Western Exploration and Exploitation of Indo China (Vietnam) – 3


To rule over millions of people, the French needed local help. In Vietnam they could count on experienced administrators to collect taxes and to maintain law and order. In Laos and Cambodia, a career civil service was undeveloped but taxes were collected with the help of local elites.

In economic terms, Cochin China was the most prosperous part of Indochina. The benefits of French law, combined with profitable rice and rubber plantations (the latter controlled by French companies) and the entrepreneurial energy of Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese merchants, made Cochin China the liveliest, most prosperous, and most Francophile component of Indochina. Hundreds of wealthy Cochin Chinese were educated in France, and immigrants from southern China poured into the colony, where most of them engaged in commerce and petty manufacturing. Saigon and its Chinese suburb of Cholon were linked by trading networks to the outside world and functioned as powerful engines of free market capitalism.

By the 1920s, rich coal deposits in Tonkin and rubber plantations in Cambodia also produced revenue for French investors and spawned the beginnings of a proletariat, later drawn toward the Indo-China Communist Party (or ICP; founded in 1930). Investments in Indochinese public works such as the Hanoi to Saigon railroad, which carried few passengers and very little freight, reaped large profits for shareholders in France, who constituted the Indochina lobby. At the same time, France was reluctant to encourage any manufacturing in Indochina that would compete with imported French goods. Local merchants grew rich in the import-export business and by buying up agricultural harvests, while local rice growers in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta (after the region had been drained by French engineers) became more prosperous as they expanded their subsistence-oriented holdings to produce crops for export. Marketing was assisted by a new network of roads, market towns, and railways in Vietnam and Cambodia. In the 1920s most of Indochina enjoyed an economic boom, spurred by international demands for rubber, rice, and other agricultural products.


     The French expected to stay indefinitely in Indochina. In what the French scholar Paul Mus has called the “monologue of colonialism,” they made no sustained effort to prepare local people for self-sufficiency, higher education, free trade, relations with other countries, political participation, or independence. Unlike the British in India, the French had no exit strategy. The process of domination involved infantilizing their colonial proteges. Quarantined in theory (and by the French police) from politics and drastic change, local people were forbidden to grow up, meaning that the civilizing mission could never be complete. In fact, widespread modernization took place throughout Vietnam, especially among the expanding reading public, after the French introduced a Roman alphabet (quoc ngu) for writing Vietnamese, replacing the Chinese ideograms that had been in use for two millennia. Thousands of Vietnamese readers happily absorbed new non-political publications (including women’s magazines, self-help manuals, and technical handbooks) as well as new literary forms, such as daily newspapers and the novel. In Laos and Cambodia, where literacy was less widespread and less prestigious, the psychological effects of what Benedict Anderson has called print capitalism, and has linked to nationalism, were much slower. At the same time, roads and railroads, market towns, automobiles, movies and radio, telecommunications, the expansion of education, and the growth of cities developments in which the French participated but could not control took place alongside the ongoing political repression that kept local people in check and has preoccupied so many writers.

French administrators who enjoyed lower status at home than their British counterparts in India, and were more numerous—tried to preserve, as if in amber, supposedly “traditional” culture, class divisions, and patterns of land ownership. It was pleasing and inexpensive for them to do so. Traditional rulers had similarly sought to control and exploit local people, who had never had a voice in administration. In Cambodia, the French restored the medieval temple complex of Angkor and in effect presented the Khmer with the gift of a history that they had forgotten. The Vietnamese were less happy at being placed in a Confucian time warp, especially after Chinese elements of their culture and traditional government had been so severely undermined. The French made sure, in the meantime, that local people paid the costs of governing Indochina. Until the closing year of World War II, with rare exceptions, the system worked.