Police Stop Critics of VinFast’s Vietnam Operations

Vietnamese authorities question critics of VinFast, implications for brand’s U.S. goals?

The notifications that appeared on the Reddit and Facebook forums were full of panic and desperation.

In the days leading up to Christmas, starting on December 18th, numerous posts began circulating on various online forums devoted to discussing the Vietnamese electric car company VinFast. These individuals were expressing concern over the disappearance of a former teacher turned vocal critic of the automaker and its parent company, Vingroup, named Sonnie Tran, who resided in Ho Chi Minh City. Tran had gained notoriety for publicly denouncing the practices of the company.

Before that time, Tran had been actively using Facebook and Facebook Messenger to share updates about the company’s production and financial status. He regularly communicated with his close friends and supporters through these platforms on a daily basis. However, without any warning, Tran ceased responding to any messages, causing great worry among his friends. They were left wondering what could have happened to him and fearing for the worst.

“Urgently seeking help in locating a missing individual!” exclaimed a Reddit user, pleading for assistance in finding Tran. The translated post stated, “We were supposed to meet for coffee this morning, but after reaching out again, [he] had vanished at 7 a.m. and no one knew their whereabouts… the safety of [Sonnie’s] life is our top priority right now.”

Shortly thereafter, disturbing reports emerged that three undercover law enforcement officials had allegedly kidnapped Tran while he was at a café during the day. According to reliable sources, who will remain anonymous to ensure their safety from possible repercussions, the subsequent investigation into this incident was triggered by Tran’s outspoken criticism of VinFast. It is believed that Tran’s comments may have violated a loosely interpreted law in Vietnam, which some critics argue is specifically designed to suppress any negative speech against the country or its vested interests. As a result, Tran’s mobile phone and computer were seized by the authorities upon his arrest. (Initial coverage of Tran’s detention was first reported by Voice of America’s Vietnamese edition.)

In addition, records from a court in Vietnam that have been reviewed by InsideEVs validate that Tran – along with an associate, a fact that has not been disclosed before – was requested to attend a meeting with the Ministry of Public Security “to provide clarification on certain matters related to Vingroup’s grievance.”

Tran has garnered a considerable following on Facebook and within the Vietnamese blogging community through his critiques of VinFast and Vingroup. In recent news, a growing number of outspoken critics have emerged in Vietnam, feeling disillusioned by the issues regarding the quality of these companies’ cars. Tran’s social media posts are causing a stir, particularly on platforms like Reddit, as he delves into various allegations and delivers sharp assessments based on lesser-known but publicly accessible data about the production and standards of VinFast’s offerings, as well as Vingroup’s business practices.

An illustration of this can be seen in one of Tran’s highly viewed articles, where he asserts that VinFast’s swift production of new car models may have received more outside assistance than what the company typically presents in its corporate story. Moreover, another piece by Tran suggests that Vingroup could potentially be inflating its profits by shifting debts and loans through businesses owned by Vingroup’s founder and Vietnam’s richest man, Pham Nhat Vuong. (Tran is not the only one making these allegations; there have been multiple online posts raising similar concerns.)

It is uncertain whether the accusation against Tran was made by Vingroup or if it was brought forward by the Vietnamese government on behalf of the corporation. In response to an inquiry from InsideEVs through email, a representative from VinFast clarified that the company, as well as any other entity or individual, does not have the authority to intervene in matters under the jurisdiction of the authorities.

When questioned about whether either VinFast or Vingroup had previously taken such actions, the official stated that they had indeed done so.

Previously, VinFast lodged a grievance against a person who spread inaccurate details about one of their gasoline models. This incident greatly harmed the trust of customers and the reputation of the brand,” stated an official from VinFast in an email response to InsideEVs. As a result, we decided to make the complaint public while following proper legal protocols. Additionally, we openly shared information on our official media platforms and through mass media outlets. We followed all guidelines and regulations meticulously during the preparation of the case and filing of the complaint.”

