American military presence. The Communists estimated there were three million unemployed persons in the city of Saigon alone. The government's first priority was the relocation of people to the countryside in order to reduce unemployment and restore food production. The South was to resume its historic role as the breadbasket of the nation. The means to accomplish these goals was the creation of New Economic Areas (NEAs) in the countryside. NEAs were to be created in under populated areas in the Mekong Delta, the central coast, the Central Highlands, and the piedmont regions along the Cambodian border.
Formal Chinese-Vietnamese relations were still friendly. In 1976 the Cambodian Khmer Rouge began an anti-Vietnamese propaganda campaign. Vietnam wanted Chinese neutrality in any conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia. At the end of 1976 there was a power struggle at the Fourth Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party. The pro-Soviet faction gained influence while the former pro-Chinese faction was purged. The Vietnamese also decided to adopt a more forceful position in their border disputes with Cambodia. Up to the beginning of 1977, Hanoi’s measurers to curb the economic influence of its Chinese citizens had been gradual and not drastic. Hanoi’s main goal was recovery, and attacking the Chinese community was more likely to hinder than further attainment of this goal. With China offering political support to Cambodia and the Soviet Union showing increasing willingness to assist Vietnam financially, the position of the Hoa in Vietnam was about to change.
In February 1977, newspapers in the Peoples Republic of China called for a "revolutionary united front of all patriotic parties, people, and Overseas Chinese." One year later China held out the possibility of granting Chinese citizenship to Chinese in Vietnam. Further, it announced its opposition to any attempt to compel overseas Chinese to change their citizenship and claimed it was duty-bound to protect those who decided to keep Chinese citizenship. At the same time, Hanoi took punitive measures against Chinese residents who had failed to obtain citizenship cards: they were fired from their jobs and had their residence registrations and food rations cancelled. They were denied jobs in the public sector and prohibited from working in retail trades or agriculture or moving from place to place.
China raised the citizenship issue at the same time as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) was taking control over the private economic sector in the south of Vietnam. The Vietnamese took action against the Hoa because they felt threatened; Vietnam was drifting toward war with China, its traditional enemy. The Vietnamese government began placing restrictions on the free movement of its Chinese citizens. Many Hoa were dismissed from their jobs. According to Le Van Ban, a Hoa who left Vietnam at this time, "Relations between Vietnam and China were deteriorating rapidly, war was fast becoming a real possibility and the Hoa knew they would be the first to suffer. In the summer of 1978 the Hoa were not expelled. They fled in panic." For these urban dwellers, the prospect of life as agricultural workers in the harsh environment of rural New Economic Zones, coupled with the threat of a Sino-Vietnamese war, provided sufficient reason to leave Vietnam. For many of the Hoa, communism wasn’t the issue. They understood there was little difference between Vietnam’s New Economic Zones and China’s state farms. They chose China because “they would rather be oppressed by their compatriots than by the Vietnamese.”
By the end of 1978, 265,000 Hoa from the north had crossed the border into China. Beijing reacted to this exodus, claiming that Vietnam was trying to drive all ethnic Chinese out of the country. The Chinese announced the cancellation of several aid projects earmarked for Vietnam. Hanoi responded with counter-charges: much of the unrest among the Hoa was the result of deliberate Chinese incitement. The Chinese embassy in Hanoi was specifically charged with fomenting suspicion and disorder by spreading false rumors. Vietnamese suspicions of Chinese intentions were heightened in June 1978 when, without consulting the Vietnamese, the Chinese sent ships to Haiphong and Ho Chi Minh City to “repatriate victimized Chinese residents.” Vietnamese government restrictions on the Hoa increased. Finally, after the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in February 1979, Vietnamese authorities gave the Hoa the choice of leaving Vietnam or moving to designated rural areas. Most chose to leave the country. In the north, it was the poor state of Sino-Vietnamese relations that caused the departure of the Hoa. 
