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In Search of Kilometer Zero: Digital Archives, Technological Revisionism, and the Sino-Vietnamese Border

  • Ken Maclean (a1)

Bùi Minh Quốc left for the border in late 2001. His clandestine trip, which took nearly a month to complete on a 50cc Honda Cub motorcycle, retraced the perimeter of Việt Bắc, the name for the mountainous region that stretches across ten provinces in northeastern Vietnam. Quốc, a poet of considerable repute, documented the highpoints of the ride in verse. But the region’s rugged beauty, which holds a prominent place in official histories of the anti-colonial struggle against the French and those who collaborated with them, was not the real reason for his quest. Nor was the region’s more recent reincarnation as a socialist battleground during the Third Indochina War with the People’s Republic of China, a conflict that killed and wounded an estimated one hundred thousand people in the space of a month. Instead, Quốc’s self-appointed task was to find the current location of “Kilometer Zero” (Cấy số không) along the Sino-Vietnamese border—a difficult proposition since it appears nowhere on official maps of the country. Nonetheless, the toponym is commonly used to refer to the precise spot in Lạng Sơn Province where National Highway 1A, the only paved road to traverse the entire length of Vietnam, begins its long journey south.

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1 Chùm Thơ Viết Trên Đường Lãng Du Bằng Xe Máy (Bunch of poems written wandering on the road by motorcycle) (Dec. 2001),

2 Elliot David, ed., The Third Indochina Conflict (Boulder: Westview Press, 1981).

3 Bhabba Homi, ed. Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990), 17.

4 Sections of Hà Giang and Cao Bằng Provinces, which extend farther north than the posited location of Kilometer Zero in Cao Lộc District, Lạng Sơn Province, were not added to Tonkin, a French protectorate, until the late eighteenth century.

5 Amer Ramses, “Assessing Sino-Vietnamese Relations through the Management of Contentious Issues,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 26, 2 (2004): 320–45.

6 The Communist Party regularly employed this phrase to denounce Vietnamese who collaborated with its various ideological enemies. Here, the phrase is used as a means to strategically turn the Communist Party’s own rhetoric back against itself. For related discussion, see Oushakine Sergei, “The Terrifying Mimicry of Samizdat,” Public Culture 113, 2 (2004): 191214.

7 Interview N.D.H., Hanoi, Mar. 2002.

8 Interview N.V.M., Hanoi, Apr. 2002.

9 OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam in 2005–2006 (Cambridge, Mass.: OpenNet Initiative, 2006).

10 See, for example, Laguerre Michel, “Homeland Political Crisis, the Virtual Diasporic Public Sphere, and Diasporic Politics,” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 10, 1 (2005): 206–55; Ong Aihwa, “Cyberpublics and Diaspora Politics among Transnational Chinese,” Interventions 5, 1 (2003): 82100.

11 Hedstrom Margaret, “Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past,” Archival Sciences 2 (2002): 2143.

12 Kopytoff Igor, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in, Appadurai Arjun, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 34.

13 “Cultures of Circulation: The Imagination of Modernity,” Public Culture 14, 1 (2002): 215–38.

14 Gaonkar Dilip and Povinelli Elizabeth, “Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transfiguration, Recognition,” Public Culture 15, 3 (2003): 391.

15 Žižek Slavoj, “Cyberspace, or, the Unbearable Closure of Being,” in The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), 127–70.

16 Laermans Rudi and Gielen Pascal, “The Archive of the Digital An-Archive,” Image and Narrative 17 (2007): 3.

17 Riffaterre Michael, “Intertextuality vs. Hypertextuality,” New Literary History 25, 4 (1994): 788.

18 White Luise, “Telling More: Lies, Secrets, and History,” History and Theory 39 (2000): 1122.

19 Womack Brantley, China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

20 Taylor Keith, “Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region,” Journal of Asian Studies 57, 4 (1998): 949–78.

21 Pelley Patricia, “The History of Resistance and the Resistance to History in Post-Colonial Constructions of the Past,” in, Taylor Keith and Whitmore John, eds., Essays in Vietnamese Pasts (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 232–45.

22 Of course, other narrations of the “nation” have circulated, and continue to do so, among Vietnamese, including academics employed by the state. See Vu Tuong, “Vietnamese Political Studies and Debates on Vietnamese Nationalism,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2, 2 (2007): 175230.

