Vietnam’s uphill battle against corruption

Author: Hai Hong Nguyen, The University of Queensland

The day after the 12th national Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), the Bank of Investment and Development of Vietnam announced the suspension of its two governing board members. The men allegedly committed ‘wrongdoings in management’, a term usually used by the authorities for offences associated with corruption. It is hard to know the exact reason this case was made public, particularly given recent rumours of political infighting within the CPV. But it seems that the CPV wanted to send a clear message to the public that it is determined to continue fighting corruption.

Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong speaks at a press conference next to Party's Chairman of the Propaganda and Education Commission Dinh The Huynh after the closing ceremony of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam Communist Party in Hanoi, Vietnam 28 January 2016. (Photo: AAP).

Since 1994, the party has consistently identified corruption as a major threat to the survival of the regime. Although the CPV adopted anti-corruption laws 10 years ago, the party still combats corruption among its members through so-called self-criticism campaigns to ‘alert, warn and deter’ corrupt officials.

In the last five years, the CPV has intensified its anti-corruption efforts. A resolution was passed at the fourth plenum in 2012 to subject all members of the Politburo — including the secretary-general, state president and the prime minister — to peer appraisal of their performance and ethics. The campaign also created an opportunity for the state media, which is usually subject to strict censorship, to undertake a series of reports on the wealth of high-ranking officials, including the former chief of the anti-corruption government inspection agency.

In 2013, the CPV Politburo established an anti-corruption steering committee. The CPV secretary-general Nguyen Phu Trong headed this 18-member committee, with the outspoken former party boss of Danang, Nguyen Ba Thanh, as the standing deputy-head. Unfortunately, Thanh died of cancer in early 2015. The committee thus far has been directly involved in handling grand corruption cases as recommended by the prosecutorial agency. In December 2015 the government put into operation a hot line in order to receive denunciations on corruption.

Despite its determination, the CPV’s anti-corruption efforts have fallen short. In a report presented at the party congress, Le Hong Anh, the standing member of the CPV Secretariat, stated that little progress had been achieved in fighting corruption in the past five years. For example, since 2013 less than half of the 19 corruption cases subject to guidance and monitoring by the steering committee were brought to trial. Prior to the Party Congress, Trong requested that relevant authorities initiate preliminary trials for eight selected grand corruption cases. But only six of these have been completed to date.

In 2015, Transparency International (TI) gave Vietnam a transparency score of 31 out of 100 and ranked the nation 112th in its corruption perception index, placing it among the most corrupt states in the world. Vietnam’s TI corruption score has remained unchanged since 2012. Public outrage continues to increase against this ‘stable level of corruption’.

What can we expect from Vietnam’s anti-corruption efforts into the future? At the 12th Party Congress, Trong was re-elected as the party chief for a second term and will surely continue to lead the central anti-corruption steering committee. But while the battle for the party top job is temporarily over, there is no end to the game of interests. Corruption in Vietnam is now seen to be associated with interest groups, rent seeking and crony capitalism. This could make Trong’s second term a little rocky.

What Trong will do to improve Vietnam’s TI index in 2016 and beyond, and how effective it will be, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: public trust in the CPV’s anti-corruption regime is waning. In response to voters concerns about pervasive corruption, Trong said that ‘we catch mice but do not break the vase’. This phrasing emphasised his view that it is important to maintain unity within the Party and social stability throughout Vietnam’s anti-corruption efforts. But he also warned that ‘corruption might occur even among the anti-corruption forces’. This raises the crucial question of how can corrupt officials within Vietnam’s anti-corruption forces be caught?

This question points to one of the key challenges facing Vietnam: the need for substantive reform. As Planning and Investment Minister Bui Quang Vinh boldly stated, without political and institutional reforms, Vietnam cannot develop. Maintaining Party unity is not compatible with a serious anti-corruption campaign. If the CPV is still unwilling to break the vase, then it seems that its anti-corruption campaign will indeed be an impossible mission.

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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