The ‘debate’

This ‘debate’ was surely among the most embarrassing events in the history of US politics. It was also, among other things, a reminder to the world and to Americans that the strength and quality of democracy in any country cannot be taken for granted; it must be assiduously protected and promoted.

What the American people got, instead, was a cold reminder of the fact that their democracy has been poisoned. The event itself was less a debate than a marathon of angry ranting, mostly from Mr. Trump. For example, the shouting (I will not say discussion) rarely touched on the issues that count most to Americans and to those concerned about America’s future and its future global role.

Trump is unquestionably among the most poorly suited candidates for the presidency in US history (serial liar, molester, racist, slumlord… ). His rise to cusp of the presidency is a reflection of the frustration among large segments of the US population, which is real.

The current state of affairs, and especially the rise of Trump to this point, is also an indictment of the US media, which has utterly and shamefully failed to live up to its responsibilities; they have repeatedly fallen for Trump’s constant stream of lies.

They have failed to act collectively and have produced a public risk (or public bad) because the self-interested economics of contemporary media says that TV ratings and screen views are more important than substance and truth: Better report on the things Trump says — which is frequently a mix of lies and insults that play on racism and economic fears– than bore us with thoughtful and thorough analysis of real issues. This, sadly, is a key feature of political discourse in our commeicalized digital age.

These are two unpopular candidates. Keep in mind that just 14 percent of eligible adults — 9 percent of the whole nation — voted for either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton in the primaries.

While Trump’s claim that the US political and economic system are ‘rigged’ is not entirely wrong, his claim to represent the interests of average Americans is indescribably absurd. Trump’s constant efforts to draw votes from among the supporters of the unsuccessful democratic candidate Bernie Sanders reflects the reality that, among all candidates, it was Sanders’ agenda that was closest to representing the interests of middle and low-income American households. In Clinton and Trump US voters have an unhappy choice of voting for the status quo (Clinton) or the unthinkable (Trump).

Fortunately for America and the planet, it appears Trump’s chances are in decline. While it would be foolish to assume that Clinton will win (anything is possible, especially in this election), Trump has shown the world and Americans what a truly vile person he is.

On the released recording, his were the words of a true sexual predator and one who truly believes he is above the law, whether it comes to paying his income taxes or groping women. It is hard to imagine how many people – especially women and those who respect women – would be comfortable voting for him.

Trump’s main objective in Sunday’s ‘debate’ was to distract American’s from what he truly stands for. In this may have succeeded to a certain extent – mainly by hurling insults in Hillary Clinton’s direction and Clinton’s unrelenting reminders that she often does not mean what she says.

Americans were shocked but not surprised by the Trump sex audio. At the same time Clinton was lucky the sex audio was released when it was, as the leak of her private remarks in paid speeches to special interest groups such as Goldman Sachs were a reminder of a severe shortcoming of Clinton: her tendency to try to hide her embarassingly pro-business views. She is a real Clinton (i.e. big-business) democrat.

Overall, Americans are in a difficult position. They are proud of their country but are angry and ashamed about the state of their politics, as they should be. One can understand logically why certain large groups of poorly informed and naïve Americans were drawn to Trump and his angry nationalism and racism.

Unfortunately for  Trump, he has a hard time concealing what a corrupt, disingenuous, and dangerous person he really is. Ironically, then, it is Trump’s amateurishness and gall and unrelenting megalomania that may save America from his fascism. This shows just how vulnerable America’s democracy has become.

If there is any hope to be had it is in the chance that American will learn from this episode and move toward a politics that more substantively addresses the needs of Americans and the broader international community. If not, we’re all in trouble.


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Show the world

For Vietnam, an expansionist China has often posed an existential threat. However, while not new in the historical experience of the nation, the nature and scope of the present threat is indeed novel in the experiences of the world’s living population of Vietnamese.

The world has had enough imperialism. What the world needs today are international norms of conduct to which all states are held to account. Absent international norms, we lack a firm footing on which to defend such basic public goods as human rights within countries and freedom of navigation between them. Absent international norms we face chaos, violence, and uncertainty.

Waking up to Threats

A certain lucidity has spread across Vietnam as its people are waking up to the fact that China, its eternal neighbor, is currently being governed by a neo-imperialist state bent on territorial expansion, a state that has shown open disregard for international norms, and a state that is attempting to annex great swathes of territory with an arrogance and self-righteousness that is nothing short of astonishing. For Vietnam’s leadership, Beijing’s conduct means relations between the two countries are in a state of continual crisis. For even those Vietnamese leaders raised on romantic notions of solidarity with China cannot ignore what the ‘good comrades’ to the north are doing.