Nguyen Khac Giang, a researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore who specializes in Vietnamese politics and the government’s influence, shared with InsideEVs that these results are not without precedent.According to Nguyen Khac Giang, an expert on Vietnamese politics and state power from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, the recent outcomes are not uncommon.

According to Giang, there have been numerous cases where Vietnamese laws have been used to prosecute people for “misusing freedom of speech” in order to harm the state’s interests. Although many of these cases involve individuals who have spoken out against the government, some have also involved businesses. This law is often loosely defined, making it prone to misuse against those who criticize the government.

VinFast stands out as one of the most daring electric vehicle (EV) startups in 2024, with determined plans to establish production facilities not only in India and North Carolina but also in other parts of the world. This venture is of utmost importance to Vietnam, a nation that is still recognized by the U.S. State Department as an authoritarian single-party state. However, Vietnam has shifted towards capitalism in recent years and aims to elevate its global status through a rapidly growing economy. In fact, Vingroup, the parent company of VinFast, has been widely acknowledged as a driving force behind Vietnam’s progress in various fields such as pharmaceuticals, personal technology, education, and now, electric cars.

Despite Vietnam’s modern advancements, freedom of speech is heavily restricted, especially when it involves criticizing the state or its interests. According to informed insiders, Tran may have personally encountered this issue.

According to Giang, as the biggest corporation in Vietnam, it wouldn’t be unexpected for Vingroup to have the means to counter unfavorable media coverage within the country and could possibly seek government intervention in situations such as Sonnie Tran’s.

Despite its ambitious plans for global expansion, recent reports from Vietnam have brought to light concerns about this automaker. This includes the use of both private and public funding in the United States, with North Carolina providing $1.2 billion in incentives for an electric vehicle factory in Chatham County near Raleigh and a possible $1.4 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. Additionally, the automaker has gained support from the private sector, most notably securing one major dealer group for locations in Texas, New York, North Carolina, and Kansas.

Over the course of several months, Tran shared numerous posts on Facebook and other platforms, bringing up concerns regarding VinFast’s financial situation, public statements, and approaches to vehicle development. (Not all of Tran’s allegations could be corroborated independently by InsideEVs.)

According to Tran, financial records have revealed that Indian engineering company Tata Technologies, a subsidiary of Tata Motors and owner of Jaguar Land Rover, has played a much larger role in VinFast’s vehicle development than what their “out of nowhere” story suggests. In fact, Tran pointed out that Tata’s IPO filing in India disclosed their involvement as the turnkey developers for VinFast’s VF6, 7, 8, and 9 car models, utilizing Tata’s eVMP platform.

Tran’s assertions are derived from available financial records. In VinFast’s initial public offering (IPO) files, Tata Technologies is cited as a crucial collaborator. This is also supported by Tata Technologies’ own IPO documents from November 2023, which detail the range of services it provides.

Tata, a renowned company in the field of vehicle architecture development and electrical and electronics design, has mentioned its partnership with VinFast as one of its major clients. According to Tata, VinFast, a Vietnamese automaker, is among its top customers. It is worth noting that Tata is optimistic about the future of VinFast. In an interview with India’s Economic Times in December, the CEO of Tata Technologies, Warren Kevin Harris, stated, “As with many new energy vehicle companies, their focus shifts towards building vehicles and creating brand recognition and interest. With VinFast, we may experience a slight decrease in revenue over the next 12 to 18 months. However, we firmly believe that the company is well-positioned for success and we are confident in our continued involvement.”

Despite receiving assistance from seasoned players, VinFast’s foray into the global market has faced numerous challenges. The brand’s initial introduction received a lot of attention due to Vietnam’s lack of a domestic auto industry. It began by producing internal combustion cars based on BMW designs, but soon shifted its focus to electric vehicles (EVs). However, further inquiries have been raised since then.

