Between Authoritarian Governance and Urban Citizenship: Tree-Felling Protests in Hanoi

Blog by John Gillespie and Nguyen Hung Quang

7 Sep 2018, 9:44 a.m.
John Gillespie and Nguyen Hung Quang



In early April 2015, dozens of bike riders wearing identical green t-shirts rode past me on a path surrounding Hanoi’s iconic West Lake. They called for others to join them, and radiated a sense of excitement that I hadn’t seen before in street protests in Vietnam. Making inquires, it emerged that the bike riders were part of a wide-spread social media campaign protesting the City Government’s decision to fell 6,700 street trees. Many of the trees were planted over a century ago during the French colonial period to establish shaded boulevards in the Hausmannian tradition.

The protest movement began in March 2015 when four hundred people chanting ‘I love trees, trees love me’ demonstrated their opposition to the tree-felling. Within a week, an online petition attracted over 22,000 signatures, while thousands more people joined social media sites set up to oppose the tree-felling. The protest was ground breaking, not only for its size, which easily surpassed previous online campaigns, but also for the nature of the demands—people wanted a right to govern the city. In making this claim, protesters challenged an authoritarian state that tightly controls the spaces, both physical and digital, where citizens are permitted to express their views. Our article explores how protests disrupted the government’s expectations about who can participate in urban governance, and eventually compelled an authoritarian government to abandon the tree-felling project.


In the first wave of protests, the demonstrators expressed love for the trees, and were deliberately non-confrontational. They didn’t question the city officials’ capacity or right to govern. Officials ignored their protest. In frustration, the second wave of protests were deliberately confrontational. Protesters violated draconian public assembly laws by staging unauthorized and noisy demonstrations outside government offices. The images of love and peace in the first wave of protests gave way to mockery and ridicule designed to shame city officials.

Social media provided a platform to express unorthodox and dissenting ideas that are not discussed by the state-controlled media. It also enabled protesters to use satire and ridicule to expose the absurdities and hypocrisy of the city government’s justification for the tree-felling. In a society without a liberal tradition of public discourse, protesters publically shamed officials into changing policies. The second wave of protests stopped the tree-felling, but failed to change how the officials governed the city.

A key finding in our article is that the protesters challenged the symbolic order, because street protests and online advocacy demonstrated that anyone can act beyond their designated social position and demand equality with city officials. But this disruption to state expectations did not open political space for urban citizenship. City officials were shamed because moral legitimacy required them to align their moral views with public sentiment and demonstrate good intentions. Officials, however, refused to open space for citizen participation in urban decision making because they distrusted order from below, and rejected democratic legitimacy based on public accountability. They were unwilling to recognize what Lefebvre calls the people’s ‘right to the city’—a capacity for citizens to participate in shaping a city, its economy, its built form and its social structures.


Read the paper on Urban Studies - Online First here



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