23 Winichakul Thongchai, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994), 1619.

24 Interview T.T.Đ., Cao Bằng, Mar. 2005.

25 Stoler Ann, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content in the Form,” in, Hamilton Carolyn, Harris Verne, and Reid Grahame, eds., Refiguring the Archive (Dordrect: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 83; Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” in ibid., 19.

26 Schwartz Joan and Cook Terry, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 119.

27 Foucault Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 126–31.

28 Laermans and Gielen, “The Archive of the Digital An-Archive”: 3.

29 Warner Michael, “Public and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, 1 (2002): 4990.

30 Surborg Björn, “On-Line with the People in Line: Internet Development and Flexible Control of the Net in Vietnam,” Geoforum 39 (2008); Dang Hoang-Giang, “Internet in Vietnam: From a Laborious Birth to an Uncertain Future,” Informatik Forum 1999 (1),

31 Ashley Carruthers, “Exile and Return: Deterritorializing National Imaginaries in Vietnam and the Diaspora,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Sydney, 2001).

32 Mueggler Erik, “Money, the Mountain, and State Power in a Naxi Village,” Modern China 17 (1991): 188226.

33 Hachigian Nina, “The Internet and Power in One-Party East Asian States,” The Washington Quarterly 25, 3 (2002): 4158.

34 Interview N.V.G., Hanoi, Mar. 2002.

35 OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam, 5–21.

36 Sherman Chris and Price Gary, The Invisible Web (Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc., 2001).

37 Deleuze Gilles and Guattari Felix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 58.

39 “Phân Định Biên Giới Vì Mục Tiêu Bảo Vệ Lãnh Thổ và Tạo Môi Trường Hữu Nghị” [Delimiting the boundary with the aim of protecting territory and creating an environment of friendship] (2 Feb. 2002).

40 For background, see Bureau of Intelligence and Research, International Boundary Study No. 38: China—Vietnam Boundary (Washington, D.C.: Department of State, 1978).

41 For other opinions, see the thirteen-page chat-room debate that the Institute of Vietnamese Studies, a non-profit research group based in Hanoi, placed on its archive:

42 “Đề Nghị Quốc Hội Không Thông Qua Hiệp Định Biên Giới Việt Trung” [To suggest the National Assembly not ratify the Sino-Vietnamese Border Agreements] (Feb. 2001), reposted:

43 For details, see Lê Đoàn Việt, “Hai Năm Sau Ngày Cắm Cột Mốc Biên Giới: Trách Nhiệm Vẫn Còn Đó” [Two years after the placement of the border marker: (Our) responsibility remains!], Liên Minh Việt Nam Tự Do [Free Vietnam Alliance] (17 Dec. 2003),

44 Search results on file with author.

45 See also, Lesk Michael, “The New Front Line: Estonia under Cyber-Assault,” IEEE Security & Privacy 5, 4 (2007): 7679.

46 Diệu Vân, “Chiến Tranh Internet Bắt Đầu” [The Internet war begins] (25 Feb. 2002),

47 For example, the U.S.-based Asia-Pacific Strategic Research Institute inserted fifty-nine explanatory notes to the original interview transcript, doubling its length:

48 At the time of research, the firewall blocked direct access to this archive——from within Vietnam. However, an image search using cruft, that is, “svr.png,” made it possible to locate a cached copy on another server. Storage limitations forced the to divide into a series of linked archives in late 2007, A reposted copy of the above map can be found at:

49 “Hồ Sơ: Bang Giao Việt-Trung và Vấn Đề Biên Giới, Biển Đông” [Folder: Sino-Vietnamese relations, the land and maritime border problem], (n.d.),

50 Reporters without Borders, “Vietnam,” The Internet under Surveillance (Paris: Reporters without Borders, 2003), 133–37.

51 Amnesty International, Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Freedom of Expression under Threat in Cyberspace (London: Amnesty International, 2003), 16–18.

52 Anonymous, Cẩm Nang Internet Cho Việt Nam: Chìa Khóa Vượt Tường Lửa [Internet manual for Vietnam: Key to overcoming the firewall] (Aug. 2002), For a reposted version:

54 Lê Đoàn Việt, “Hai Năm Sau Ngày….”

56 “On the Settlement of Vietnam-China Border Issue” (14 Sept. 2002).

58 “Nhân Đọc Bài Phỏng Vấn Lê Công Phụng.” For a reposted copy:

59 Security officials placed Professor Trần Khuê, the co-editor of Dialogue, under house arrest in March after he emailed an open letter of protest regarding the territorial agreements to the President of China shortly before his official visit to Vietnam. “Thư Ngỏ Gửi Tổng Bí Thư Giang Trạch Dân” (20 Feb. 2002):

60 Diệu Vân, “Chiến Tranh Internet….” Curiously, the maps have been deleted from some reposted versions of the essay. See:

61 bnlclbangioc.jpg, ibid.

