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Counter-revolution seeks to stop subversion by the book


After centuries of feudalism, 80 years of colonialism and half a century of armed struggle, it seems as if playtime has finally arrived in Vietnam. The country's 30 million children have gone comic crazy.

Beyond the hype, however, the fetish is not all it seems. Comics, once considered a social evil by the country's Marxist leaders, have become the government's latest weapon in a new kind of war - the battle against foreign culture.

Its ideologues call it the new cultural revolution. As a tide of foreign cultures invades Vietnam, these comic book revolutionaries are dreaming up new ways to insert Marxist theory into the "bam" and "biff" of graphic novels.

It's a case of Walt Disney versus Karl Marx, or Minnie the Mouse against Ho Chi Minh, the national hero who liberated north Vietnam from the French. A flood of foreign comics has swamped the country since it opened cultural doors in 1986. With no copyright laws in place, publishers are free to churn out censored reprints of anything from Bambi to Beano, Tintin, Lucky Luke and the Japanese Doraemon that now dominate 90 per cent of the market.

With their soft-core violence and Western rebelliousness, their influence on the minds of Vietnam's future leaders has set the government on edge.

"Comics like Tintin and Lucky Luke contain dangerous imperialist elements that can have a negative influence on our children," said a ministry of education official.

In response, the government has launched its own comic book counter-revolution. A recent politburo directive ordered the state-run children's publishing house, Kim Dong, to pour its revenue from foreign comics into comics with Vietnamese heroes, values and ideals.

Last year, a bid by Walt Disney to translate some of its favourites into Vietnamese was turned down.

More recently, the Japanese comic series Teppi was taken off the shelves after parents complained to a national newspaper. Its hero was an anti-establishment rebel who played dirty tricks on old ladies and squirted teachers with ink.

"Teenagers loved him," said 17-year-old Nguyen Ngoc, a Teppi fan. "Kids have a taste for that rebelliousness. The stuff the government churns out is boring. "

Teenagers' comics have become the literary staple diet, outranking novels and poetry. At 3,000 dong a copy - the cost of an iced coffee or a ham sandwich in Saigon - kids with the new-found spoils of market reform can afford them.

"Teachers are very worried," said Hoa Thien, a secondary school teacher in Saigon. "Children are being negatively influenced by the anti-authority side of foreign comics."

For a nation bred on Marxism, the backlash makes sense. Take Tintin. In the mind of a Marxist the French boy-hero is an imperialist rebel. Most of his adventures take place in Third World or developing countries where he engages in frequent spats, gunfights included, with the shadily portrayed officials of undemocratic governments.

With its corrupt mandarins, trigger-happy police and heroin-smuggling mafiosi, Tintin's Western world view might be the hammer that breaks the Communist mould of Vietnam's next generation of government officials.

The politburo is already queasy about the negative cultural side-effects of doi moi, Vietnam's version of perestroika. After the Vietnam war, the Communist rulers struggled for 10 years to establish a Marxist, centrally planned economy. The abrupt U-turn came in 1986. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the politburo split over the pace of reform.

Cultural independence has again become a buzz-phrase in official circles. The same phrase dominated the vocabulary of anti-imperialist insurgents during the French invasion and the Vietnam war. Now it is being used to warn against the western Coca-Cola culture.

The latest Vietnamese comic to hit the bookstands, Duc Lam's The Command of the Green Arrow, exposes that very fear. In his hackle-raising spy-thriller, reminiscent of the Cold War, a pair of teenagers embarks on a mission to expose foreign spies who have infiltrated the highest levels of government to steal Vietnam's best-kept state secrets. The threat is not expected to vanish quickly: the comic is set 25 years in the future.

"The aim is to teach children loyalty to the state," said Duc Lam, whose 40 comics have all undergone the snip-snipping of government censors. "I don't do this for entertainment. I do it for my country."

In the pipeline is a comic-book history of Vietnam spanning 2,000 years. Its heroes, Ho Chi Minh and the 15th century monarch King Le Loi, all have one thing in common. They earned their reputations fighting foreign invaders.

While that threat is still felt, more absurd Marxist notions are vanishing. In the late 1970s, Vietnamese teenagers were arrested for wearing "Western-imperialist" bell-bottom trousers. In 2020, if the fashions in Duc Lam's comics are anything to go by, they will be all the rage.

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