Two recent events encapsulate Vietnam. On 29 January, the day after the 12th Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party came to an end – the event takes place every five years, where the party’s leaders are selected and policies are determined – a Chinese envoy arrived in the capital, Hanoi, to take stock of what had happened.
At the Congress, Vietnam’s nomenklatura decided that the party’s incumbent General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, would remain in that position for another five years. The desirous former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, who many commentators predicted would take the top post, was instead shown the door.
Then, on 4 February, a number of Vietnamese senior officials flew to New Zealand for the signing ceremony of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the world’s largest free-trade agreement, which is expected to come into force this year. Vietnam is one of 12 Pacific Rim countries to sign up to the TPP, which has been called a golden-ticket for transnational corporations by some commentators and has been contentious at best for the years of secrecy around its formation.
These two events, the alacritous visit of Chinese Communist party officials and the reverence of a monumental free-trade agreement, make clear the divergent interests of modern-day Vietnam: communism and capitalism.
In the run up to the congress many political commentators predicted a battle between two factions. On one side was the ‘pro-US’ and 'progressive’ Dung. Against him, the ‘pro-China’ and ‘conservative’ Trong. These definitions appeared good on paper and were taunted frequently. There might be different factions within the party, but in reality they are not black or white, rather different shades of grey.
For example, in July 2015 General Secretary Trong (who remains in the position, as you may remember) became the first leader of the Vietnam Communist Party to visit the United States. In October 2014, he also oversaw the US’ relaxation of its arms embargo with Vietnam. He has also been at the helm as tensions rise in the South China Sea, an area to the east of Vietnam, where several Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, have opposed China’s efforts to build on a number of islands it claims ownership of. As these tensions mount, the US had pitched itself as a key military ally to Vietnam and other Southeast Asia nations.
Sgt Kevin Wallace / DVIDS
Fundamentally, the result of the party congress has changed little in Vietnam. ‘For many Hanoi insiders, the results of the congress were not entirely surprising,’ reads the Nikkei Asian Review. ‘Some observers say that Dung's defeat will result in a slower pace of reform, while others insist that Trong's re-election will not change the overall direction of the country. The reality is somewhere in between. Vietnam is already on a path of political as well as economic change, and any incoming leaders will have the responsibility of preparing this country of more than 90 million people for the opportunities and obstacles that will inevitably come with it.’
Vietnam now has one eye on the future – which appears to be the reinforcing of capitalism and a smattering of social changes to provide more civil liberties – and one eye on the past – its Soviet Union-style political structure and nominal communism.
But Vietnam has long been strabismus. Not only was it formally divided between its communist North and capitalist South between 1955 and 1975, but in terms of foreign policy, for centuries Vietnam has had to keep its eyes on real colonisers, France and then the US, and on a potential coloniser, China. As Noam Chomsky told me last year:
‘I visited Hanoi in 1970 during the brief bombing pause. They had invited me to lecture at the polytechnic – well, the ruins of it. On my first morning there I was taken on a visit of the war museum. I was exposed to a long lecture about Vietnam’s wars with China, thousands of years ago. What they were telling us, very clearly, was that right now the US is bombing and destroying us but, one day, the US will go away, and China will always be there. That was their real problem, and this was right in the midst of the intensive US bombing of Vietnam.’
Today Vietnam is a country of fabulous economic growth. While many other Southeast Asian countries look at their economies with nostalgia for even a few years ago, when times were good, Vietnam’s economy is by far the most impressive in the region. In 1986, Vietnam initiated a series of economic reforms called Doi Moi. These reforms attempted to create a ‘socialist-oriented market economy’ along the lines of China, although in reality they kick-started the country’s capitalist boom. During the late 1980s and 1990s, foreign investment poured in and Vietnam pitched itself to the world as a country of low-cost production, with an untiring workforce. By the late 2000s, these efforts were bearing fruit and, for the last decade, Vietnam’s GDP has grown at invidious rates. By 2020, it is predicted to become the world’s 35th largest economy. Forbes recently described it as ‘the quiet economic success story of Asia’.
