Will Vietnam’s communist princelings deliver?

Author: Hai Hong Nguyen, University of Queensland

The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) is preparing a new slate of leaders to replace the old guard who are retiring at the 12th National Congress in 2016. Public attention has been drawn to the rise of young ‘princelings’ — the children of current or former leaders in communist authoritarian regimes like Vietnam and China — to local executive positions and bodies.

Vietnamese and Chinese communist youths wave flags to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at a meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015.  (Photo: AAP)The ability of these princelings to deliver on a broad range of governance issues, beyond just high levels of economic growth, will determine the durability of the current regime.

The most prominent among the rising princelings is Nguyễn Thanh Nghị, the eldest son of the current Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng. Nghị has been elected as the party chief of his family’s home province Kiên Giang. Online rumours have it that Prime Minister Dũng, a reformist and the most powerful politician in the current Vietnamese regime, is likely to become the VCP chief in 2016. Another notable princeling is Nguyễn Xuân Anh, son of former Politburo member and chief of the VCP disciplines commission Nguyễn Văn Chi, who has been elected as the party chief of Đà Nẵng — the fastest growing coastal city in central Vietnam.

Both Nghị and Anh are 39 years’ old and are expected to be made formal members of the VCP central committee at the 12th Congress. These two are just the most well-known of a long list of princelings already lining up in the VCP leadership and looking to occupy key positions at both national and local levels.

Under the VCP’s rule, the conventional wisdom in Vietnamese politics is that merit-based promotion cedes to family background, patronage and bribery. This has been influenced by informal rules (established during the revolutionary era led by Hồ Chí Minh, the founding father of the VCP) that priority should be given to the children of party elites. This conventional wisdom has been further solidified by the party into a truism in the reform era. The VCP legitimises this practice through party-controlled nomination procedures and non-competitive elections.

A striking feature of these offspring of Vietnamese leaders is that compared to their parents they are better educated. Most have been trained in developed countries with liberal market economies, universal democratic values and freedoms, as well as a civil society that is not controlled by the state. They typically embrace more pragmatic, reformist and entrepreneurial thinking as well as more positive attitudes towards the West.

For instance, Nghị holds a doctoral degree in civil engineering from a US university and is currently taking the lead in developing a plan for Phú Quốc, an island district of Kiên Giang province, to become a Special Economic Administration. Once approved, the plan will turn this off-shore island into a regional recreational and financial hub, like Singapore, Phuket or Bali. Another Western-educated princeling, Anh, shockingly proposed tourism-related prostitution for Đà Nẵng prior to being elected party chief for the city, something that is prohibited by the communist authorities. He also set a goal to attract billion-dollar investment projects in the city during his term.

By picking up well-trained and business-minded princelings like Nghi and Anh, and ignoring public criticisms of these appointments, the VCP has indicated that it entrusts its leaders’ children with the task of economic liberalisation. At the same this, their endorsement indicates that the VCP believes they will continue in their parents’ steps to maintain Vietnam’s socialist ideology and single party system.

It is highly likely these princelings will further boost the economic liberalisation that has led to Vietnam’s continuously high level of economic growth in the last three decades. High levels of economic growth have enabled the VCP to regain citizens’ trust and enhance its legitimacy in the post-socialist era. This has been important as trust in the party had declined significantly in response to the socio-economic crisis of the 1980s.

The VCP’s success demonstrates that economic performance can be a solid basis of durability and legitimacy for authoritarian regimes. As Samuel Huntington emphasised, autocracies need to achieve high economic growth and improve citizens’ living standards to enjoy legitimacy. Still, sound economic performance alone is insufficient, and empirical studies have shown that the link between economic performance and regime survival does not always hold. A regime’s performance is not only limited to high economic growth, but must be reinforced by other measures such as institutional reforms and good governance to meet public demands. Poor governance, therefore, risks the regime’s stability.

A government report submitted to the sitting National Assembly, Vietnam’s law-making body, listed nine weaknesses and limits of the government’s performance in the last five years. These included an unstable macro-economy, high levels of public expenditure causing immense pressure on the state budget, rapidly increasing sovereign debt, a large gap between the rich and the poor, rampant corruption in the public sector and relentless citizens’ complaints relating to land acquisition. Experiences in post-communist Eurasia, and recent political unrest in the Middle East, demonstrate that these are factors that can make authoritarian regimes fragile.

These problems in Vietnamese society mean that ‘institutional change’, a soft term used by the VCP to mean political reform, is necessary to keep up with the country’s deepening economic liberalisation and integration. The continued durability of the VCP’s authoritarian regime no longer depends on family background, socialist ideology and mere economic growth, but also the regime’s performance in a wide range of governance issues. How well a princelings-led regime performs remains to be seen after the 12th Congress.

Hai Hong Nguyen is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.

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