Every Sunday morning in May 2016 saw an atmosphere of martial law in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. State telecom companies blocked transmission of the words “Formosa”, “dead fish” and “protest”. Police seemed to be everywhere, and the few die-hards who turned up to protest got bundled away before they could march a single block.
A 100-ton wave of dead fish had crashed into the beaches of Vietnam’s impoverished central coast and driven the nation into a frenzy. Millions of fingers soon pointed to an enormous steel plant financed by the Formosa Plastics Group — a petrochemical octopus based in Taipei. No one in Vietnam knew much about Formosa’s history, but they feared and loathed it all the same.
The Taiwanese connection triggered memories of the last national environmental scandal in 2010. Then, a Taiwanese firm called Vedan got fingered for wiping out all life in the Thi Vai River by funnelling toxic waste through an underwater pipe for an un-interrupted fourteen years. It came to a head when the river began eating through the steel hulls of Japanese ships docked downstream. State-owned supermarkets and media organisations declared jihad on Vedan-brand MSG. But beyond that brief and successful boycott, the city generally ignored the Möbius strip of factory strikes, land battles and environmental deprivations that colour life in rural Vietnam.
Formosa’s fishkill changed all that last year. That spring, grumblings on social media gave way to street protests. Vietnam’s cloistered urban class suddenly cared again about dead fish; the shift caught the authorities unawares.