Yet, economic successes have not been able to yield commensurate social gains. By an account, there are no free or fair elections in Vietnam, with the Communist Party being the only political party allowed in the country, while a few party-sanctioned independent candidates can run at the five-yearly general election, which decides on the makeup of the country’s National Assembly.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
In terms of human rights, Vietnam is a mainstay at the bottom of many global rankings. Human Rights Watch (HRW) remarks simply: ‘Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in all areas.’
Courts lack independence from the Communist party, political activists are regularly imprisoned and independent trade unions don’t exist; torture is mundane, religions are restricted and, as HRW claims, state-run drug rehabilitation centres ‘exploit detainees as labourers making goods for local markets and export’. And as for freedom of speech, newspapers ventriloquize the party’s leaders. In recent years however, social media has provided the Vietnamese with a terrain to air their opinions and share news, becoming the 21st century’s samizdat.
Human rights has long been a thorn in the side of Vietnam, as, in the past, the government has argued that instead of human rights it has provided its citizens with economic rights – free health care, free education, and enough food. This is a point that many nominally communist states make: Why is it more important that a person can vote once every five years than to access free health care provided by the government?
‘Human rights are a bit like the civilizing missions of the imperial countries during the 19th century. You cannot just take norms, institutions and traditions that exist in one set of countries, impose them on others and expect them to operate exactly as they did in the original countries,’ Eric Posner, professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School, told me.
Indeed, it could be said that there are two formations of human rights: ‘Human Rights’, the politicized and formalized notion of a wish list of factors that say what liberties citizens should enjoy, and ‘human rights’, a conceptual notion that universal norms should be available to all people.
But this is beside the point because Vietnam can no longer discern its record on economic rights with any pride. Once, the country could boast about providing its citizens with good health care and excellent education – it only took a few years to ‘eradicate’ illiteracy following the communist’s victory in 1975. Today, however, the economic rights argument can no longer be honestly maintained – despite the rhetoric. Vietnam is now a country with little appreciation of human rights and a failing promotion of economic rights.
Capitalism and profiteering are allowed but democracy and freedom of speech remain out of reach. It is what one dissident told me: the worst of both worlds.
Last February, I travelled to Ho Chi Minh City, in Southern Vietnam, to write a story for Southeast Asia Globe on the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city and the country’s main locale for business. Many locals, foreigners and businesses still prefer the city’s antecedent name, Saigon, either out of contempt or a desire to save time. Under the French, it was the capital of Cochinchina. As it was when the colonisateurs decamped and the United States pitched in to create South Vietnam. When Vietnam was eventually re-enmeshed in 1975, the victorious Communist renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.
I had arranged to meet a dissident named Pham Chi Dung. Pham joined the Communist Party in 1991, aged 25. ‘I had just come out of the military institute and was made an officer. I was full of energy to sacrifice for the party,’ he told me.
For almost 16 years, Pham worked in Ho Chi Minh City’s security bureau. His job was to collect information on writers, activists and dissidents believed to be against the Communist Party. However, Pham had a secret. For years, he had been covertly writing articles for a foreign Vietnamese-language blog. In July 2012, he was arrested for ‘conspiring to overthrow the government’ and producing ‘anti-government propaganda’, and spent seven months in prison. A few months after he was released, he officially resigned from the Communist Party – a move he described as the ‘most difficult decision of my life’ in an open letter at the time.
The letter continued: ‘I used to have a burning desire to contribute to an equal socialist nation. However, what the Communist Party has done as a totalitarian leader…has made me and many other party members go from disappointment to desperation.’
Pham subsequently formed the Independent Journalistic Association of Vietnam, for which he is now the chairman, and was named an ‘information hero’ by Reporters Without Borders.
I used to have a burning desire to contribute to an equal socialist nation. However, what the Communist Party has done as a totalitarian leader…has made me and many other party members go from disappointment to desperation
We had arranged to meet at an upscale coffee shop in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Accompanying me to the interview was a hired interpreter, recommended by a journalist acquaintance, and we arrived at the coffee shop an hour early. This experience offers a microcosmic view into the fear and paranoia that one feels talking politics in Vietnam.
