Currently, Poland, like much of the world, is struggling with the challenges of fighting the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus COVID-19. One of the most serious challenges is the lack of protective equipment for medical personnel and tests to determine the virus infection. On the initiative of the Vietnamese community in Poland and Vietnamese graduates of Polish universities, our country received support from Vietnam – a country that deals with the threat posed by Sars-Cov-2 very effectively. The assistance currently provided by the Vietnamese, however, is not an isolated incident, but is part of a broad range of relations, cooperation, support and mutual inspiration that has been developing between the two countries for decades.
In recent days, the Polish media have been abuzz with the news about the support given to Poland by the Vietnamese to combat the threat posed by COVID-19. This support took a very concrete form: a plane from Vietnam arrived in Poland carrying four thousand tests to detect the presence of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, as well as protective suits and gloves for medical personnel. The initiative was organized and financed by several groups: the VIFON company, representatives of the Vietnamese community in Poland, as well as a group of graduates of Polish universities, bringing together people who studied in Poland during the communist era. It should be noted that Vietnam is one of the countries that have so far dealt with the epidemic efficiently and effectively. Thanks to the swift application of decisive measures, such as the meticulous monitoring of a wide network of contacts of infected people and extensive and rigorously enforced quarantine orders, by mid-February Vietnam could boast a remarkable achievement: out of a total of 16 people who were found to be infected with coronavirus, all had recovered. Although the country is now facing a second wave of cases, the number of people infected with COVID-19 remains extremely low (227 as of 02/04/2020), and there has not been a single death.
The above-mentioned help action was not the only initiative taken by the Vietnamese for the benefit of the fight against coronavirus in Poland. Numerous Vietnamese restaurants throughout Poland took action to support Polish doctors by providing them with meals; there were also organized fundraisers to purchase medical equipment. Vietnamese entrepreneurs have provided support to a hospital in Brodnica, whose director appealed for support in the face of serious shortages in equipment to fight the virus.
An important context to understand and appreciate the involvement of the Polish Vietnamese in pandemic control efforts is that it is not an isolated incident, but is part of a complex web of cultural, social, and economic flows that have been occurring between the two countries for decades.
This special relationship between Poland and Vietnam dates back to the 1950s. In 1950 formal diplomatic relations were established between the People’s Republic of Poland and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Beginning in 1954, with the end of the First Indochina War, during which aid to Vietnam was provided primarily by Chinese communists, the Soviet Union – and with it, the other Eastern Bloc countries – became the most important allies of communist Vietnam. The assistance directed towards that country during the decades of the Cold War was of a diverse nature and included military, developmental and humanitarian activities. From the Polish perspective, the most significant manifestation of these ties of socialist brotherhood was Poland’s participation in two peace commissions: The most important manifestation of these ties of socialist brotherhood was the Polish participation in two peace commissions: the International Control and Monitoring Commission in 1954 and the International Control and Monitoring Commission in 1973, whose task was to supervise the observance of the Geneva and Paris treaties, respectively, which were to end the First and Second Indochina War.
In terms of humanitarian activities, an important event was the initiative to build the Polish-Vietnamese Friendship Hospital in Vinh (rebuilt in the 1980s with Polish funding). On the other hand, the most significant cultural activities include the participation of Polish specialists in the reconstruction of the ruins of the Cham temple complex in Mỹ Sơn and the historic town of Hội An, where a monument to the architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski still stands today.
The most permanent fruit of these bonds of “socialist brotherhood” turned out to be the formation of the Vietnamese community in Poland. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Vietnamese came to Poland as foreign students, as well as doctoral students and people sent for professional training. Upon their return to Vietnam, a significant number of them as persons with valued professional skills acted as leading specialists in key areas of the economy headed by the mining and shipbuilding industries or took up important positions in the power structure.
With the collapse of communism in Poland, the character of the Vietnamese community changed significantly. Taking advantage of the ties and contacts established during the Cold War and resulting from the presence in Poland of some of the former students, thousands of Vietnamese came to our country in search of income opportunities. For example, the founder of VIFON, a company that helped Poland during the fight against coronavirus, Tào Ngọc Tú, is a graduate of the Gdansk University of Technology.
An important feature of the Vietnamese who graduated from university in the People’s Republic of Poland is an ethos of gratitude towards the country where they received higher education. It is particularly visible in the activity of the Polish-Vietnamese Friendship Society – an organization operating in Vietnam within a network of “friendship societies” affiliated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Society’s activists, whose members are persons who studied in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s, have for years undertaken and covered with their patronage activities for social and cultural cooperation, such as translating Polish literature into Vietnamese and organizing various cultural events, often in cooperation with the Polish Embassy in Hanoi. Thanks to their efforts, the canon of Polish literary classics (including works by Henryk Sienkiewicz, Boleslaw Prus and Adam Mickiewicz) as well as numerous contemporary works of popular literature – books by Małgorzata Musierowicz, Janusz L. Wisniewski and Katarzyna Grochola – have been translated into Vietnamese.
