The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 7

Justly proud of their educational achievements at home, the French planned to revamp the Vietnamese system of schooling, which had been highly developed along Confucian lines. In fact, roughly 80 percent of Vietnam’s population was more or less literate in the Chinese ideographs used for written Vietnamese. Aiming to break Vietnam’s cultural continuity, the French banned the Chinese char¬acters and replaced them with either French or quoc ngu, the romanized alphabet perfected by Alexandre de Rhodes in the seventeenth century. But the French educational reform faltered, largely because young Vietnamese resisted colonial contamination. By the eve of World War II, fewer than one fifth of all school-age boys in Vietnam were at¬tending classes. Earlier, a French governor of Cochinchina had com¬mented: “The Vietnamese can speak their tongue but neither read nor write it. We have been manufacturing illiterates.”
There were remarkable exceptions. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh general who was to defeat France at Dienbienphu, studied law at the University of Hanoi, which had been created by Paul Bert, a liberal French governor of the late nineteenth century. Many young Viet¬namese flocked to private institutions like Phan Chu Trinh’s school in Hanoi, where French literature and other modern subjects were taught. The unofficial schools attracted Vietnamese youths, partly because they offered sophisticated courses devoid of France’s assimi- lationist doctrine. In 1981, a Communist general, Hoang Anh Tuan, recalled to me the resentment he felt forty years earlier at a French school in Hue, where Vietnamese pupils were obliged to recite the French educational catechism: “Nos ancêtres les Gaulois habitaient jadis la Gaul. ”
A painful experience awaited many young Vietnamese, usually of wealthy origin, who had studied in Paris. Having enjoyed the freedom and comradeship of the Latin Quarter, they would return to Vietnam to have their newspapers and books confiscated by the colonial police, who regarded them as potential subversives. They rarely found jobs that equaled their capacities, and they could never match the wages of the French. Worse still, minor French officials, to whom all Viet¬namese looked alike, would humiliate them by addressing them in the familiar tu form reserved for servants and other inferiors. One such returned student, convicted during the 1930s for nationalist ag¬itation, told the judge at his trial that French injustice “turned me into a revolutionary.”
But France’s biggest impact on Indochina was economic. And one man, Paul Doumer, almost single-handedly transformed Indochina from a financial loss to a profitable enterprise for France. Essentially, he transferred the burden from the French taxpayer to the Vietnamese people, not only saddling them with the costs of supporting their own domination, but also exploiting them in order to gain a fat yield on the colonial investment. He could rightfully claim, as he did at the end of 1902, that “Indochina began to serve France in Asia on the day that it was no longer a poverty-sticken colony, reduced to begging for alms from the motherland. Its strong organization, its financial and economic structures and its great power are being used for the benefit of French prestige.”
Like so many dynamic French imperialists of the period, Doumer was a liberal politician who, as France’s minister of finance, had an¬tagonized his conservative friends and foes by daring to introduce the income tax. They engineered his promotion and exile to the post of governor-general of Indochina. He went there, not with any romantic notions about the mission civilisatrice, but with his eyes fixed on what present-day financiers call the bottom line. His objective: to exploit the country for France’s benefit. Looking back, he wrote in his mem¬oirs: “When France arrived in Indochina, the Annamites were ripe for servitude.”
The costs of the French conquest of Vietnam had been enormous. And by 1895, Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin had slid into huge budget deficits, largely because of disorganization and fiscal misman¬agement. Doumer’s first priority was to centralize authority. He then proceeded to increase public revenues while developing the economy for France’s benefit.
Soon after his arrival in the summer of 1897, Doumer unified the administration by dissolving the powerless Vietnamese emperor’s last vestige of sovereignty, the Co Mat, or Cabinet of Mandarins, and supplanting it with a new body containing French advisers. He had a tougher task imposing his will on the French bankers, merchants, landowners and officials who ran Cochinchina as their own separate colony, but he eventually assumed control of their finances. The Coch¬inchina clique repeatedly reasserted itself in the years ahead—and its intransigence contributed to the outbreak of France’s war with the Vietminh in 1946.
Moving on, Doumer increased his revenues by funneling customs duties and direct taxes into his central treasury. But his most lucrative innovation was the creation of official monopolies to produce and market alcohol, salt and opium. The opium business was especially notorious because of its human dimensions and complex political ram¬ifications, which entangled Indochina long after Doumer had disap¬peared from the scene.
Before the French landed, only the Chinese residents of Vietnam had smoked opium, and in such small quantities that it was not worth refining locally. But Doumer built a refinery in Saigon, where a blend was concocted that burned quickly, and thus encouraged consump¬tion. Vietnamese addiction soon rose so sharply that opium eventually accounted for one-third of the colonial administration’s income. Dou¬mer, who would have been horrified by what he wrought, had set in motion a traffic that would attain monstrous proportions. Decades later, with usage still rising, the quest for the drug prompted French agents to manipulate the Hmong tribes of Laos, which traditionally cultivated opium poppies, and the Vietminh intervened to win over certain clans. French counterinsurgency groups used clandestine opium profits to underwrite operations against the Communists; and the French also backed the Binh Xuyen, drug smugglers who tried to oust South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem soon after he took office in 1954. Later, too, some Saigon officials imported the narcotics that were to poison American soldiers.
Doumer’s land policy, meanwhile, dislocated rural Vietnamese so¬ciety. Most Vietnamese peasants had owned land before French in¬tervention, but a century of French rule dispossessed them. Doumer did not begin the process, but he accelerated it as part of his plan to make Vietnam profitable.

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