The much-anticipated VF8 was significantly delayed and arrived with a lackluster electric range and subpar workmanship, resulting in unfavorable evaluations. Despite this, the brand received a highly valuable initial public offering in August 2023, surpassing traditional automakers such as General Motors and Ford. However, just two months later in October, its stock value plummeted by 75%, largely due to limited availability for trading, as the majority of shares were controlled by Vingroup founder Vuong’s affiliated companies.

In the meantime, according to both Barrons and the Carolina Journal, a publication that focuses on the region where VinFast intends to establish a factory in the United States, it has been revealed that a significant portion of VinFast’s profits were generated by the company selling cars to organizations under the control of its founder, Vuong. These sources state that 7,100 out of VinFast’s total sales of 13,000 vehicles globally were purchased by Green and Smart Mobility, a Vietnamese taxi company owned by Vingroup. Furthermore, reports indicate that the automaker has experienced a substantial amount of staff turnover since its establishment.

Nevertheless, the company is forging ahead with its efforts to grow in the United States. It has taken a new approach by moving away from solely relying on direct-to-consumer sales and instead collaborating with a network of dealers to distribute its vehicles. In the future, it intends to broaden its range beyond the VF8 and currently-unavailable VF9 models, by venturing into the compact, subcompact, and microcar sectors with the VF7, VF6, and VF3, respectively.

Despite some concerns from investors and analysts about the slowing EV market and doubts surrounding emerging startups, VinFast is determined to secure the support of both state and federal governments in order to maintain its growth ambitions. This includes obtaining loans and tax incentives, which are crucial resources for the company’s expansion plans.

According to Tu Le, the Managing Director of the automotive consulting company Sino Auto Insights, Vuong is possibly the wealthiest individual in Vietnam and has close connections to the previous Vietnamese government. However, his total assets amount to approximately $4.5 billion, with a significant portion being invested in real estate. Le, who is a native of Vietnam and specializes in studying the automotive sector in Asia, argues that even if Vuong had access to all of his funds, it would not have been sufficient to cover Vinfast’s expenditures and forceful international growth.

According to Le, VinFast initially aimed to swiftly launch their products in international markets, not only to surpass Chinese car manufacturers but also to capitalize on the electric vehicle investment craze. This phenomenon resulted in inflated valuations for companies such as Rivian and NIO.

Currently, VinFast is in a difficult position,” stated Le. “Unless they are able to secure additional funding, they will not be able to address the problems with their products or introduce the other cars that were showcased at various auto exhibitions. This also means that their initial goal of producing a car in the United States, specifically in North Carolina, may not come to fruition.”In the present situation, VinFast finds itself in an unfavorable condition,” remarked Le. “Unless substantial capital can be obtained, there is little chance for them to resolve the quality concerns and release the other vehicles that were featured at prestigious auto shows. It is uncertain if their ambition to manufacture a car in America, particularly in North Carolina, will materialize.”

In many locations, openly criticizing a company—especially one deemed vital to a nation’s reputation and global standing—on social media will likely lead to being ignored or blacklisted at best, and possibly sued for defamation at worst. However, VinFast does not conform to this norm. Due to Vietnam’s stringent regulations on expression, Tran’s remarks could potentially result in him and others being sentenced to lengthy prison terms in his native land.

Central to the limitations on freedom of expression in Vietnam lies a broadly worded regulation known as Article 331. This law has been critiqued for its ambiguity and tendency to silence dissenting voices.Article 331 stands as a barrier to free speech in Vietnam due to its open-ended language and potential to stifle opposing viewpoints. This legislation has been heavily scrutinized for its lack of clarity and ability to suppress those who speak out against the government.While the exact scope and limitations of Article 331 are constantly evolving, it primarily targets speech that is deemed harmful to national security or public order. This broad interpretation has resulted in many individuals being targeted and prosecuted for simply expressing their opinions or reporting on sensitive issues.As a result, the media landscape in Vietnam is highly controlled by the government, with strict censorship laws and heavy-handed tactics used to suppress dissenting voices. Journalists and bloggers often face harassment, detention, and even imprisonment for their reporting. This creates a culture of fear where individuals are hesitant to speak out or share information that may be critical of the government.Despite numerous international calls for reform and the Vietnamese government’s pledge to increase press freedoms, the use of Article 331 continues to limit the right to free speech in Vietnam. Until this law is adequately reformed

