HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnamese authorities forcibly broke up small protests against China in two cities on Sunday, after deadly anti-China rampages over a flaring territorial dispute risked damaging the economy and spooked a state used to keeping a tight grip on its people.
In southern Ho Chi Minh City, police dragged away several demonstrators from a park in the city center. In Hanoi, authorities closed off streets and a park close to the Chinese Embassy and pushed journalists and protesters away. Police were posted outside well-known dissidents houses, preventing them from leaving, according to activists.
China, meanwhile, said it had dispatched the first of five ships to Vietnam to speed up the evacuation of any its citizens wanting to leave.
More than 3,000 Chinese have already been pulled out from Vietnam following the riots this past week that left two Chinese dead and injured about 100 others, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
China deployed an oil rig to a disputed patch of the South China Sea on May 1, triggering fury in Vietnam. Hanoi sent ships to confront the rig in a tense standoff with Chinese vessels. The breakdown in ties between the two countries is the most serious since 1979, when they fought a brief but bloody border war.
Last weekend, Vietnam allowed anti-China protests that drew thousands of people, a rare step widely seen as a way of amplifying state anger against Beijing. Doing so was risky for authorities: dissident groups joined in the protests, and public anger was such that violence was a possibility.
By Tuesday and Wednesday, the protests had morphed into riots targeting factories believed to be owned by Chinese companies. Many of those hit were Taiwanese. The violence caused concern among foreign investors who have turned Vietnam into a manufacturing hub in recent years.
China has loudly demanded Vietnam protect Chinese people inside the country. Many Chinese have left by commercial flights and across the land border into Cambodia, although violence has stopped since Wednesday.
Vietnam's government has vowed to protect all foreign investors, including Chinese, and said it has arrested more than 1,000 people over the rioting. On Saturday, it said further protests would not be allowed.
"I want to send a message that if we don't stop China today, tomorrow it will be too late," said demonstrator Dao Minh Chu, as he was pushed away from the park near China's embassy, where last week around 500 people gathered without interference from authorities. Those protests were covered enthusiastically by state media, a clear sign of state sanction.
China is a vital economic trade partner for Vietnam, and business links have grown in recent years. While they share a political ideology and a commitment to authoritarianism, the two countries also have a long history of bad blood. Many Vietnamese harbor deep resentment over what they see as China's bullying and economic exploitation of Beijing's far smaller neighbor.
They have often sparred over overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which is believed to have significant oil and gas deposits.
China has been much more assertive in pressing its territorial claims in recent years, often bringing into it into dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines. Spats have broken out over fishing rights and oil exploration missions in recent years, but the placement of the rig 220 kilometers (136 miles) off the coast of Vietnam was considered especially provocative.
Vietnam's government doesn't allow basic political freedoms and routinely arrested free speech activists and others challenging one-party rule. Anti-China protests are one of the few opportunities for public gatherings in Vietnam and also attract dissident groups, who often claim Hanoi is too soft on Beijing.
Several well-known activists said they had been prevented from leaving their homes to attend the rally.
"I think the best way is to allow people to protest," said La Viet Dung, a frequent anti-China protester, adding that police visited him late Saturday asking him not to attend. "They say they are preventing people from protesting because they are worried about extremist actions and violence, but that is not logical."
Dinh reported from Ho Chi Minh City. Associated Press writer Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.