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Comic book ban highlights Vietnam's censorship struggle; youth find ways to circumvent control

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HANOI, Vietnam - When student Nguyen Hong Nhung saw "Killer with a Festering Head" on someone's smartphone, she wanted the banned comic book too. Though Vietnam's censors had yanked it from stores, finding a digital copy wasn't exactly hard.

Nhung simply Googled the title, and with a few clicks was able to download a free bootleg copy of the book — a collection of one-panel cartoons illustrating the popular, sometimes-nonsensical rhyming phrases of Vietnamese youth slang.

Government censors had deemed some of the images violent or politically sensitive.

"The more the government tries to ban something, the more young people try to find out why," the 20-year-old said in the capital, Hanoi.

Vietnam's greying Communist Party is all about control: It censors all media, squashes protests and imprisons those who dare to speak out against its one-party system. But today, as iPhone shops rub shoulders with Buddhist pagodas, cultural authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to promote their unified sense of Vietnamese culture and identity — especially among the country's youth.

"This is a key turning point for the younger generation," said Thaveeporn Vasavakul, a Southeast Asia scholar who consults on public sector reform in Vietnam.

"Despite one-party rule you see pluralism in the cultural and political thinking. And the younger generation is standing there, looking around, and seeing a lot of options to choose from."

Propaganda posters and patriotic campaigns continue to urge young and old to emulate the ascetic lifestyle of the late President Ho Chi Minh. Censors still review books, films and foreign newspapers for sensitive content while bureaucrats try to curb — with varying success — everything from online gaming to motorbike racing.

Vietnamese youth of today are largely apolitical and chances of any mass uprisings remain remote for now, says Dang Hoang Giang, a senior researcher at the non-profit Center for Community Support Development Studies.

However, the country's youth have a rich history of organizing and rising up, first to help overthrow the French colonialists and later to oust the Americans during the Vietnam War. Adding to Hanoi's jitters are last year's Arab Spring democracy movements that swept through North Africa and the Middle East, as well as growing protests among the poor in neighbouring China.

Growing differences among Vietnam's generations worry its cultural authorities because "they are used to thinking that they have to be in the driver's seat," Giang said.

Although cultural bans have been watered down in recent years, the government's knee-jerk reaction is still to restrict youth behaviour it perceives as a potential threat to the state's authority — even if such moves are ineffective.

But a 2009 ban on late-night online gaming hasn't stopped Vietnamese teens from patronizing Internet parlours where they sometimes play in the dark to avoid detection. Fines on motorbike racing have not deterred young violators, prompting police in northern Thanh Hoa province to snag speeders with fishing nets. Loose Facebook restrictions also do not prevent users from logging on to the popular U.S.-based social networking site.

The October ban of "Killer with a Festering Head" is another old-school censoring attempt that failed.

Although a state-owned publisher recalled the book two weeks after its release, saying it broached sensitive topics, Vietnamese are still reading online or buying pirated copies on the street. A digital version is selling for US$7.99 on the U.S. website Amazon.com.

The pocket-sized book — "Sat Thu Dau Mung Mu" in Vietnamese — features 120 illustrations satirizing contemporary Vietnamese life and social issues. Author Nguyen Thanh Phong takes aim at such hot topics as wildlife trafficking and domestic violence using playful, yet edgy, humour.

His rhyming one-liners mimic a street slang that is disliked by some older Vietnamese who see it as degrading to the country's language and culture.

Phong, 25, who won a jury prize last year from the Asia-Pacific Animation and Comics Association, says he created the comic book to show that "artists can do whatever they want" and to help Vietnamese people "feel closer to contemporary issues."

He shrugs off claims that it debases the language and says the decision to recall it was extreme.

"One of the things that hinders the creativeness of young artists is their invisible fear," Phong said recently while sipping a latte in Hanoi. "They don't know what could make the authorities unhappy, so they set their own limits on what they create."

In one illustration deemed too brutal by censors, a frightened man gives blood that he plans to sell to finance his children's education. "Doctor, is it over yet?" the man asks. "Wait a minute," the doctor replies. "I've got only three litres so far." The exchange can be read as a critique of rising inequality in Vietnam, depicting the downside of the country's recent economic boom.

Another page takes a cheeky swipe at the military, showing two soldiers kicking a grenade, soccer ball-style, under the caption "Soldiers must show off." The military is exalted in Vietnamese society and normally is off-limits to criticism.

Dang Thi Bich Ngan, acting director of the Culture Ministry's Fine Arts Publishing House, defended the decision to recall the book after 4,000 of 5,000 first-edition copies had already sold. But she admitted that the controversy has only stoked underground sales.

Executives from the book's Vietnamese publisher, Nha Nam, declined to comment.

College student Do Quynh Trang, 19, says the government should censor violent and sexually explicit content and that "Killer with a Festering Head" — which she read on a Vietnamese teen site — shouldn't be accessible to readers younger than 18.

Still, she plans to buy a hard copy and cherish it as a keepsake of her youth.

"The sentences are very funny," Trang says of the book. "Maybe when we get older, we will stop using them."

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