62 bnlclnamqua.jpg, ibid.

63 Interviews, Lạng Sơn, Aug. 2005.

64 See also, Bruun Ole, “The Fengshui Resurgence in China: Conflicting Cosmologies between State and Peasantry,” The China Journal 36 (1996): 4765.

65 “Tourism Belt Forming along China-Vietnam Border,” Xinhuanet (15 Oct. 2002).

66 Interviews with cross-border traders, Lạng Sơn, Aug. 2005 and July 2006.

67 “Nam Quan: Ải, Cửa Ải và Biên Giới” [Nam Quan: Frontier pass, border pass, and frontier], Diễn Đàn 128 (2003),; “Từ Nam Quan đến Bản Giốc” [From Nam Quan to Ban Gioc], Diễn Đàn 129 (2003),

68 Partially reposted in “Nam Quan.”

69 i128nngiao4.jpg and i128nngiao5.jpg, ibid.

71 Giao, “Từ Nam Quan đến Bản Giốc.”

72 Trần Quang Lê et al., “Kiến Nghị Thư của 20 Cử Tri Yêu Cầu Quốc Hội Cộng Sản Việt Nam Không Thông Qua Hiệp Định Biên Giới Việt Trung” [Petition of twenty voters requesting the National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam not ratify the Sino-Vietnamese Land Border Treaty] (18 Nov. 2001),

73 “Biên Giới Việt-Trung” [The Sino-Vietnamese border],; Biên Giới Việt-Trung 1885–2000 [The Sino-Vietnamese border 1885–2000] (Marseille: Dũng Châu, 2005).

74 “Góp ý với ông Nguyễn Ngọc Giao về chủ quyền của Việt-Nam tại Nam-Quan và thác Bản-Giốc” [Opinions contributed to Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Giao regarding the border problems at Nam Quan and the Ban Gioc Waterfall],

75 “President Hu’s Visit to Further Promote Sino-Vietnamese Relations,” People’s Daily Online (30 Oct. 2005).

76 “China, Vietnam to Enhance Economic, Trade Cooperation,” Xinhua (22 Mar. 2006); World Trade Organization, Country Profile: Vietnam (Geneva: World Trade Organization, 2005).

77 For a critique of this narrative, see Liam Kelley, Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

78 Interview N.K.V., Hanoi, July 2006.

79 Taylor, “Surface Orientations in Vietnam”: 951.

80 Interview V.H.P., Hanoi, July 2002.

81 Interview N.A.H., Lạng Sơn, Aug. 2005.

82 Fraser Nancy, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in, Calhoun Craig, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 109–42.

83 OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Vietnam, 4–21.

84 Borneman John, “Why Reconciliation? A Response to Critics,” Public Culture 15, 1 (2003): 203–8.

85 Pelley Patricia, Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 142–47.

86 The ongoing dispute over the South China Sea and its resources offers a perfect example. For the past five decades, both states have used a wide range of historical, legal, and extra-legal methods, including lethal force, to assert their overlapping sovereign claims to much of the South China Sea, which all Vietnamese speakers pointedly refer to as the “Eastern Sea” (Biển đông) to denaturalize the Sino-centric connotations of the more widely used toponym. Further discussion of this conflict and the role technological forms of revisionism have played in it are beyond the scope of this essay, however. For background, see Tönnesson Stein, “Locating the South China Sea,” in, Kratoska Paul, Raben Remco, and Nordholt Henk, eds., Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space (Singapore: Singapore National University Press, 2005), 203–32; “Vietnamese in Second Anti-China Rally over Disputed Islands,” Agence France Press (16 Dec. 2007). For a reposted copy:

Acknowledgments: The Fulbright-Hays DDRA, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the University of Michigan, and the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (Emory University) provided financial support that made this essay possible. Thoughtful comments from Christina Schwenkel, Bruce Knauft, Andrew Goss, Juliet Feibel, Andrew Shryock, and three anonymous CSSH reviewers greatly improved earlier versions. Due to the nature of the material presented, I have redacted the names of all my Vietnamese interlocutors to protect their identities. All links are current as of August 2008 unless otherwise noted. However, technological forms of revisionism, “link rot,” and other factors may affect their continued viability. For this reason, copies of all electronic materials cited below are available upon request.

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