No democratic experiment for Vietnam’s Market-Leninists


Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party opened an eight-day congress Thursday to name the country’s new set of leaders, who will determine the pace of critical economic reforms, the fight against corruption and relations with key trading allies, China and the United States, AP reports:

Held every five years, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 12th Congress has brought together 1,510 delegates representing Vietnam’s 63 provinces, ministries, and other party organizations.

It ends Jan. 28 when the names of the general secretary, the prime minister, the president, the chairman of the National Assembly and other top functionaries will be announced. The general secretary is the de facto No. 1 leader of the country, although Vietnam professes a collective leadership through a Politburo that handles day to day affairs, and a larger Central Committee that meets twice a year to decide policy….

In his opening remarks, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (right- pronounced New-yen Foo Chong), who is expected to retain his post, said “big opportunities have opened up. However, there remain many difficulties and challenges.” He said the country faces four main challenges, including the “danger of being left further behind economically,” the degradation of communist ideology, corruption, red tape and wastefulness…..

Vietnam’s Communists have set the stage for a choreographed leadership reshuffle at a congress that underscores the party’s continued grip on power even as society shifts beneath it, The Financial Times adds:

Members and supporters argue that the party offers stability at a tense time in the region, standing up for Vietnam in maritime territorial disputes with China and steering a prudent line between Beijing and Washington in their proxy regional battles. Foreign investment has grown in areas from garments to computer-chips. Japan and Korea in particular are becoming ever more heavily involved in infrastructure projects ranging from Hanoi’s airport upgrade to Ho Chi Minh City’s new urban rail network.

But the party’s critics say it has presided over rising inequality and the spread of a debt-fueled consumerist culture. They also say it is nepotistic as well as domineering, the wellspring of a wider problem of cronyism in politics and business.

Despite numerous death threats, octogenarian Le Hein Duc has dedicated her retirement to fighting corruption in her native Vietnam, a country ranked 116th out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. She received TI’s Integrity Award in 2007.

A cultural ground zero in a police state that beats democracy advocates with iron bars, Vietnam gets away with being a bad actor because many people want to do business with its enterprising citizens, or enjoy the country’s pleasures, analyst Thomas A. Bass writes for Foreign Policy:

The Central Department for Propaganda and Education has tentacles that reach through the Ministry of Information and Communications into “security bureau” PA 25 — and from there into every CPV cell that controls the media in Vietnam. In his position as Vietnam’s chief censor, Trong is responsible for running what the journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in a September 2013 report, called a “gangster state” replete with “waves of arrests, trials, physical attacks and harassment.” “In 2012 alone,” according to a July 2015 article by the same organization, Trong’s judicial minions “prosecuted no fewer than 48 bloggers and human rights defenders, sentencing them to a total of 166 years in prison and 63 years of probation.”

Most in doubt is the pace of political and economic reform over the next five years, former diplomat David Brown writes for Asia Sentinel:

Will Vietnam’s new leaders give more than lip service to reducing the State’s direct role in the economy?  Will they give up trying to control what people are allowed to read and say?  Will they have the cohesion and will to seize opportunities that flow from TPP membership? Will the regime continue its fitful progress toward greater transparency and regulatory clarity?  Will it continue an open door to foreign investment?  Will it find ways to provide effective support and needed credit to domestic entrepreneurs?

“Weak administrative capacity and decentralized political structures subsequently thwarted Hanoi’s attempts to impose discipline on the economic agencies of the state. And as ideology faded as a motivating factor, the desire of these elites to protect their privileged positions emerged as the main obstacle to change,” according to a recent report from the Legatum Institute.

The main determinants of Vietnam’s economic success (or failure) will be political in nature, Jonathan R. Pincus writes in Vietnam’s Reforms: The Road to Market Leninism:

The most effective means of disciplining SOEs and their supporters in government would to be to introduce more competition—even competition confined to the state sector. It would require the creation of independent regulatory agencies and courts of law that are shielded from the influence of large state firms and the Communist Party. And it would require greater transparency, including enforceable codes of corporate governance that mandated independent directors and the de-politicization of personnel decisions. Yet such reforms would challenge market Leninism and the concentration of economic power in the hands of the loyal political elite.

In authoritarian regimes such as Vietnam—countries aspiring to modernization through rapidly growing Internet access—repression of civil society and the media is not just severe, but getting worse, according to a recent report by the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

The presence of the state in Vietnamese society is so overwhelming that civil society has yet to truly develop, wishes and imaginations of foreign observers notwithstanding, writes analyst Jonathan London writes for The Pacific Review:

Some foreign observers treat wildcat strikes and sidewalk society as examples of civil society. In my own view, truly independent civil society organizations do not exist in Viet Nam, though other formers of quasi-autonomous organization are certainly thriving. Although laws on associations have been passed, the legal bases for civil society activities are still lacking.

“As a political and economic framework, market-Leninism has served the CPV with an ideology that placates dominant Party and state interests, while retaining a concentration of power within the state,” London observes. “Vietnamese market-Leninism’s quasi-democratic elements act to mitigate tensions and contradictions of a market economy in which the CPV and state elite have gained much greater benefit than other political constituencies.”

Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million, but like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside a strictly controlled society that places several restrictions on its 93 million people, AP adds:

The congress is not expected to hold any major surprises. Despite the veil of secrecy that the party pulls around its inner workings, it appeared Wednesday that an internal power struggle had ended before the congress, and the tussle was won by Trong, 71, who is expected to keep his job, albeit for half the five-year term in an apparent compromise with his rival, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (pronounced New-yen Taan Dzoong). Also, a Dung protege is likely to be given the post of the National Assembly chairman, while the prime minister and the president’s posts will go to a neutral candidate and a Trong supporter.

This configuration “would be a demonstrable loss for Dung” but it should not be “confused with an outright win by Trong,” said Christian Lewis, a Vietnam expert at the New York-based Eurasia Group think-tank. “It is instead a composition that reflects a desire for a balance and more consensus-driven decision-making at the very top,” he said.

“Vietnam will welcome tourists and haggle over global finance and transnational capitalism, no problem. But if you want to come to the party, forget it. Party members only,” Bass writes. RTWT

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