It was different in the south. Immediately after the end of the war the Communists had done little to alter the south’s economic structure. In early 1978 they decided to eradicate the economy’s capitalist aspects. On March 23, paramilitary forces searched, ransacked, and confiscated the assets of 50,000 retailers in Cholon, the Chinese section of Ho Chi Minh City. The next day all wholesale trading and large business activities were outlawed. A week later all private trade was forbidden. Those who lost their properties and businesses were ordered to move to the new economic zones in rural areas. Cash and bank accounts exceeding a modest maximum were seized or frozen in banks. The Chinese were the principal targets of the ruthless government crackdown and they suffered the most. In Ho Chi Minh City the Chinese resisted. The result was violent clashes between police and Chinese in the streets of Cholon. By April 1978, boat people were leaving the south at the rate of 5,000 per month.
Vietnam continued to restrict the movement and generally harass Chinese in the south. In June 1979, Hanoi agreed to allow the departure of Hoa who wanted to leave. Thirty thousand Hoa registered with the government during the first week. The Communist government of Vietnam apparently saw this exodus as an opportunity to not only reduce the size and influence of the Chinese community, but also to profit from it. The Public Security Bureau registered and approved the applications of people seeking to leave Vietnam. Applicants had to pay a fee of several ounces of gold, per person. One estimate of how much the government made from this process is 115 million dollars, or over 2.5 percent of the country’s gross national product. Hanoi never admitted the requirement for Hoa to pay in gold for the right to leave Vietnam, but the Hoa understood the policy quite well. That Van Nhon, a formerly wealthy businessman from Saigon, explained that “Since we refused to go to the countryside to produce as farmers and sooner or later would have fled anyway, the government decided it might as well collect our gold and let us go.”
Ethnic Vietnamese were also leaving Vietnam during this period. They typically made their escape in small boats, barely seaworthy, and with meager provisions. These departures were hazardous and death was common. There was an international outcry against Vietnamese governmental policies that allowed such a situation to continue. Consequently, Hoa secured passage on larger and safer boats. Once out of Vietnamese waters the refugees sailed from port to port, trying with little success to obtain permission to land. Even Hoa who had earlier fled to China took to the sea after finding life on state farms in China no more attractive than the conditions they experienced in Vietnam. 
Vietnamese officials claim their treatment of the Hoa can be favorably compared to the treatment of Japanese Americans by the United States government during World War II. They publicly deny any formal role in the exodus and insist all the boat people left Vietnam illegally. Dr. Ton That Tung, a senior Vietnamese health official, attributed the exodus to poor economic conditions caused by the war, and to Chinese propaganda. According to Tung, the United States was the ultimate cause: “Our economy was destroyed by the war. You [the U.S.] fought the war. The destroyed economy is the reason they are leaving.” For the Vietnamese, it was more politically expedient to blame the plight of the Hoa on the United States than to acknowledge the reality of its harsh anti-Chinese policies.
In the aftermath of a long war, anti-Vietnam feelings still ran high in the United States and the Vietnamese explanation was bitterly denounced. Newsweek magazine, in its July 2, 1979 issue, reported that Hanoi apparently had decided to expel most or all of its citizens of Chinese extraction, and to make them pay for the privilege. A U.S. government official made the connection between the racial overtones of this policy and the plight of European Jews under the Nazis. "We have talked for years about never allowing the horrors of World War II to be inflicted again. Now they are being inflicted on tens of thousands of people by a government that is utterly brutal and cynical." The same week, Time magazine described the Vietnamese actions as "a barbarous policy of racism." U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale agreed the policy was both "brutal and cynical." An editorial in The New Republic claimed that "today bayonets are employed in driving them out."  The Department of State Bulletin of December, 1979, claimed Hanoi drove out the Chinese in order to rid itself of a socially undesirable class and, after mismanaging the economy, to acquire gold in order to pay for badly needed imports.
Over one million people, both ethnic Vietnamese and Hoa, left Vietnam after the end of the war. Monthly departure rates varied, with a peak departure of 55,000 in June, 1979. They landed in various countries, including China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Around 450,000 Hoa went to China. In June, 1979, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry officials revealed their willingness to get rid of all the Chinese in Vietnam; the problem was the lack of countries willing to accept them. Vietnamese determination coupled with Hoa desperation resulted in the largest exodus of refugees in modern history up to that time.
