HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A 1,000-strong mob stormed a Taiwanese steel mill in Vietnam, killing a Chinese worker and injuring 141 others, a Taiwanese official and police said Thursday, in the first deadly incident in a wave of anti-China protests prompted by Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in disputed seas.
The unrest is a major challenge for Vietnam’s authoritarian and secretive leadership, and is hurting the country’s reputation as a safe investment destination. It risks inflaming an already tense and dangerous standoff between patrol ships from both countries in the South China Sea close to the rig, which Hanoi is demanding Beijing withdraw.
Companies from Taiwan, many of which employ Chinese nationals, are bearing the brunt of the protests and violence, the most serious in years to hit the tightly controlled nation of 90 million people. In his first remarks on the crisis, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said peaceful protests over the last few days were “legitimate,” but that anyone involved in violence should be punished severely.
“This is serious,” he said in a telegram to police across the country.
Nervous Chinese expatriates were fleeing by land and air. Cambodian immigration police said 600 Chinese crossed into Cambodia over the land border in southern Vietnam on Wednesday, and that others were arriving Thursday. Taiwan’s China Airlines was adding two additional charter flights from southern Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was “greatly shocked and concerned.”
“We urge the Vietnamese government to earnestly assume responsibility, get to the bottom of the incident, punish the perpetrators harshly, and pay compensation,” Hua told a regularly scheduled news conference.
She said China holds Vietnam’s government directly responsible for the violence and will file a formal diplomatic protest.
The riot took place at a mill in Ha Tinh province in central Vietnam, about 350 kilometers (220 miles) south of Hanoi. It followed an anti-China protest by workers at the complex, operated by the conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group, one of the biggest foreign investors in Vietnam, according to Taiwan’s top representative in the country, Huang Chih-peng, and police.
Huang, who spoke to a member of the management team at the mill Thursday morning, said rioters lit fires at several buildings and hunted down the Chinese workers, but did not target the Taiwanese management. He said the head of the provincial government and its security chief were at the mill during the riot but did not “order tough enough action.”
He said he was told one Chinese citizen was killed in the riots, while another died of natural causes during the unrest. He said around 90 others were injured. Ha Tinh’s deputy police chief, Bui Dinh Quang, said the situation was “stable” on Thursday and that none of the injured, which he put at 141, had life-threatening injuries.
Anti-Chinese sentiment is never far from the surface in Vietnam, but has surged since Beijing deployed an oil rig in disputed waters about 240 kilometers (150 miles) off the Vietnamese coast on May 1, close to the Paracel Islands. The government protested the move as a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and sent a flotilla of boats, which continue to bump and collide with Chinese vessels guarding the rig.
There is no easy solution to the standoff in sight, meaning tensions and protests could continue for some time.
“Either the oil rig stays, and the Vietnamese leaders concede that they were unable to defend the nation from a serious incursion on its sovereign rights, or China backs down, moves the ship out and internationally concedes that its claims to the Paracel Islands are unjustified or, at least, in need of further discussion,” said Jason Morris-Jung from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “Both scenarios are hard to imagine.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, mobs burned and looted scores of foreign-owned factories in southern Vietnam near Ho Chi Minh City, believing they were Chinese-run, but many were actually Taiwanese or South Korean. Authorities said they had detained more than 400 people.
Low wages, especially compared to next-door China, and a reputation for safety have been driving investment in Vietnam over the last years. China is Vietnam’s biggest trading partner, and Taiwan is its fourth-biggest investor.
Vietnamese Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh said 400 factories had been damaged since the unrest began this week, and that worker protests had broken out in 22 of the country’s 63 provinces. “The investment image that we have been building over the past 20 years is turning very ugly,” he told parliament, according to an account in the state-run Labour newspaper.
Willy Lin, who heads a Hong Kong trade group representing knitwear manufacturers and exporters, said investors were hoping it was “one-off incident.”
“If this madness continues and spreads out in the next couple of days to other parts of Vietnam, definitely it will have a very damaging effect on exporters, because they might not be able to commit to their delivery day,” he said.
Hong Kong-based contract clothing maker Lever Style, which started outsourcing production to Vietnamese factories three years ago, has sent some Chinese quality assurance and technical support staff working at those factories back to China as a safety precaution, said CEO Stanley Szeto.
“You always have these little hiccups, no matter where you go,” Szeto said. “Other than our staff, we’re not really affected.”
Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong, Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Tran Van Minh in Hanoi contributed to this report.
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