It should be noted that support and assistance activities, as well as broadly understood cultural flows between Poland and Vietnam, are not limited to ties established within the bonds of socialist brotherhood. The aid provided by the Vietnamese in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to actions taken by “official” organizations, such as the Polish-Vietnamese Friendship Society located in Vietnam or organizations of Vietnamese entrepreneurs operating in Poland, includes a number of grassroots actions taken by restaurant owners and entrepreneurs of various levels. The action aimed at helping the hospital in Brodnica was organized, among others, by entrepreneurs gathered in the Facebook group ATTENTION, critical of the authorities of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For example, Phan Châu Thành joined the action – one of the organizers of protests against the policy of the Vietnamese authorities against the environmental crisis related to the leak of industrial pollutants from a Taiwanese factory (2016) and the law allowing tightening the control of the authorities over the use of the Internet (2018).
Polish Vietnamese are a diverse group in terms of political conditions and views. Important actors in the community are associations working in cooperation with the Vietnamese Embassy and linked to the Vietnamese political system as members of the umbrella organization bringing together various social associations in Vietnam – the National Front (Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc). However, there are also activists in the Vietnamese community who are critical of the current political situation in Vietnam. This phenomenon refers us to yet another dimension of flows between Poland and Vietnam.
Activism for democratization of Vietnam appeared in Poland in the late 1990s, when former students and economic migrants in response to the creation of the magazine “Quê Việt”, published under the auspices of the Vietnamese Embassy and presenting the “official” vision of Vietnamese history and modernity, took the initiative to create an alternative publication promoting democratic values. The circle gathered around the magazine “Dàn Chim Việt” – published in 1999-2006 in a paper version – in their manifestos openly declared that the experiences of Poland, which successfully went through the process of political transformation, are for them a source of inspiration. During the “Bread and Freedom” conference held in Warsaw in 2006, which was attended by Vietnamese dissidents from various countries, an organization called the “Vietnamese Workers’ Defense Committee” was established, and speakers appearing at the conference invoked the tradition of Solidarity and democratic opposition as a model to follow.
In contrast, in recent years, the most important platform around which Vietnamese pro-democracy activists gather has been Facebook. Popular among Polish Vietnamese (with 28,000 members), the group NOTE-Người Việt ở Ba Lan, which serves as a source of information on the realities of living in Poland, is also a space for social mobilization around issues considered urgent and in need of a response. Beginning in 2014, when China’s expansive policy in the South China Sea resulted in a series of protests organized both in Vietnam itself and among the Vietnamese diaspora, Polish Vietnamese have repeatedly demonstrated and picketed in response to events happening in Vietnam. In June 2016, a picket was held in front of the Vietnamese Embassy to draw attention to the problem of pollution of Vietnam’s coastal waters by the Taiwanese Formosa factory and the lack of adequate responses by the Vietnamese authorities to the situation. In a statement to Gazeta Wyborcza, one activist justified the initiative as follows: “We are taking advantage of the fact that there is freedom of speech and demonstration in Poland to demand the truth.” Pro-democracy activists in Vietnam declare that functioning in a democratic society, which Poland is, is an important source of inspiration for them. Some of the activists also join activities within the Polish political system, running for local government positions and participating in protests and demonstrations (for example, in defense of free courts in 2018).
he current situation, dominated by an epidemic threat, has shown that among the Polish Vietnamese the imperative to engage in aid activities exceeds political and environmental divisions. Contrary to stereotypes about the “closed” character of the Vietnamese community, interested only in activities for the benefit of representatives of their own group, many Vietnamese consider it a moral obligation to be active for the benefit of the community in which they live every day. Of course, one can find various motivations behind these actions – including a rather cynical interpretation as a strategy of building a positive image of the community. Such a motivation should not be surprising in the face of the threat of racist behavior that Asians have been experiencing around the world in recent weeks as an offshoot of the coronavirus epidemic. However, an analysis of the actions taken by the Vietnamese against Poland in a broader historical perspective reveals that there are other factors behind them. Among the representatives of the older generation, it may be the feeling of sincere gratitude for the assistance provided to Vietnam during the Cold War, thanks to which they had the opportunity to find themselves in the extremely privileged position of “foreign students” during the war years. For the younger generation, on the other hand, the organization of aid campaigns is a manifestation of action within civil society, which is an extremely important training for functioning within a democratic system. In each case, it is both a testimony to the aspirations of the Polish Vietnamese to be called “good immigrants” and an exemplary fulfillment of this role.
The text is based on materials collected as part of the research project “Political Activity of the Diaspora in the Age of Global Interdependence,” funded by the National Science Center (project number 2017/25/B/HS6/01201).
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