People including Catholics across Vietnam have objected to the government's controversial plans to establish three new special economic zones that they fear will be controlled by Chinese investors. On June 10, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and other cities to hold peaceful protests against the draft law on the zones. The biggest marches seen in cities since the country was reunified under communist rule in 1975
blocked roads and streets. Demonstrators were dispersed by security forces, with hundreds arrested, beaten and interrogated. State-run online newspaper VnExpress
reported that thousands of protesters damaged the headquarters of the People's Committee of Binh Thuan province in Phan Thiet city. It said 102 people were arrested and many policemen were injured. In many places, Catholics attended Mass at churches and prayed for peace and justice in the country. Anna Le, a Catholic from Phan Rang Thap Cham city, said protesters clashed with police and caused a 10-kilometer traffic jam that did not end until midnight. "We have a duty to prevent the draft from being approved by the government as a way to protect our country from being controlled by the Chinese," Le said. "We peacefully expressed our patriotism. Why did police beat and disperse us?" The draft law would allow the establishment of the special administrative-economic units of Van Don in northern Quang Ninh province, Bac Van Phong in central Khanh Hoa province, and Phu Quoc in southern Kien Giang province. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc
said the draft law aims to outline special policies and favorable conditions to attract foreign investment to priority industries in special zones. The law would lease foreign investors land for 70 to 99 years, which protesters see as sweetheart deals for foreign and specifically Chinese firms. The draft law "contains many risks and dangers of causing damage to the nation's interests, especially encroaching on our security and sovereignty," said Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop
, head of the Episcopal Commission on Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Vietnam. Bishop Hop said the model of special administrative and economic units is now outdated and not suitable for economic development in the technological revolution era. The prelate said major concessions on tax, land lease periods and business sectors regulated would "surely bring excess profits to foreign speculators and domestic interests groups." He said the draft misses the most important elements attracting investors — proper economic policies, legal standards, effective administration and a transparent judicial system. Bishop Hop said the three economic units would be based in places directly affecting national security and sovereignty, especially as China increases its expansion and builds military bases in the South China Sea.
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He said in recent years Chinese business people, investors and contractors had secretly speculated and bought a lot of land across Vietnam. Many Chinese workers are working in industrial zones, which causes various social and economic problems for local authorities. "We demand National Assembly members respect the people's expectations and suspend the draft," Bishop Hop said in a petition sent to National Assembly chairperson Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan on June 8. He also urged the government to review public opinions and hold a referendum on the draft before approval. State-run newspapers reported on June 11 that the government and parliament had decided to delay approving the draft, which was due to be approved on June 15, until the end of the year.