Article 331 is a provision in the Vietnamese legal system that gives the government the authority to prosecute individuals who are deemed to be “misusing their right to free speech in order to undermine the interests of the state, organizations, or individuals.” This regulation has previously been utilized to charge and punish individuals for expressing dissenting views against the interests of Vietnam.

Amnesty International has been vocal in raising concerns about Article 331, when combined with strict laws regarding online censorship. This combination poses a serious threat to individuals who express criticism online. The organization has acknowledged that a significant and increasing number of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam are incarcerated solely for their online expression. In fact, 41% of those identified as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International are currently imprisoned due to peaceful online speech.

Vingroup has once again faced consequences for receiving negative feedback, not unfamiliar to those who have criticized the company in the past. The brand found itself in hot water when Vietnamese content creator GogoTV raised concerns about the ICE-powered VinFast Lux SA 2.0 in April 2021. Reuters reported that Vingroup retaliated by reporting GogoTV to the authorities, claiming to do so in order to safeguard its reputation and customers. They argued that his complaint went beyond a typical grievance and that his allegations were false.

According to a statement from GogoTV’s legal team, on January 25th, 2022 it was announced that VinFast’s complaint and the resulting lawsuit had officially come to an end. The initial video that sparked the dispute has been removed from GogoTV’s channel; however, it has since been uploaded by a different YouTube user.

The authorities of Chatham County, where the proposed site for a new North Carolina factory is located, informed InsideEVs via email that they are unable to comment on “the accusations in question as they fall outside our jurisdiction and are beyond our scope of responsibility.”

Receiving an official statement from VinFast regarding Tran’s predicament presented a sharp contrast to the usual procedure followed by most car manufacturers when dealing with American press organizations. When questioned about whether any executives in the U.S. branch were informed about the purported arrest of dissenters in Vietnam, a company representative appeared hesitant to respond. “In keeping with our commitment to transparency,” they replied, “we ensure that information is easily accessible through public channels, enabling employees to stay well-informed.”

During the CES conference, a journalist from InsideEVs had a conversation with two individuals who claimed to be part of VinFast’s communication team. When questioned about the Tran controversy, one of the spokespeople stated, “Typically, we refrain from addressing social media posts as we cannot verify the accuracy of the information.”

“That’s not even relevant to us,” chimed in another. “That person seems to be against VinFast, but also against the Vietnamese government. The Cybersecurity Law in Vietnam can create issues and it has nothing to do with us.”

In a recent correspondence with InsideEVs following CES, VinFast provided a more detailed explanation. “Under Vietnamese regulations, both individuals and organizations have the right to lodge grievances against any party that exploits the freedom of speech to discredit the integrity and dignity of others. The appropriate authorities are responsible for addressing and resolving such complaints. As a result, we have chosen to drop the matter,” a representative from VinFast stated. This statement was later confirmed to refer to Tran’s situation.

When inquired about how Tran’s experience may be perceived by American customers, a representative from the company stated: “We carry out all of our operations in an honest and clear manner while adhering to the law and our legal rights. We strongly encourage open dialogue and firmly believe that constructive criticism aids our growth and progress. Customers and the general public are welcome to provide their feedback.”

According to insiders with knowledge of the situation, Tran has not received any communication from VinFast or VinGroup stating that they have retracted their complaint against him. Additionally, his seized laptop and phone have still not been returned.

Get in touch with the writer: kevin.williams@insideevs.com If you need to reach out to the author of this article, please contact Kevin Williams at kevin.williams@insideevs.com.

Additional information provided by Patrick George was gathered in this report.

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