Half an hour before Pham was due to arrive, the interpreter became noticeably agitated. His eyes shifted from table to table. We changed tables twice, in order, he explained, so that we would not be overheard by the other patrons of the coffee shop who, by all appearances, were the success stories of modern-day Vietnam: urbane and cosmopolitan, and unmistakably middle-class and discernibly trying to show it. He also asked that I text him my questions, so that he could translate them beforehand – and, presumably, get it all over as quickly as possible.
Twenty minutes later, Pham arrived with a female companion and promptly sat down right in the middle of the café. We joined him. He was a spindly man, dressed in a starched, white shirt and greying slacks, with an anachronistic moustache and looks younger than his age.
‘Today, Vietnamese society is just savage capitalism and people are very angry about inequality and corruption,’ Pham began, as the interpreter whispered to me in English. But before Pham could continue, the coffee arrived and I began talking to his acquaintance, a French-speaking Vietnamese journalist. Noticing my attempts to return the conversation in French, the interpreter stood up, apologized, suggested I continue the interview alone, before promptly leaving.
Later, I discovered his fears were justified: Pham explained that he was being followed by plain-clothes police who were waiting somewhere outside the coffee-shop. (Four months after the interview, the interpreter texted me, letting me know that Pham has been arrested once again and was being detained in an unknown location.)
Pham had much to say about the state of Vietnam and how much he opposed the direction the country was heading. As he put it succinctly: ‘The party is at a dead end. It is nowadays on the side of rich people; there’s no longer any socialism and inequality is rising.’
A 2013 study by the World Bank found that 80 per cent of Vietnamese people living in urban areas were concerned about disparities in living standards. ‘[The poor] face difficult challenges: isolation, limited assets, low levels of education and poor health conditions,’ the study read.
Vietnam has steered too far away from its socialist principles and must guide itself toward what could be best described as democratic socialism. It must democratize not for the profits of a few but for the welfare of the many
‘Market reforms since the late 1980s lifted living standards for most people at first, but for the past 15 years or so they have mostly benefited the officials and their families and friends. They have become filthy rich. But for most Vietnamese, progress has long been stalled and resentment is growing,’ Tuong Vu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, told me.
The Communist Party even recognizes this. Speaking in 2013, Trong said that ‘the rich-poor divide only shows signs of getting worse.’ One year earlier, he had stated: ‘So many party members have gotten richer so quickly, leading a lavish life that is miles away from that of the workers.’
What does this mean for Vietnam’s future? The country is certainly on the cusp of something, but people are divided as to what that something is. For Pham and countless others, Vietnam has steered too far away from its socialist principles and must guide itself toward what could be best described as democratic socialism. It must democratize not for the profits of a few but for the welfare of the many.
For others, Vietnam must continue toward its current path’s logical conclusion: a capitalistic system with some forms of open-democracy. For these, the Communist Party’s sole grip on all forms of power in the country must end, as must any talk of the former ‘glories’ of the country’s communist past must stop.
The main question, however, appears to be how change will come about. Again, there are two possibilities. It could either come from above, with the Communist Party slowly and carefully loosening its grip on power and dissolving its state apparatus. This might even work to the benefit of the current nomenklatura, who could look to what has recently happened in Myanmar as an example. There, the military regime, which has held power for decades, recently ‘permitted’ democratic elections to take place, and the party of democracy-icon Aung Sun Suu Kyi secured a resounding win. However, as many commentators pointed out, Myanmar’s military leaders might have handed over political power, but they have kept plenty of spoils for themselves, which will allow them to grow fat without having the pressure of running a country.
Or, change could come from below, with the Vietnamese people demanding a democratic voice and an equitable stake in one of the Asia’s fastest growing economies.
But, then again, Vietnam’s leaders could just look North and ask: Why can’t we continue with what we’re doing; China does?
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