HANOI May 16 As a thousand Vietnamese rioters
stormed his factory on Tuesday night, smashing windows and
ripping down Chinese-language signs, Taiwanese executive Henry
Yeh hid with a colleague in the back of a fire truck, clutching
the only weapon he could find: a golf club.
"With that many people surrounding us, it was useless. I was
afraid they would kill us," said Yeh, 27, who works for a Taiwan
textile company at an industrial park in the suburbs of Ho Chi
Yeh and his colleague eventually escaped unscathed. Others
were not so fortunate.
What started as heated but peaceful nationwide protests
against Chinese oil-drilling in a patch of the South China Sea
claimed by Vietnam exploded into two days of rioting that left
hundreds of Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean factories damaged or
destroyed. The Vietnamese government says one person was killed
but a doctor at a hospital near one area of rioting said he had
seen 21 dead bodies and that at least 100 people were wounded.
Anger over China's maritime claims sparked the unrest, but
it was also fuelled by local grievances and exploited by
criminal elements intent on looting and vandalism, witnesses
told Reuters. The violence quickly spread, apparently
wrong-footing the police who struggled to disperse mobs of
hundreds and even thousands.
The first factories hit were in Binh Duong and Dong Nai, two
provinces indistinguishable from Ho Chi Minh City's manic
sprawl. The worst violence took place in Ha Tinh province, 1,300
km (807 miles) further north, where pitched battles between
Vietnamese rioters and Chinese workers at a big Taiwanese steel
project filled a hospital with dead and wounded.
Some ruined factories were still smouldering on Thursday and
hundreds of foreign workers, fearing for their safety, fled from
the country by road and air.
Factories can be rebuilt. Much harder to repair is the
confidence of foreign investors attracted by Vietnam's strong
economic growth and stable government.
The scope and ferocity of the riots have shaken that
government. It has always tried to keep tight controls on
anti-Chinese protests, for fear that nationalistic fervour might
morph into anger against corruption, land grabs and soaring
But the noisy anti-Chinese protests that began last Sunday
in Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities were the
biggest in decades. The government tolerated them initially,
apparently wanting to send a message to China, while allowing
people to let off steam. But it may have miscalculated how much
larger, more focused and more violent the protests would become.
By Tuesday morning, protesters had gathered outside Chinese-
and Taiwanese-owned factories at the Vietnam Singapore
Industrial Park (VSIP) in Binh Duong, considered one of the
country's best industrial parks.
The ring leaders pressured factory workers to join the
protests, said the general director of a Western company at
VSIP, who requested anonymity.
By mid-morning, crowds were vandalising Chinese and
Taiwanese factories nearby. "It was ratcheting up as the day
went on," he said.
The crowd swelled into the thousands, he said, then atomized
into hundreds-strong mobs which rampaged through the park
One mob arrived at the front gate of his factory, which
employs about 100 workers. "They left after they were sure that
we were not a Chinese factory," he said. Afterwards, he sent his
workers home and shut the factory.
Witnesses told Reuters the violence seemed coordinated, with
men on motor-bikes scoping out targets then calling in the mob
by mobile phone.
"There were definite instigators who were using the protest
as a way to engage in criminal behaviour. I don't think this
just sort of organically happened," said the Western company
Little or no protection was provided by the police,
according to witnesses of the Binh Duong violence. Instead,
factories hung signs over their gates expressing solidarity with
Vietnam, hoping it would deter attacks.
"Down with China," read a sign at one Taiwanese factory.
As night fell on Tuesday, a much larger police presence was
seen entering the area. Overnight, however, unrest spread to
neighbouring Dong Nai province, taking many companies there by
surprise and opening new fronts for the hard-pressed police.
At 10:30 p.m., anticipating trouble at its petrochemical and
fiber material plant, Formosa Plastics Group called the police,
who were overwhelmed by the rioters on motor-bikes, who broke in
just before midnight.
In a four-hour spree of theft and vandalism, they robbed the
offices and company dormitory of televisions, computers and
other valuables. "The looters claimed to be patriotic, but
actually broke into Chinese-owned factories in the province for
stealing and destruction," the company said in a statement.
