Chapter 3: The Struggle of the Vietnamese People to Create a Unified Independent State: Theory and Practice of the Experience in the Colonial Period

Bi Shihong and Zhang Qiong

*Bi Shihong is a Professor at the School of International Studies of Yunnan University. He holds a PhD from the Institute of Japan Studies of Nankai University, China. His research focuses on international relations and area studies of South-East Asia.

*Zhang Qiong is a history teacher at Anju No.1 Middle School in Suining. She graduated from the School of International Studies of Yunnan University with a master’s degree in history. Her research field is the history of East Asian international relations.


After Vietnam broke away from China in the 10th century, the country maintained a relatively independent form of feudal rule for a long time. The invasion of French colonists and the subsequent colonial rule interrupted the development of the Vietnamese state, with the result that Vietnam’s economy and society were no longer shaped by dynamics inherent to its society. Vietnam, rather, was forced to respond to the needs of external forces. The nation state of Vietnam was eventually forged through the struggle against French colonial rule and Japanese military and political rule.

During Vietnam’s colonial period (taken here as covering the period between 1858 and 1945), there were ongoing attempts to rid the country of colonial rule and build a unified independent state. It was a difficult and tortuous process involving struggle. A close examination of class factors is needed in order to understand how the Vietnamese people defeated the French colonists and Japanese invaders, liberating themselves from the harsh conditions of the colonial period. Both the practical and theoretical dimensions of this need to be explored.

This research seeks to deepen understanding of how the construction of the unified independent state was shaped by events during the colonial period, and how class factors related to the independence struggle and its success. After studying the impact of the invasion of Vietnam by France and then by Japan, the chapter examines the theoretical underpinnings and practices of the movements that aimed to rid the country of colonial rule, as well as their significance in class terms. The context in which the construction of Vietnam’s unified independent state developed, the influences that shaped it, and its characteristics all need to be covered. This will help to clarify how the Communist Party of Indochina achieved victory in the August Revolution of 1945 and won national independence for Vietnam.

In 1858, French colonists launched an armed invasion of Vietnam and attacked Da Nang. In 1885, China’s Qing Dynasty and France signed the “Sino-French Vietnam Treaty”, in which the Qing government recognized France’s protection of Vietnam, and Vietnam became effectively a French colony. In 1887, France installed in Vietnam its ruling institutions and the first governor-general of Indochina, and gradually established a complete system of colonial rule. French colonial rule in Vietnam had far-reaching influence on the construction of the nation state of Vietnam.

During the World War II, Japan occupied the French Indochina. Japan and the French colonists established alliances that brought double oppression to the Vietnamese people. This however ultimately reinforced the Vietnamese people’s unity and enhanced Vietnam’s national cohesion. The defeat of the French colonists by Japanese fascists led the Vietnamese people to recognize the fragile nature of French colonial rule and further enhanced their confidence in gaining national independence. Japan’s rule over Vietnam objectively created the conditions that enabled Vietnam to build a unified independent state.

In the 19th century, in the face of the invasion by French colonists, Vietnamese feudal scholars and landlord class, including Ton That Thuyet, tried to resist. But they were incapable of resisting the French colonial aggressors who possessed the advantages of modern institutions and weapons.

With the failure of the resistance movements, the Vietnamese feudal ruling class was effectively overthrown. At the beginning of the 20th century, the construction of a unified independent state entered its second stage, with a new theoretical and practical basis. Modern intellectuals in Vietnam had come into contact with advanced ideologies, cultures, and political systems coming from the West, and were also cognisant of China’s reform and Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary thoughts. They gained this knowledge through a variety of means, mainly by pursuing studies in France, Japan, and China. They began to advocate using foreign ideas, practices, and organisation so as to save the country. Under the leadership of this stratum of modern intellectuals, Vietnam experienced a new surge of activity geared towards liberating the country.

However, the Vietnamese bourgeoisie were deeply constrained by traditional ideology and culture, and the anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism ideas they expressed were neither strong nor coherent. They failed to fashion effective anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism ideas. At the same time, the Vietnamese national bourgeoisie was inextricably linked to the French colonists and feudal landlords, which had created this stratum of society. Because of their weakness and the shackles imposed by traditional ideas, therefore, the Vietnamese bourgeoisie did not follow the radical trends that were emerging in the world, and they lacked the necessary experience on how to wage a national struggle. They were thus not well-suited to leading the Vietnamese people to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution. They were suppressed by the French colonial authorities at quite an early stage. The bourgeois democratic nationalist movement quickly fell into decline.

After the First World War, the Vietnamese proletariat gradually stepped onto the historical stage. In 1925, Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League in Guangzhou and made preparations for the establishment of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Later, party members and progressives successively established the Communist Party of Indochina, the Communist Party of Annan, and the Communist Union of Indochina. In February 1930, the Communist International commissioned Ho Chi Minh to merge these three organizations into the Communist Party of Vietnam. In October of the same year, the Communist Party of Vietnam changed its name to the Communist Party of Indochina (CPI). The party put forward a series of policy proposals for “consolidating and developing organizations, broadly bringing the masses together, [and] opposing the imperialist war” to strive for national independence, and ultimately led the Vietnamese people to independence.

The effects of the world economic crisis that broke out in 1929 spread to Vietnam. A large number of peasants went bankrupt, workers became unemployed, and anti-colonial sentiments grew. According to the instructions of the Communist International, the Communist Party of Indochina organized the uprising of the Nghe-Tinh soviets, in which a series of uprisings, strikes, and demonstrations against the French colonial regime and the feudal class were organised in 1930 and 1931. However, under the influence of Leftism, the ICP failed to unite a broad spectrum of classes. As a result, the colonial authorities were able to suppress the uprisings. The ICP party organizations were seriously damaged by this, and the revolutionary movement entered a period of low activity and weakness.

Ho Chi Minh responded to this situation by writing a new ICP program of action, combining Marxism-Leninism with specific practices in Vietnam and emphasizing the need to unite all patriotic forces, including the peasant revolution under the leadership of the proletariat, small and medium-sized landowners, and the national bourgeoisie, so as to achieve national liberation. In May 1941, Ho Chi Minh organised the eighth meeting of the Central Committee of the ICP. At the meeting, party leaders decided to establish the Vietnam Independence Alliance (Viet Minh) and the Vietnamese national united front to overthrow the rule of Japan and France and achieve national independence. Later, Ho Chi Minh led the establishment of revolutionary base areas in northern Vietnam, widely mobilized the masses to participate in the revolution.

After the surrender of Japan on August 15, the ICP launched the August Revolution, leading the Vietnamese people to successfully seize power within a month. On August 30, Nguyen Phuc Thien abdicated the throne. On September 2, Ho Chi Minh issued “Declaration of Independence” in Hanoi, proclaiming the establishment the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The Vietnamese proletariat assumed the heavy responsibility of leading the Vietnamese people to achieve national independence. The ICP knew that it was not feasible to rely on external forces to help expel the French colonists or to cooperate with France to bring about reform. Only by uniting the broad masses of the people could Vietnam finally overthrow imperialist and feudal rule. Under the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, the ICP, headed by Ho Chi Minh, put forward a guiding ideology in line with Vietnam’s national conditions, united all the forces that could be united, established an extensive national united front, and realized Vietnamese patriots’ long held dream of national independence