In a bizarre vestige of Cold War intrigue, an unknown author has fabricated a document purporting to be a Los Angeles Times news article quoting the Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations as sharply criticizing his own government.
The document, which at first glance appears to be a copy of an article published in the Times Orange County Edition, quotes Ambassador Trinh Xuan Lang as saying Hanoi's recent political and economic reforms are "unrealistic, shortsighted approaches" that "cannot repair a mismanaged economy."
No such article appeared in any edition of the Los Angeles Times, nor did The Times carry any coverage of the April 22 symposium in San Francisco at which Lang purportedly made the remarks in a keynote speech.
"I believe that document is a pure and simple and rather crude fabrication by ultra-reactionaries in the Vietnamese expatriate community in the U.S.," Lang said in a telephone interview from New York Friday. "Their motivation would be to create confusion in their community and in Vietnam."
But the intrigue does not end with the explanation that die-hard opponents of Hanoi's communist regime were attempting to embarrass Lang, who has spoken of his country's wishes for reconciliation and economic cooperation with the United States.
Douglas Pike, director of the Indochina Studies Project at UC Berkeley's Institute of East Asia Studies, contends that the bogus newspaper clipping was most likely fabricated in Hanoi by a faction of hard-line bureaucrats trying to discredit the U.N. envoy and undermine reforms to the socialist system.
"I'm inclined to think this is an effort by the old guard who are in competition with the reformers and the free-market economists," said Pike, a former State Department official who served in Vietnam during the war years as a researcher doing propaganda analysis.
Ironically, the document carried Pike's byline, which was the apparent reason Lang first contacted him earlier this month, bringing the article to his attention.
Pike's account is that Lang called him and spoke in a very distressed voice, asking why Pike had written an article distorting his remarks before the April symposium.
"It was sort of like he was saying, 'How could you do this to me?"' Pike recalled. "He was shocked. He believed that the article appeared and that I wrote it."
Pike also spoke at the San Francisco symposium, which was sponsored by the local bar association. Pike said he heard Lang's speech, that it contained nothing controversial, and that he did not write anything for publication on the subject.
Pike has been published by the Times as a special contributor on three occasions--twice as a book reviewer and once as the author of an opinion piece. Whoever fabricated the document could have easily pasted up his published byline and added "Times staff writer" beneath it.
However, in an indication of how clumsy the effort was, the document also carried the "AP" logo of the Associated Press wire service after the dateline San Francisco in the lead paragraph, which would not occur in an article written by a Times staff writer.
The text was riddled with spelling errors, dropped particles and awkward grammar, conveying the tone of a composition by someone who was not a native speaker of English.
"Vietnam's Ambassador criticizes Hanoi for Lack of Sincerity in Political Reforms," states the headline, followed, in smaller print, by: "Embarrassing remarks revealed deep division among party hardliners."
Lang denied that he had ever believed the article to be genuine, saying he contacted Pike merely to seek an explanation because Pike's byline was used. He added that his superiors at the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi had seen the document and had no suspicions of his loyalty.
"They know me quite well, no problem," Lang said. "They laughed at it. Hanoi did not take it seriously."
About 100 protesters from the Vietnamese refugee community staged a demonstration outside the April symposium, urging participating business executives not to consider investing in Vietnam while it remained under communist rule.
Indeed, the fabricated news article states: "According to many economists, the damage (to Vietnam's economy) might have been done already. Some companies said they will re-access (sic) the current situation in Vietnam and postpone all investments until the political climate is clearer."
Pike, however, said he thought activists in the Vietnamese community in the United States would be capable of creating a more sophisticated fake, and said the article resembled the kind of "black document" that was frequently floated as disinformation during the Vietnam War--by both sides.
"This would have been far more effective in Vietnam because there's no way to verify it," Pike said. "Nobody would be fooled over here."