Many foreign workers fled the area, despite reports of
roadblocks put up by rioters. Taiwanese businessman Chong
Ming-cheng, 50, disguised himself as a Vietnamese worker and
rode out on a motor-bike. "The Vietnamese didn't really notice
me," he said.
One foreign businessman told Reuters Westerners helped
Taiwanese flee at least one industrial park in the trunks of
Others spent a terrifying Tuesday night holed up in besieged
Dexter Hsu, a product developer at a Taiwan-owned footwear
company in Binh Duong, hid with Chinese and other Taiwanese
workers at a company dorm, its doors barricaded with furniture.
Earlier that day, thousands of flag-waving Vietnamese had
entered the factory, which employs 9,000 Vietnamese and about
100 Taiwanese or Chinese.
"We took turns watching out for intruders," said Hsu. "We
were too scared to even turn on the lights." The next day, Hsu
and his foreign colleagues sneaked out a back door into cars
with tinted windows and drove to the safety of Ho Chi Minh City.
"Overall, this is a terrifying situation," said Hsu. "Most
Vietnamese can't tell the difference between Taiwan and China.
They generally think Taiwan is simply a province of China."
Wednesday morning came, and the violence spread in Dong Nai.
At the factory of Simon Shen, a Chinese employee at Taiwanese
shrimp feed firm Grobest Industrial, employees took down all
signs with Chinese characters, then convinced a mob outside that
the company was American.
"I don't remember if they carried sticks or other weapons,
but if I walked out, I would have been stampeded to death," said
Shen. "I saw several policemen walking around. But what could
The Grobest factory was spared, but a neighbouring Chinese
one was looted.
"TREAT CHINESE LIKE THEY TREAT US"
By Wednesday evening, 460 companies in Binh Duong had
reported some damage, according to a report by the province's
police cited in the state-run Thanh Nien (Young People)
At least 40 policemen were injured by rock-throwing
"extremists" and 599 people arrested, said the newspaper.
But Wednesday's worst violence was in Ha Tinh province, far
to the north, at a giant steel plant under construction by
Formosa Plastics Group, Taiwan's biggest investor in Vietnam.
There, anger over Chinese muscle-flexing in the remote South
China Sea commingled with local grievances.
Nguyen Van Phong, 56, a farmer in Ha Tinh, accused the steel
plant of grabbing land and inundating the area with Chinese
workers. "We've been angry with China for a long time," he said.
A factory worker in Ha Tinh, speaking to Reuters by phone,
said five Vietnamese protesters entered the Formosa complex on
Wednesday afternoon to ask the workers to join them. Rumours
circulated among the crowd that two of the Vietnamese had been
beaten to death by Chinese.
Soon, about 5,000 Vietnamese were battling 1,000 Chinese at
the entrance before setting parts of the plant ablaze.
"I saw 13 Chinese dead and dozens of them injured," said the
Ha Tinh factory worker, who asked Reuters to withhold her name.
"Vietnamese workers didn't want to send the Chinese to hospital.
They said, 'Let them be. We treat Chinese like they treated us'.
But then the police came and took them to hospital."
Up to 21 people were killed and hundreds injured, a local
doctor told Reuters. Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh
confirmed one death and described media reports and accounts on
social networking sites of higher casualties as "groundless".
Ha Tinh police said they had detained 76 people as of
By Thursday morning, hundreds of Chinese were pouring out of
Vietnam into Cambodia. Others were crowding onto flights to
China and Taiwan.
But many laid low in Vietnam at ravaged industrial estates
whose future looks uncertain.
Henry Yeh, the Taiwanese textile executive, said some
smaller Taiwanese companies now talked about pulling out of
Vietnam rather than making costly repairs. Bigger companies
would stay but freeze investment plans, he said.
Belatedly, riot police were out in force in the industrial
estates. Many factories have remained closed, while others were
already adapting to life in post-riot Vietnam.
A notice outside the Grobest factory said it is closed, but
production continued inside on Thursday. The company now used
local transport to move its goods, said employee Cindy Chu.
"We don't dare to use our company's vehicles," she said.
(Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Reporting by Martin Petty,
and Ho Binh Minh in Vietnam; Yimou Lee and Nikki Sun in Hong
Kong; John Ruwitch in Shanghai and Faith Hung in Taipei.;
Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Tarrant.)