Critical Digital Sovereignties

Digesting National Sovereignty

by Giang Nguyen-Thu

The above image shows an online post by a young Vietnamese mother who trades ‘clean food’ through informal digital networking. She is advertising ‘clean mountainous pears’ on the Facebook group Chợ Quê (Country Market), which has more than half a million members, of whom a majority are mothers. The pears shown here are claimed to be ‘not Chinese produce’(‘if wrong, I will compensate 200%’) and ‘authentically clean, picked right at the orchard.’To enhance the impact of her claim on the chemical-free quality of the fruits, she shared a video of her child happily chewing a pear.

This mother is one among thousands of Vietnamese women who participate in the nascent, yet thriving, ‘mamasphere’ of Facebook-based food trading. In this space of digitally augmented anxiety about eaten toxins, feeding Chinese produce to one's child marks a moment of deep maternal guilt, and securing locally sourced ‘clean food’ is an unconcealed pride. The anxiety of chemically-loaded meals, which has gradually pervaded Vietnamese life with the rapid marketization and industrialization of food after the 1986 Reform, is tangled with the deep-seated anti-Chinese sentiment amplified by the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Digital media play a pivotal role in facilitating such an entanglement. As chemical toxins in food are invisible by their nature and marine politics is too far offshore to observe (if it is ever disclosed on mainstream media), the capacity of the personal and national bodies to ‘feel’ the contaminating forces of Chinese power is afforded mainly by social networks, most predominantly Facebook.

While much has been said in the international discourse about the anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam as well as the digital activism that accompanies, very little attention is paid to the way national sovereignty is embodied at the level of everyday life and from the gender perspective. The discourse of ‘dirty Chinese food’ that governs the way many Vietnamese mothers feed their beloved children can reveal to us a different dimension of national sovereignty, in which sovereignty is materially embedded in the reproduction of life through bodily digestion, economic transaction,and the digitally amplified worries about the contaminated bodies of both the nation and the selves.

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