Vietnam Nods to China on Ethnic Issues

HANOI has made an essential kowtow to the powers in Beijing, in return for China's willingness to move toward solving the Cambodia issue this year. Vietnam's gesture took place last week in Beijing during the first high-level meeting between the two nations in 10 years. During the sessions, Hanoi showed ``appreciation'' for Vietnam's large minority of ethnic Chinese, known as Hoa, and their money-making skills. This gesture is bound to please Beijing, which is ever watchful of how other nations treat overseas Chinese.

Reconciling with its own ethnic Chinese may help Vietnam amend a 10-year state of hot and cold war with its giant neighbor. And it will possibly overcome a continuing problem of Hoa escaping Vietnam by sea to avoid discrimination. Close to 300,000 of an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam are believed to have fled over the past decade. The exodus has put a big dent in Vietnam's economy.

The Beijing meeting occured after the Vietnamese took steps recently to improve the atmosphere between the two countries. In December, Vietnam removed a phrase in its Constitution about China's ``hegemony.'' A few months earlier, a key Politburo member made a public visit to a Hoa cooperative near Hanoi. Last July, Vietnam opened a formal study of Chinese economic reforms. And lately, Vietnamese officials are once again admitting the tremendous help of China in the war against the United States.

The Beijing talks covered a range of contentious topics, from China's violent takeover last year of six reefs claimed by Vietnam to a reported agreement on withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia.

China warred with Vietnam in 1979 as a ``lesson'' for Hanoi's occupation of Cambodia. Since then, it has warned Hanoi that a renewal of normal ties will not take place until all Vietnamese troops leave Cambodia and Vietnam stops its ``anti-Chinese policies.'' The latter presumably include policies against Hoa.

``Vietnam has been making amends with many of its own people for mistakes of the past,'' says a Western analyst of Vietnam. ``The Chinese people are just the last on the list.''

As long as China has remained hostile, Vietnam has kept its Hoa population under close guard as potential ``henchmen'' for Chinese sabotage and spying.

By appeasing China, Vietnam also helps its effort to gain badly needed foreign investment. The most interested investors so far have been ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong and Thailand. Many once had offices and property in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

To woo them, Vietnam will need to end practices which limit business opportunities for their own ethnic Chinese, and perhaps even compensate for confiscated property of former Hoa who want to return.

``They have no choice but to rely on Chinese business skills,'' says one Western diplomat in Hanoi.

One lure is a plan to set up a ``capitalist's'' association, which would have certain political rights. The group would most likely be made up of ethnic Chinese.

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