The flight of Hoa from Vietnam reduced the Chinese population of Cholon from 72 percent to 49 percent. After 1980, the Vietnamese adopted policies designed to improve relations with the remaining Chinese population (about 100,000). Cholon, renamed Sector 5, once again is a vibrant Chinese community. Schools teach Chinese as a foreign language. Penal laws have been issued in Chinese. Sixty percent of Cholon deputies on the People’s Council are Hoa. The Chinese have always been among the most productive elements of Vietnamese society. As Vietnamese officials seek to make their economy more productive, support by the Hoa has become important  Today Cholon is a popular destination for tourists from China and Taiwan. According to the most recent census, Hoa number about 900,000, or about one percent of Vietnam’s population 
For further reading:
There is no good book-length treatment of this topic. Useful journal articles include E. S. Unger, “The Struggle Over the Chinese Community in Vietnam, 1946-1986” in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 4, Winter,1987-1988 and Pao-min Chang, “The Sino-Vietnamese Dispute over the Ethnic Chinese” in The China Quarterly, Vol. 90, June, 1982.
 The war in Vietnam fits the definition of a civil war: “A period of sustained armed fighting in a country between two groups competing for coercive power. Both sides must be recognized by other states.” Frank Bealey, The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science (Malden, MA: Blackwell), 1999, p. 69.
 Charles Benoit, ‘Vietnam’s “Boat People”’ in David W. P. Elliott (ed.), The Third Indochina Conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview), 1981, p. 140.
 Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled (NY: Praeger), 1967, vol. 1, p. 196.
 E. S. Unger, “The Struggle Over the Chinese Community in Vietnam, 1946-1986” in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 4, Winter, 1987-1988, p. 598.
 Vu Thuy Hoang, “Chinese Exodus Ends Long Hold on S. Vietnam’s Economy,” in The Washington Post, July 20, 1978, p. A15.
 Unger, p. 606.
 Hoang, p. A15.
 Unger, p. 598.
 Harry F. Young, “Refugees – An International Obligation” in Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 79, No. 2033, p. 14.
 Charles Benoit, ‘Vietnam’s “Boat People”’ in David W. P. Elliott (ed.), The Third Indochina Conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview), 1981, p. 140.
 Ronald J. Cima (ed.), Vietnam : a Country Study (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office), 1981, p. 93, 102.
 Pao-min Chang, “The Sino-Vietnamese Dispute over the Ethnic Chinese” in The China Quarterly, Vol. 90, June, 1982, pp. 195-196.
 Ibid., p. 196, 198.
 E. S. Unger, “The Struggle Over the Chinese Community in Vietnam, 1946-1986” in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 4, Winter, 1987-1988, p. 601.
 Chang, p. 200.
 Charles Benoit, "Vietnam's 'Boat People'" in David W. P. Elliott, ed., The Third Indochina Conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview Press), 1981, pp. 144-145.
 Duiker, pp. 5-6.
 Ibid. p. 6, 7, 14.
 E. S. Unger, "Struggle over the Chinese Community in Vietnam, 1946-1986" in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 4, Winter 1987-88, pp. 608.
 Benoit, pp. 150-151.
 Hoang, p. A15.
 Ungar, p. 609.
 William J. Duiker, China and Vietnam: The Roots of Conflict (Berkeley : Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California), 1986, p. 75.
 Benoit, pp. 151-152.
 Chang, pp. 206-207.
 Chang, p. 208.
 Benoit, p. 153.
 B. Martin Tsamenyi, ‘The “Boat People”: Are They Refugees?’ in Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 5, No. 3, August, 1983, p. 355.
 Benoit, pp. 160-161.
 Benoit, p. 139.
 “Hanoi Official Here Says Assistance From U.S. Could Stem Exodus” in The Washington Post, May 8, 1979, p. A16.
 Newsweek, July 2, 1979, p. 42; Time, July 2, 1979, p. 39; The New Republic, August 18, 1979, p.16.
 “Refugees – An International Obligation” in Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 79, No. 2033, December, 1979, p. 15.
 Nguyen Van Canh, Vietnam Under Communism, 1975-1982 (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press), 1983, p. 61.
 Chang, p. 227.
 Canh, p. 136.
 Mark A. Ashwill, Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press), 2005, p. 12.
 Chang, 227.
 Unger, pp. 611-612.
 Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook accessed July 15, 2007, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/vm.html#People.