 With Xi Jinping displaying fascistic tendencies at home and increasingly brazen tactics overseas, with the mainland economy hemorrhaging hundreds of billions in liquid capital, the entire world is wondering what is going on in China, who is Xi Jinping, why is he being so aggressive, and what can be done to restore a sense of security to the region that Beijing’s own actions have plunged into a costly and needless arms race. When Xi Jinping states that China and Vietnam have a common destiny, one can only hope that he is either wrong or that the destiny Xi turns out to have has nothing to do with him.

 We should not overestimate the good judgment of China’s leadership. Nor should we overestimate the capacity of the mainland population to think critically and independently about their country’s leadership and the wisdom of its conduct. As for the leadership, it is one in which even modestly different views are being systematically annihilated, leaving proto-nationalists free to whip up sentiment for ‘winnable wars’ as a means for imposing an illegitimate regional order. The political situation within China today is nothing short of alarming and is itself a threat to regional stability. Writing from Hong Kong, I do not state this lightly.

One might expect that Beijing has no interest in waging war with Hanoi. Be that as it may, it is obviously intent on achieving illegitimate command over Vietnam’s East Sea and enforcing bogus rules on the sea and in air. The question Vietnam, the region, and the world face is no longer whether to develop a robust response but rather how to do so.

Addressing Threats

In the world, no country has as much experience coping with China as Vietnam. Yet Hanoi cannot possibly cope with Beijing alone. Moreover, Hanoi’s past practice of repeating that ‘everyone is our friend,’ is an approach that while reasonable in times of peace, is grossly inadequate to the country’s needs at present. It’s common sense that no other national state will be willing to stick its neck out for Vietnam unless either its own national interest is threatened or compromised or the values it and its people hold dear are flouted. While it is natural and sensible for Vietnam to be in closer alignment with the US or Japan or Korea, true support from the states and peoples of those countries will only come when Vietnam itself is seen as worthy of support in the face of Beijing’s actions.

Without international support, Vietnam’s policy of acting like China’s ‘little brother’ is both ineffective and dangerous. The point is not that China is not or cannot be Vietnam’s friend or brother or sister, but that no country should respect, accommodate, and enable a neighborhood bully. No friendship or partnership can be built on bullying. With all the bullying, strategic trust is out the window and trust cannot be had again until Beijing changes its behavior.

But what can Hanoi and Vietnam’s people realistically do? While one might hope that China will democratize or at least reverse its march toward totalitarianism, such hope could very well-be a rather a distant one, as Xi appears to truly covet the position of emperor. What is more likely that Vietnam and its people will face at least several more decades of living alongside an expansionist dictatorship.

Doing nothing or trying little things around the edges is certainly an option. But this has already been tried been tried and failed to provide any meaningful prevention not even slowing down Chinese aggression on the sea-so it’s an proven inefficiency to say the least. To continue to do nothing is in effect continuing to play the role of a ‘little brother,’ continuing to enjoy the patronage and bribes when offered, continuing to smile while being disrespected, and keeping eyes firmly averted from the East Sea.

The possibility that such a future might continue to unfold is real. But to allow it would effectively mean an end to Vietnamese independence and would very likely inflame the same sorts of anti-comprador sentiment that propelled Vietnam’s anti-colonial revolution. What also needs to be recognized is that even if some non-transparent decision or deal may be attractive to some, there is can be no award or “bribe” that would be acceptable. Beijing has already show its intentions and aims and that is to claim all the islands it possibly can and use this to control the entire Southeast Asia Sea.

 There is a need for Hanoi to boldly re-calibrate its short, medium, and long-term strategies. The first point to be made is now is a time for action. While Vietnam’s leadership has expressed pride in its rule-by-committee approach to governance, the leadership must nonetheless respond swiftly and ably to threats. One would hope the Politburo and Central Committee are actively seeking the input of the country’s most competent persons. But I worry that it is not.

What Vietnam needs and what the region needs from Vietnam is a strong dose of sensible and open-minded diplomacy, a commitment to project an unflinching combination of good will and principled opposition toward to an aggressive bully of a neighbor, and above all, willingness and courage to tap the country’s greatest but still bridled strength: the eagerness of its people to join the community of democratically legitimated and internationally respected states. Vietnam’s people do not seek a side deal with Beijing and not do they seek to become a new form of vassal state.

Why Domestic Reforms are the Key to Success

Vietnam’s only hope of living and functioning and developing a normal, democratic state is to do what the widely respected but insufficiently appreciated outgoing Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh has suggested: embrace fundamental political reforms. For only a Vietnam that embraces international norms at home can draw support in the international arena. (Ask the Koreans and Taiwanese if they agree.) If Vietnam can democratize in ways and on a pace that its own people decide but do so with the US at arm’s length it can improve the quality of its domestic politics, avoid alarming Beijing, and unite the country’s people in a way not seen before.

