The limits to political activity in Vietnam

Author: Bill Hayton, BBC News

Fulbright scholar and celebrity lawyer Le Cong Dinh is to remain in prison in Vietnam. Recently, the Appeals Court in Ho Chi Minh City upheld his five-year sentence for ‘trying to overthrow the state’ and returned Dinh and his two co-accused to their cells. The fate of this man – who famously defended his country’s catfish farmers against US trade restrictions; was deputy head of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association; briefed international legal delegations; and married a former Miss Vietnam – has now clearly defined the limits of political activity the ruling Communist Party (CPV) will tolerate.

The Party was prepared to ignore Dinh so long as he remained an outspoken voice calling for legal reform. What put him beyond the pale was his work with anti-communist groups based in the United States and his membership of an organised opposition party. No matter that Dinh’s demands had not changed from the days when he was a loyal critic – the usual menu of democracy advocates: free speech and political pluralism – his collaboration with those whom Hanoi still labels ‘hostile forces’ sealed his fate.

The experience of Dinh and the 15 others who have been jailed in recent months for similar offences confirm a pattern established in 2007 when Vietnam’s security forces dismantled the dissident network known as Bloc 8406 (named after the date – 8th April, 2006 – when the group announced itself). Then, as now, the Public Security Ministry was precise in its targeting. While several hundred people signed up to the demands of the Bloc, the ministry only put the leadership, those who had strong links with foreign-based groups, on trial. It could accept idle talk about democracy, but not active organisation against one party rule.

This is the unshakeable core of Vietnam’s political system, as enshrined in Article 4 of its Constitution: ‘The Communist Party of Vietnam, the vanguard of the Vietnamese working class, the faithful representative of the rights and interests of the working class, the toiling people, and the whole nation, acting upon the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and Ho Chi Minh’s thought, is the force leading the State and society.’

It is tempting to think that in a country enjoying the benefits of massive foreign investment and economic liberalisation, that such language is simply a legacy of the past. It is not. At its core, Vietnam’s political system remains firmly Leninist. Arguments within the Party are one thing; arguments against the Party are quite another.

It is true that things have changed in recent years. The range of voices that the Party is prepared to listen to has definitely expanded. The National Assembly has become a place of debate, a regulated form of civil society has emerged and the media industry has mushroomed. Millions of dollars and Euro have been spent by international donors promoting legal reform, political pluralism and better journalism. But throughout the entire reform process, the Communist Party has remained several steps ahead of the donors.

The Party has taken the aid money with thanks – and appeared to comply with the stated aims of ‘good governance’ – but modified them in ways that buttress one party rule. Take a few examples:
While ‘legal development’ has focused on changing legislation to meet the requirements of an internationally-integrated economy, ‘judicial reform’ remains under the control of the Party’s internal structures without any significant foreign input. The Party is quite open about the fact that ‘people-voted agencies’ – read: ‘Party-controlled agencies’ – will continue to supervise the court system. Judges still have to be approved by the local Party cell and must have ‘Political Knowledge Credentials’ – the term for the certificate awarded by the Party’s training school, the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy.
For well over a decade, international aid donors have been pushing for a new way to regulate the thousands of organisations which have sprung up to provide sports facilities, entertainment, social services and advocacy for local communities and national interest groups. But the ‘Law on Associations’ has never reached the statute book. All ‘civil society’ organisations still have to be registered with Party-controlled bodies.

The Vietnamese government recently announced it was abandoning attempts to rewrite the Press Law, in spite of years of effort and dozens of aid-funded workshops and study tours. The media is still managed along Leninist lines. Every Tuesday, around 100 of the country’s editors-in-chief attend a meeting at the Ministry of Information and Communications for a briefing on what they should and shouldn’t write. There is no legal, independent media in Vietnam. Every single publication belongs to part of the state or the Communist Party.

But this is not the whole story – if it was, there would be very little dynamism at work in Vietnam and, as we know, it is one of the most dynamic and aspirational societies on the planet. This has been enabled by the strange balance between the Party’s control, and lack of control, which has manifested itself through the practice of ‘fence-breaking,’ or ‘pha rao’ in Vietnamese. Take examples from the areas I mentioned above:

While the legal system remains under Party control, there is enough flexibility and gaps within it to allow all kinds of activities. Even where the law is ‘difficult,’ its implementation can be delayed or adjusted with the help of connections and favours. The result: economic dynamism and systemic corruption.

The English word ‘lobby’ has now entered Vietnamese. The key to ‘lobbying’ is to find some part of the state which supports your agenda and then work through it. This way, any ‘political’ activity appears to be entirely loyal and unthreatening to the system. A range of groups, both formal and informal, now lobby at many levels of the state to instigate change.

A lot of money is being made in the Vietnamese media industry and with it comes influence. There are all kinds of piratical and semi-legal activities at the commanding heights of the sector – some outlets are almost entirely privately-owned in spite of government decrees to the contrary; others simply behave as if they were. So long as they don’t confront the Party or pry too deeply into high-level corruption, editors and journalists can get along fine.

In all these cases, dynamism has been unleashed through this rarefied Vietnamese form of semi-illegality known as fence-breaking. As the British economist Adam Fforde has demonstrated, it was this practice that allowed the country to escape economic collapse in the late 1980s and create the foundations for today’s rapid growth. Fence-breaking has been just as important in politics and society.

During the late 1990s, the Communist Party of Vietnam suffered a huge vote of no-confidence from the country’s youth: just 7,000 students chose to join. In response, it redefined what it offered to young people, abandoning its claim to fulfil their every revolutionary hope and instead offering them a path to personal advancement. Young Party members are frequently recruited with the lure that, ‘If you want promotion you have to join.’ Rather than burying selfish motives under a veneer of altruism and pious sentiments about wanting to help develop the country, it is now quite acceptable for a new Party member to inform their friends that they are doing it for personal gain. Indeed, it is embarrassing to admit to wanting to build socialism or defend the revolution. This seems to have worked. The Party claimed that 60 per cent of the 170,000 people who joined in 2005 were aged between 18 and 30.

This new influx of membership has not changed the Party’s view of itself, however. It is determined to maintain its self-appointed ‘leading role’ in society. But the CPV is an intelligent organisation. It thinks about the future and about how to maintain its position at the summit of society even as everything beneath it undergoes change. Its position is strong enough to tolerate many things – even, last month, the arrival of a Vietnamese edition of Cosmopolitan magazine – but not challenges to its leading role. Le Cong Dinh and his colleagues have discovered this the hard way. International aid and investment has not brought multi-party democracy to Vietnam; instead it has made one party rule more efficient and effective. That is the way the Party likes it. Life is getting much better for the vast majority of Vietnam’s people and so long as that continues, that is the way things will stay.

Bill Hayton is the author of Vietnam: Rising Dragon, recently published by Yale University Press. He was the BBC reporter in Hanoi from 2006-07.

SHARE: