Ordinary Vietnamese people have become increasingly fragile, prone to getting offended at the smallest slight against national pride. Or so the authorities claim. Nowhere is this narrative more manifest than in the censor’s wrath over Netflix.

The latest flare-up occurred in mid-April, when the American streaming giant scrambled to remove the first episode of the docuseries “MH370: The Plane That Disappeared” from its service in Vietnam. The Vietnamese authorities excoriated the three-episode show over what they characterized as “inaccurate and unsubstantiated” information about Vietnam’s search-and-rescue operation to locate flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines plane that vanished in 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people onboard.

This wasn’t the first show to go. Before that, it was “Little Women,” a K-drama about three sisters living in modern day South Korea. The show was axed by Netflix in Vietnam last October after the authorities claimed it distorted Vietnam War history. And in 2021, Vietnam ordered Netflix to stop showing the Australian spy drama “Pine Gap,” which included footage of a map showing Beijing’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” that defines its expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea.  

The removals followed an eerily similar pattern: To justify their censorship demands, Vietnamese censors invoked the “hurting the feelings of the people” narrative either in their own statements or by way of reports in state-controlled media.

But to what extent does this “hurt feelings” rhetoric actually reflect popular opinion on the ground?

Public opinion and state actions — which drives which? 

The rationale of the Vietnamese authorities for flagging the MH370 docuseries could be boiled down to a just single line in the first episode, which featured a family member of a missing Chinese passenger desperately urging her country to step in: “We hope the Chinese government can quickly send a search-and-rescue team, as the Vietnamese [government] doesn’t seem to have much ability.” 

The government claims that the show caused “an uproar among the populace.” But it is hard to fathom why the Vietnamese public would get riled up about a single line quoting a plea made by an ordinary citizen. Lam Nguyen, a 22-year-old student in Ho Chi Minh City who managed to watch the series before it was flagged by the authorities, told me that she was “a little surprised, but not frustrated” by the scene. The bottom line, Lam said, is that people in her social circle — herself included — feel that the Vietnamese government’s response to that line was an “overreaction.”  

“While some believe that the Vietnamese government put a lot of effort in the search, it is unfair to criticize the docuseries that captured the anger and fear of family members who were desperate to find their loved ones,” Lam said. 

The online backlash against the MH370 docuseries also played out primarily inside a bubble of pro-government Facebook groups and state-aligned media coverage. This means that, at best, the justification by the Vietnamese authorities stands on empirically thin ice. At worst, such nationalist sentiments were likely manufactured to rationalize censorship demands.

In asking Netflix to remove “Pine Gap” in 2021, the Vietnamese authorities claimed that the show “angered and hurt the feelings of the entire people of Vietnam.” Few moves risk stirring up a hornet’s nest in Vietnam more than one that validates China’s maritime claims — the Vietnamese public likely would have objected to the display of the nine-dash line if they had seen the drama. But it’s unlikely that many ordinary Vietnamese, let alone the “entire” population, had a chance to take in the mini-series before it disappeared.

And in the case of “Little Women,” while ordinary internet users did join the chorus of criticism about the show, this only happened after pro-government groups lit the flames.

It all comes at a time when Vietnam’s state-sponsored cyber troops are growing more and more adept at manufacturing public sentiment online. “Astroturfing” — state-orchestrated efforts to manipulate online discourse — likely had some role in what played out online. In a country where the public at large increasingly balks at the chance to express political opinions, what might have looked like grassroots public opinion may have been shaped or even dictated by online propagandists. 

These reactions — whether genuine or not — gave the Vietnamese authorities the right pretext to ask Netflix to remove the content they deemed harmful and helped drive home their demands through the mainstream media. The streaming platform quickly accommodated the censorship orders.

Vietnam’s growing leverage over Big Tech

While the authorities were explicit in asking that Netflix remove “Pine Gap” and “Little Women” in their entirety, they were less specific when it came to the MH370 docuseries. In fact, they only requested the rectification and removal of “inaccurate information” related to the country’s search efforts in the show. But Netflix gutted the entire episode instead, in what looked like a bid to get on the good side of the officials who regulate it.  

This underlines Vietnam’s growing leverage over western tech companies, many of which are making a lot of money in Vietnam. Facebook is especially dominant. Vietnam ranks seventh among the ten countries boasting the highest number of Facebook users worldwide, an estimated 70 million. The company reportedly generates annual local revenue of more than $1 billion. But others aren’t far behind. DataReportal estimates that YouTube has 63 million users in Vietnam and TikTok has around 50 million. 

State-orchestrated efforts aimed at reining in public discussion have bred increasingly subservient responses from the industry. The state has wielded the stick of shutting down disobedient social media platforms altogether — it threatened to block Facebook in 2020 over political posts. And it has dangled the carrot of access to a lucrative market of 97 million people. In recent years, Big Tech firms — chief among them Meta’s Facebook, Google’s YouTube and ByteDance’s TikTok — have shown increasing willingness to honor content removal demands. Hanoi now openly brags about high compliance rates among those platforms, which all exceed 90%.

So Netflix is straddling a treacherous line. As content removal has remained a key tactic in Vietnam’s online censorship dragnet, resisting the government’s takedown requests does not seem to bode well for Netflix’s future. But placating such requests has proved equally daunting in a country where an arbitrary censorship regime makes it impossible to pinpoint precisely what kind of content will be seen as crossing a line.

Nationalism, weaponized

The need to safeguard national prestige online has dictated Vietnam’s internet controls. But this kind of censorship overdrive, compounded by the apparent manufacturing of public opinion to buttress their rationale, only lays bare the insecurity of the Vietnamese authorities when faced with inconvenient narratives.

Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and security issues at the National War College in Washington, D.C., told me he was “puzzled by the hypersensitivity” of the government over the MH370 show. “When the planes came down, I was quite impressed with how quickly Vietnam responded and how well coordinated their efforts appeared,” Abuza said of Vietnam’s search efforts. “To be fair, Vietnam has very limited numbers of aircraft that are suitable for maritime search and rescue but responded in remarkable speed to a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said. 

The facade of toughness in axing “Little Women” appears to be a politically expedient ploy to paper over a reality in which the Vietnamese government has never publicly pushed for an official apology, much less reparations, from South Korea for its atrocities during the Vietnam War. This could invite public criticism that the Vietnamese authorities are preaching nationalism while at the same time drinking foreign Kool-Aid, given the economic leverage South Korea has established in Vietnam. 

There have been times when the Vietnamese government has genuinely needed to appeal to nationalism to justify its foreign policy decisions. Case in point: In registering its indignation with Beijing’s muscle-flexing moves in the South China Sea, Hanoi has more than once tapped into anti-China sentiments to rally the public behind the flag. This dynamic manifests most often in cyberspace and sometimes in mainstream media. On a few occasions, Vietnam has even green-lit anti-China protests.  

But moving forward, the more the manufacturing of public opinion becomes a pattern, the more likely foreign observers are to accuse the Vietnamese government of crying wolf about the need to protect nationalist sentiments. China may be especially equipped to do so, given the parallels between the regimes and their respective playbooks.

Like their Chinese counterparts, Vietnamese leaders are probably well aware that in addition to the country’s rising standard of living, nationalism remains a crucial tool for maintaining the regime’s legitimacy. But exploiting nationalism for authoritarian control could eventually end up chipping away at the very legitimacy the Vietnamese state is craving. The public’s eyes are discerning.