Communism Today

How Vietnam won the war – but lost the fight against corruption

As Vietnam commemorates the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, there are accusations that the Communist party has lost its ideals and that it could be time for a radical overhaul

David Hutt
April 3, 2015
How Vietnam won the war – but lost the fight against corruption
Get ahead: a craftsman paints busts of Vietnam’s late president, Ho Chi Minh. Photos: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP

“Young people don’t care about history. Or politics,” said Gee Huynh, 25, as a fist-sized ball of smoke left his mouth and flew straight into the face of the girl sitting at the next table. She coughed; her boyfriend stared angrily at Huynh and his two friends. But the three young men could not care less. They clinked their bottles of European-brand beer and noisily ‘cheersed’.

With the latest smartphones and degrees in business management, these twentysomethings are emblematic of a new generation in Vietnam. Born after the country’s embrace of the free market in the mid-1980s, they have only known a Vietnam that is communist by name and capitalist by nature.

In 1986, Vietnam adopted its doi moi policy, which renounced the centrally planned economy that had been in place since 1975 in a unified Vietnam. The new scheme has contributed to the country’s economy being one of the fastest growing in Southeast Asia since the 1990s, according to the World Bank. Between 2006 and 2009 its annual GDP doubled to more than $90 billion. As a result, the number of Vietnamese deemed middle class or affluent is expected to rise from today’s 12 million to 22 million by 2020, estimates the Boston Consulting Group.

“Growth has been wonderful and to be rich was great,” Carlyle A. Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the University of New South Wales, Australia, told the New York Times in 2012. “[But now] there’s a growing resentment, particularly among the have-nots, toward the wealthy.”

Forty years ago, North Vietnamese forces rolled through the streets of what was then Saigon. But April 30, 1975 meant more than just the end of the Vietnam War: It also meant the end of more than a century of fighting against numerous foreign forces, bringing peace and independence for the Vietnamese people.

Ho Chi Minh City
Power to the people: nighttime in Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown area lights up with advertisements and business signs. Photo: Francis Wilmer for SEA Globe

For some, this month’s anniversary will be a time to remember past sacrifices. But for Pham Chi Dung, it will be a time to remember what has gone so wrong. “Today, Vietnamese society is just savage capitalism and people are very angry about inequality and corruption,” said Pham, the chairman of the Independent Journalistic Association of Vietnam.

In 2013, Pham caused controversy when he renounced his 20-year membership of the Communist party via an open letter. “The party came from the people and [is] supposed to work for the people,” it read, as quoted by Radio Free Asia. “But once the party no longer has the benefit of the majority in mind, why should we continue to be faithful to the party?”

Today, Pham is considered one of the country’s most vocal dissidents, meaning he is regularly followed by two plainclothes police officers. But sitting in the most conspicuous corner of an upmarket café in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, casually dragging on a cigarette before launching into a loud tirade against the government, there is little to suggest his resolve has been affected.

“I joined the party in 1991,” Pham, 49, told Southeast Asia Globe. “I had just come out of the military institute and was made an officer. I was full of energy to sacrifice for the party. Then I started to write for newspapers and fight against corruption within the party. At that time I still hoped that the party would defeat corruption.”

After a decade he came to the conclusion that any change was impossible, though it took him another 10 years to finally extricate himself. “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,” he said.

It is an opinion echoed by Tuong Vu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon. “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,” he said. “But for most Vietnamese, progress has long been stalled and resentment is growing.”

In 2013, the World Bank and the Institute of Labour Science and Social Affairs (ILSSA) carried out a survey on perceptions of inequality in Vietnam. According to the report, more than 60% of those surveyed said they were concerned about disparities in living standards, and in urban areas the figure was 80%.

Back in 2003, Vietnam was home to just 34 citizens with wealth greater than $30m, according to the World Bank. A decade later, this had risen to 110. At the same time, poverty remains persistently high, especially among rural communities and ethnic minorities.

“[The poor] face difficult challenges: isolation, limited assets, low levels of education and poor health conditions,” said Valerie Kozel, senior economist for the World Bank, in a 2013 report.

Such a chasm was recognised by Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist party. “The rich-poor divide only shows signs of getting worse,” he told local reporters in 2013.

However, according to Thayer, the government might be powerless to change this. “There are larger forces at work that even the party cannot control that are causing inequalities,” he said. “The sheer drive of the economy, the problem of wages and foreign investment factories, and the fact the economy is globally integrated are all factors. The economy is open and the government cannot control it.”

