Radicalization of the Viet Minh

01

Dec
2021

The beginning of Saigon politics

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One of the publishing ventures subsidized by the Sarraut government was a French-language Saigon newspaper, La Tribune Indigène, begun in 1917, which soon became the mouthpiece of Bui Quang Chieu (1872–1945), a man from the Mekong delta who in the 1890s had studied in France and obtained a degree in  agricultural engineering. From 1897 he was employed by the colonial govern- ment as an agricultural expert at various assignments in Indochina. He became a  French citizen and eventually owned extensive Mekong ricelands. By the mid  1910s, he had developed a network of acquaintances among Vietnamese admin- istrators, businessmen, landowners, and intellectuals who were keen to give  substance to Sarraut’s rhetoric. He was especially concerned to expand Vietnamese involvement in economic enterprise as the basis of promoting par- ticipation in colonial politics. He was active in organizing mutual aid societies in  which Vietnamese could pool their resources for business initiatives. One of his early collaborators had, at My Tho in 1915, built the first Vietnamese-owned rice mill to compete with the Chinese businesses that monopolized the rice trade. Bui Quang Chieu believed that, fixated on the fossilized protectorate, the French were perpetuating lamentable aspects of traditional Vietnamese government. He called for an independent judiciary; for fewer, more professional, and better-paid administrators; and for the elimination of the large numbers of underlings who fed from the scraps of the regime. He also advocated opening the naturalization process for more Vietnamese to become citizens, thereby conferring rights enabling greater participation in public debate and politics, and he furthermore favored expanding the electorate for Vietnamese seats on the Cochinchina Colonial Council. However, these proposals did not interest Sarraut who, in his last years as  governor general, gave more attention to laying a basis for modern higher educa- tion by abolishing the examination system and reopening the University of Hanoi,  which had been closed during the disturbances of 1908. In late summer 1919, shortly after Sarraut departed Indochina, an opportunity arose for Bui Quang Chieu to combine his economic and political goals when protests broke out against Chinese business monopolies in Saigon. Bui Quang Chieu and his friends called for a boycott of Chinese retail businesses, organized a commercial society that established the first Vietnamese-owned bank, and endeavored to open a congress for economic development in Cochinchina. Many French administrators were sympathetic, but they could not act against Chinese business without undermining the entire colonial economy. As for the Vietnamese, despite small bursts of enthusiasm, the task of displacing Chinese business was too monumental to even comprehend, and the boycott campaign faded away by the time a new governor general, Maurice Long (1866–1923), arrived in February 1920. Long was a liberal politician who had supported Sarraut’s ideas about developing Franco-Vietnamese cooperation. Although he proved to be a cautious administrator, he nevertheless did push forward a reform of the Cochinchina Colonial Council that increased Vietnamese representation from six to ten, increased French representation from twelve to fourteen, and expanded the number of Vietnamese eligible to vote from less than 2,000 to around 20,000. The people gathered around Bui Quang Chieu’s agenda, collectively known as Constitutionalists, included Nguyen Phan Long (1889–1960), who since 1920 had edited the newspaper L’Écho Annamite. After Bui Quang Chieu, he became the most prominent of the Constitutionalists. Although he had argued against the electoral reform on the basis that it would open politics to irresponsible people without social standing, he was ironically elected in the autumn 1922 election, the first to be held under the new law. The Council had been established in the 1880s and was the center of power for French colons in Cochinchina. Vietnamese members of the Council, with few exceptions, had for decades simply followed the French and competed for the benefits of doing that. The 1922 reform, however, led to Constitutionalists winning seats on the Council and speaking out against the most notoriously corrupt practices of the administration. Their élitism and the opposition of French colons would confound their efforts to play a leading role in the emerging Vietnamese politics of the 1920s and 1930s, but during the years 1923–1926 they opened a door for the younger generation.  Other initiatives of Long were a minor expansion of opportunities for Viet- namese in colonial administration and a significant expansion of primary and  secondary education in Cochinchina. Realizing that his government could not  meet the demand for education, he allowed new private schools to open. How- ever, the driving force of French policy in Indochina was now the flow of  investment that became a flood after the 1922 Marseille Colonial Exposition. Long was replaced not by a politician susceptible to Sarraut’s thought but by a career colonial administrator fresh from over fifteen years’ experience governing French colonies in Africa, Martial Henri Merlin (1860–1935). Merlin, governor general from August 1922 to April 1925, ended the era of Sarrautian idealism with a determination to enforce a disciplined calm to facilitate economic development. He revealed his priorities in 1924 when he rolled back Long’s educational reforms, which he considered unnecessary. French colons welcomed his attitude, and during his tenure they pushed back at the dream of Franco-Vietnamese friendship that threatened their position of racial superiority. This exacerbated tensions as Constitutionalists publicly dissented in the Council, uncensored Francophone newspapers proliferated, and a new generation of Vietnamese came of age. In the decade following the end of the First World War, investment in Indochina was more than fifteen times what it had been during the preceding three decades. As automobiles spread around the world, Indochinese rubber production increased by more than thirty times in the 1920s, and the number of workers on rubber plantations increased from fewer than 3,000 to more than 80,000. Coal production increased nearly 300 percent. The annual number of applications for mining licenses increased by a factor of thirty-five. By 1929, more than 85,000 people were employed in textile factories. Many new industries that manufactured goods for local consumption were developed. The export of rice doubled. This happened to be the time when the first generation of Vietnamese students to be educated in French rather than in Literary Chinese became politically active. During the first half of the 1920s, members of this generation began to gather around the Constitutionalists in Saigon. They came to be known as the Jeune (young) Annam movement, which was more radical than the Constitutionalists but developed confidence in public activism under the patronage of prominent Constitutionalists. The most active Jeune Annam figure was Nguyen An Ninh (1900–1943), who in 1923 returned from three years of studying law in France to edit La Cloche Fêlée, a newspaper that vented his passionate opposition to the colonial regime. The emergence of the Constitutionalists and the Jeune Annam activists occurred during a particularly notorious time in the government of Cochinchina under the leadership of Maurice Cognacq (1870–1949), governor from 1921 to 1926. Cognacq’s circle of cronies included corrupt businessmen and professional thugs. His chief of police was the discredited administrator who had provoked the 1917 Thai Nguyen mutiny and who had subsequently made a fortune in the  alcohol monopoly. Cognacq was prone to outrageous statements that exacer- bated Franco-Vietnamese tensions.  As for Merlin, other than his reputation for dashing cold water on hopes inspired by Sarraut, he became most famously known for narrowly escaping unharmed from a bomb thrown in 1924 by a young Vietnamese during a banquet in the British concession at Guangzhou in southern China. He departed Indochina in April 1925, just before a series of events fundamentally altered the Franco-Vietnamese relationship. In retrospect, it may be tempting to imagine that in the early 1920s there was a moment of opportunity for the French to follow up and build on the enthusiasm for Franco-Vietnamese collaboration elicited by Sarraut. It is plausibly true that this was the last time that political concessions might have turned Indochinese politics away from confrontation and stalemate. But, it is also true that the racist attitude of the French colons and the degree to which colonial administration served the interests of investment made such concessions very improbable. The Sarraut magic was not meant for real life, but before the hopes it inspired finally died, there was a brief but fateful resurgence of expectancy in 1925 when Alexandre Varenne (1870–1947) was appointed governor general.

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