The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 6

Phan Chu Trinh, also from central Vietnam, was the son of a rich landowner who had rallied to the dissident emperor Ham Nghi. A senior mandarin, he rose to the rank of minister at the imperial court in Hue, but he resigned in 1905 to accompany Phan Boi Chau to Japan. There they parted company. Shrewdly foreseeing the danger of Japanese imperialism, Phan Chu Trinh rebuffed the idea of reliance on Japan. He also rejected even a liberal monarchy as retrogressive. After returning to Vietnam, he boldly addressed an open letter to the French governor, warning of an eventual upheaval unless the Viet¬namese could express themselves politically, economically and so¬cially. Colonial abuses, he said, violated France’s democratic principles, and his words would be valid a half century later: “In your papers, in your books, in your plans, in your private conversations, there is displayed in all its intensity the profound contempt with which you overwhelm us. In your eyes, we are savages, dumb brutes, in¬capable of distinguishing between good and evil. Some of us, em¬ployed by you, still preserve a certain dignity . . . and it is sadness and shame that fills our hearts when we contemplate our humiliation.”
Ignored by the French administration, Phan Chu Trinh started his own progressive programs, among them a school in Hanoi at which local pupils of both sexes, taught in Vietnamese, Chinese and French, could study modern science and economics along with Asian classics. But he antagonized Vietnamese extremists, who thought him too moderate, and he disturbed moderates, who thought him too extreme. The French authorities also regarded him with suspicion.
They closed his school on a flimsy pretext and, in 1908, during an eruption of tax revolts, they arrested him in a roundup of nationalists, first condemning him to death and later, when his admirers in France protested, commuting the sentence to life imprisonment on the island of Poulo Condore. Released after three years, he was allowed to move to Paris, where, for the next decade, he symbolized the anticolonial resistance for both Vietnamese expatriates and their French sympa-thizers. He died in Saigon in 1926—the year following Phan Boi Chau’s arrest—and teachers and students throughout Vietnam spon¬taneously shut their schools for a day to mourn him.
Phan Boi Chau failed because his movement lacked broad peasant support and Phan Chu Trinh because he clung to the illusion that the France of Montesquieu and Rousseau would export its enlightened philosophies to Vietnam. But despite their devotion to the mission civilisatrice, French colonial officials, soldiers and businessmen dis¬torted France’s lofty ideals in Vietnam, where their primary objective was to exploit the possession for the benefit of the motherland.
The French had faced a choice as they extended their control over Vietnam in the midnineteenth century. They could have pursued a policy of “association,” as the British did in India, governing indirectly through native institutions. Indeed, one French expert argued elo¬quently for this approach, pointing out that the Vietnamese had a national history and ethnic identity “older than our own” and should be respected “with their customs and traditions” rather than forced into a Western mold. But other French specialists pleaded for “assim¬ilation,” contending that no greater honor could befall a people than to absorb the ideas and culture of France. Proponents of both these concepts went on debating as long as France remained in Vietnam. In practice, neither thesis prevailed.
Direct French rule took over—as statistics show. In 1925, five thou¬sand British officials governed three hundred’ million Indians, but it took the same number of French to manage an Indochinese population one-tenth that size. Fully half of the French colonial budget went for bureaucratic wages during that year. Even in the 1950s, the French flinched at delegating authority to indigenous officials, even though they were then desperate to counter the Vietminh’s nationalist claims. They enthroned Bao Dai as a sovereign emperor but continued to run his regime. And, as his prime minister, they designated Nguyen Van Xuan, a naturalized French citizen who could barely speak Vietnamese.
When the French first occupied Cochinchina in the 1860s, local mandarins abandoned their posts to join the resistance or, in typical Asian fashion, prudently shifted to the sidelines until the future defined itself. The French admirals then in charge in Saigon coped in two ways, both disastrous. They assigned French officers to direct the administration and recruited Vietnamese collaborators as intermedi¬aries. Apart from some exceptions, the French bureaucrats were un¬familiar with the Vietnamese language or the society’s values. They also became preoccupied with routine. They introduced Western methods alien to Vietnam’s needs, and they relegated Vietnamese employees to minor functions at minimal salaries. In 1903, the highest- ranking Vietnamese in the colonial system earned less than the lowliest French official.
In the provinces, meanwhile, the French relied on village chiefs to collect taxes, mobilize labor for public projects and undertake other such onerous tasks. The native bosses inevitably used their positions to embezzle funds and oppress peasants, and Frenchmen themselves were frequently involved in the corruption. So the structure was es¬sentially fragile—and the uprisings and insurrections that threatened it could be quelled only by force.
To replace the prominent mandarins who had quit, the early French governors coddled a handful of Vietnamese—many of them Catholic, either by birth or expedient conversion. An impressive prototype was Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, the “most Frenchified” Vietnamese of the time, as one French official called him. A brilliant linguist educated by French and Vietnamese priests, he began his career as an interpreter, and later, as an eminent scholar, he zealously defended France’s co-lonial presence in Vietnam. Equally celebrated was Do Huu Phoung, who administered the Saigon suburb of Cholon and who, it was said, procured girls and perhaps even boys for the French. He had distin¬guished himself fighting against Vietnamese insurgents, which earned him French citizenship and a rosette of the Legion of Honor, and he gained immense wealth. Two of his sons became French army officers and one married a French woman. But he and others like him were too remote from most Vietnamese to serve the colonial administration effectively. One senior French official, Admiral Rieunier, remarked: “On our side, we have only Christians and crooks.”
Along with direct rule, the French brought their penal code to Vietnam. Goodwill largely motivated them, since Vietnamese law beheaded thieves and had adulterous women trampled to death by elephants. But French jurisprudence confused and convulsed Viet¬nam’s traditional legal system without creating a viable alternative. It could not handle subtle Vietnamesejudicial nuances, such as refraining from pronouncing a defendant’s name in court lest he “lose face.” It also contributed to the erosion of Vietnamese society in which, ac¬cording to Confucian tenets, the father arbitrated family altercations or called on a respected dignitary to mediate a dispute informally. Besides, French justice lost its credibility when colonial police could wantonlyjail political suspects for years without putting them on trial.

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