Ho Chi Minh City
Turn around: modern Ho Chi Minh City provides numerous contrasts between old and new. Photos: Francis Wilmer for SEA Globe

However, it is allegations of corruption and nepotism within the party that are providing much of the fuel for the discontent. Cases such as that of To Linh Huong, the daughter of a senior member of the politburo who was appointed head of a state-owned construction company at the age of 24, have garnered much media attention.

“Taking a little girl who just graduated from journalism school and making her the director general of a construction company is no different than making a one-legged man a soccer goalie,” read a post from the popular blog Pham Viet Dao.

The prime minister’s son-in-law, Henry Nguyen, also became newsworthy when it was revealed that he had partnered with McDonald’s to open its first Vietnamese franchise in Ho Chi Minh City. Today, a flag bearing a hammer and sickle flutters from a lamppost in front of the ‘golden arches’.    

“The rulers are all rich, powerful and corrupt,” said Pham Ba Hai, a prominent blogger who was handed a sentence of five years in prison in 2006 for his criticism of the state. “Nothing will change – they’re all too busy internally fighting, getting rich and working for their own interests.”

According to Martin Großheim of the department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Passau, Germany, the struggle against “endemic corruption” is the “litmus test” for the Communist party. And certain members of the party seem to agree that corruption is an issue.

“So many party members have gotten richer so quickly, leading a lavish life that is miles away from that of the workers,” Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist party, told reporters at a local meeting in 2012.

This was seen by some as an honest admission and, perhaps, a genuine desire to fight corruption. Such a view was supported when the number of corruption trials increased from about 100 in 2012 to 278 in 2013, according to a government report. Furthermore, two former bankers were sentenced to death last year after being found guilty of stealing hundreds of millions from state-owned companies.

However, some political commentators claim that the corruption trials are little more than window-dressing for the party’s image.

“The party really wants to do something to… restore the regime’s legitimacy. They are using the graft trials to deter further corruption but also as a propaganda device to restore the population’s trust,” Alexander Vuving, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, told Voice of America last year.

Vuving went on to claim that the anti-corruption purges are also part of a power struggle within the party. One faction, he claimed, is aligned with the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, and has faced allegations of corruption and profiteering. The other faction is led by the party’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, and is leading the crackdown on corruption, Vuving added.

However, according to Pham Ba Hai, such factions and infighting are irrelevant, as the party is incapable of change. “The party is at an impasse; it has nowhere else to go. Reforms are impossible, its promises are empty and there has always been infighting,” he said.

“The only way to change is for Vietnam to become a multi-party democracy”

Pham Ba Hai

He is not alone in such thinking. “The Communist party is the obstacle to the development of our nation – it is the most dangerous thing we face, and we need to fight to stop it,” Le Hieu Dang, a civil-rights lawyer, wrote in an open letter when he resigned from the party in 2013.

It is not clear exactly what this “fight” would entail, though few people are openly calling for a revolt. While there are calls for a multi-party democracy, Thayer believes that bloggers, commentators and intellectuals may criticise the party, but their impact is minimal and any change would have to come through the party itself.

“There is no chance that Vietnam will have a multi-party democracy in the foreseeable future… In reality, the greater force of change is coming from within the party than outside of it,” said Thayer, adding that there is, in fact, a wide range of political views among party members.

This year is shaping up to be crucial for the country, according to a prominent Vietnamese political and economic observer, who asked only to be identified as Binh. He believes there is an intense power struggle taking place among the upper echelons of the party. Much like the factions doing battle over corruption, this ideological split is divided between Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who holds sway over the politburo, and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who heads the central committee.

According to Binh, on Trong’s side are the ‘conservatives’, the old guard who are demanding improved relations with China and holding on to core socialist beliefs. Against this group are the ‘reformists’, friendly with the US and more liberal, who are sided with the prime minister.

The reason for this alleged infighting is that next year the Communist party is set to hold its 12th congress and, due to age restrictions on the length of time party positions may be held, it is expected that almost a third of the central committee and half of the politburo – the two most important political bodies in Vietnam – will be forced to retire.

“The infighting is about who will be taking the highest positions and whose [associates] will be moving up through the ranks [with them],” said Binh, adding that the post of general secretary, arguably the most powerful position in the country, might go to the prime minister. Thayer has also speculated on such  an outcome.

If this is the case, Binh said it is likely that the current vice-prime minister, Vu Duc Dam, who is closely allied to Nguyen Tan Dung, will be given the role of prime minister. This would consolidate the ‘reformists’’ power over both the central committee and politburo, and thus Vietnamese politics, nudging the country closer to the US and full-blown capitalism.

This would no doubt sit well with people such as Huynh, who have embraced Vietnam’s economic changes and are now part of the Western-influenced, middle-class generation. But for Pham, who longs for the days when social justice and equality were Vietnam’s core tenets, it will be the strongest indicator yet that socialism is dead in Vietnam and the past is now firmly in the past.

Various Vietnamese ministries failed to respond to numerous interview requests in relation to this article.

As Pham sat in the café in Ho Chi Minh City, ruminating about the failures of the Communist party, a song came over the soundsystem. Over the hubbub created by the throng of business types fresh out of the office, supping coffees and chatting on mobile phones, the lyrics to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were just about audible: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Q&A: John Pilger

Can you tell us about your time covering the Vietnam War?

I arrived in Vietnam, first in 1966, with few preconceptions. The dominant view in the West was empathy with the Americans for ‘being dragged into a quagmire’. This was nonsense. But it remained the propaganda right through to the last day of the war.

By the end of 1967, I’d witnessed enough to persuade me that the ‘war to defend South Vietnam’ was actually an invasion of South Vietnam, in which the technology of new weapons was rampant, along with racism. The dropping of napalm and cluster bombs on villages displayed contempt for the ordinary people – both the ‘enemy’ and the so-called allies. To the US generals, they were untermenschen [sub-humans].

Few Americans knew anything about Vietnamese history or gave a damn. Few knew that the US in 1954 had done as it has done in so much of the world: blocked democratic elections. Had these national elections gone ahead, as the 1954 United Nations conference in Geneva decided, Vietnam would have in all likelihood united under Ho Chi Minh, whose ‘communism’ would probably have turned out little different from the ‘communism’ of Vietnam today. Millions of people would have lived; millions of people wouldn’t have fled their homes; millions of people wouldn’t have suffered.

What makes it all such an epic crime is that it was based on lies – the Gulf of Tonkin attacks, the fabrication of the Saigon regime and so on. Naively, in 1975, I believed the US would be seen as the predator it was, and its power would diminish. But I was mistaken. 

What are your thoughts on the struggle of the Vietnamese people, both during wartime and today?

I shouldn’t generalise, but I like the Vietnamese. They’re good to be among. They’re often brave, and wise, they have humour – often dark – and they understand irony. I hope these qualities apply as the US attempts to seduce their elite into joining its latest reckless enterprise in raising tensions against China.

You are currently working on a documentary about tensions between the US and China. Do you think that Vietnam has once again become entangled in a game of geopolitics between the world’s superpowers?

It would be a tragedy if Vietnam became entangled in America’s latest game to assert its influence in Asia. While I understand Vietnam’s historic reasons for caution in its relationship with China, even its hostility, siding with the US against China would surely run against the grain of the lessons of its own past.

Vietnam doesn’t need to ally with either the US or China. Its enduring strength lies in its independence – didn’t Ho Cho Minh say that? And Ho himself – having initially believed the US would be his friend – had to learn the truth of his own convictions the hard way.

The award-winning journalist, who has covered Vietnam across six decades, discusses his memories of reporting on the war and gives his thoughts on the country’s current predicament

Best friends forever? A brief history of recent US-Vietnam relations

In 1995, 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the US and Vietnam normalised diplomatic relations. This was cemented further in 2000 when both countries signed a bilateral trade agreement. Despite the infamous history of the US in the Southeast Asian country, it is today one of Vietnam’s key economic and geopolitical allies.

According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, last year Vietnam was the top Asean exporter to the US with a 20% market share and, if present trends continue, Vietnam will have 30% of the pie by 2020. The independent business association also estimates that Vietnam-US trade exceeded $36 billion last year, an increase of 24% from 2013.

“The US has helped Vietnam a great deal,” said Herb Cochran, chairman of AmCham Vietnam. “Not only are we helping with trade deals, improving business standards and international relations, but we’re also pressing for things including human rights and better governance.”

Ironically, for a country that waged war in Vietnam for two decades, the US is also becoming increasingly important for Vietnamese security. In recent years, Vietnam has courted US help in disputes with China over territory in the South China Sea.

“The relationship between Vietnam and the US hasn’t always been smooth, but today and in the future our countries are very close,” said Cochran.

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