The good news is that many millions of Vietnamese share this view. This includes several of the Party’s top leaders, dozens of central committee members, many tens of thousands of party rank and file, and countless citizens within and outside the country. And yet while there is a thirst for change, optimism about the prospects for change are constrained by the sense and reality that the Party’s leadership remains too enthusiastic about outdated ideas.

Vietnam must choose its own political future of course. Still there is near unanimity among Vietnam’s most skilled analysts and foreign friends that the key to unlocking the country’s economic and social potential is greater democracy and pluralism, not less. Properly regulated by a spirit of give and take, pluralism is not a threat, but rather a strength. Pluralism does not mean demonstrations and social unrest. It means real and constructive debate. Demonstrations and social unrest are the result of insufficient pluralism, of frustrated rights, of political sclerosis, of failed democracy. The upcoming National Assembly sessions are a golden opportunity for Vietnam to take bold and courageous steps in this direction. If bold and courageous steps are not taken, “constructive pressure” must be sustained and intensified to advance the cause of meaningful reform.

Vietnamese people within and outside the country are anxious and often angry at what they view to be their country’s non-transparent and weak responses to Beijing’s antics. It is clear to most that Vietnam’s top leaders and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular need to adopt a more open and swift approach in communicating on the international stage and with the broader public. This last point is especially important: for maintaining domestic calm and solidarity on the basis of broad public support for clearly articulated principals will show the world that Vietnam is united. Domestic solidarity is vitally important, but cannot be achieved through slow, closed-door, muddled responses.

Of course it is difficult to imagine a more difficult position that Vietnam’s leadership confronts today. Still, a basic lesson in politics is that you must not – and even not appear to – turn your back onto your constituents and expect them to whole-heartedly support you. Arguably, it is precisely because of Hanoi closed-door and often slow responses that many Vietnamese arrive at the cynical conclusion that the Party places the survival of its political monopoly above all other priorities. I am not so sure this line of reasoning holds.

But I do agree that Vietnam needs a smarter and more multi-faceted approach. It also needs a more professional approach in its communications. “Wooden-tongued” press conferences needs to end. Vietnam, its people, and the world need timely, informative and meaningful information, not some generic news of “unknown-ships (“tàu lạ”) or the endlessly repeated but ultimately boring and unhelpful motto that “Vietnam’s sovereignty is in indisputable.” Simply repeating slogans is not an effective strategy.

A Courageous Path Internationally

The most courageous option in its relations with Beijing would be for Hanoi to demonstrate by carefully chosen words and deeds that it intends to cooperate fully with the United States, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, and India, with South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia (if they are willing) and with other states to ensure that the Southeast Asian maritime region remains international waters as they always have been and as they always must remain.

If it chooses this path, Hanoi’s diplomacy and communications must be sharper and timelier. Its most senior leaders must take a step back to allow its more junior and cosmopolitan leaders the opportunity to serve their country. To cite just one example, let us ask ourselves who in Vietnam’s politburo can represent Vietnam confidently, competently, and eloquently on an international stage? To me, only one person comes to mind and his father was named Thach. Allow Pham Binh Minh to do his job rather than holding him back for another five years and give other younger and more articulate persons a chance to provide Vietnam the articulate voice it requires on the international stage.

If it is possible to suggest that Vietnam’s crisis of leadership has not yet been fully resolved but to do so in the most polite and constructive way, then that is what is meant to conveyed here. Leadership cannot and should not mean eliminating choice and grooming young members of the Politburo into conservative robots until they can be safely released.

However legitimate Vietnam’s claims are, the objective is not to antagonize Beijing but rather to seek the best of possible outcomes. It seems Hanoi should: Continue to treat the maritime disputes as an international problem, which it is; further expand possibilities and diversity modalities by which the US and other countries may have frequent visits to and use of Vietnam’s military bases by air and sea so that an action by China to hinder access by air or sea to Vietnam by other nations will be viewed as illegitimate; avoiding as much as is possible actions that Beijing can view as actions against it but at the same time not shying away from doing what is within Vietnam’s sovereign right; build up international support of Vietnam’s rights and that of other countries in the Southeast Asian maritime region; and bring Beijing to the international court of justice and to the international tribunal ITLOS – not as an antagonistic action, but because Beijing has left it no choice. Moreover, this is the right choice.

To state that Beijing has understood Vietnam’s weaknesses and has always tried to exploit them is clear. And yet Vietnam’s ‘vanguard party’ has always clung to the illusion of solidarity with China, which it has correctly or incorrectly seen as vital to its own existence. But in accepting Chinese support and embracing deference to Beijing, it has ceded too much. Now is the time to change this habit. Only a truly independent and more democratic Vietnam can live in peace.

Vietnam should reduce its self-created economic reliance on China. While China’s economy is more advanced than Vietnam, Vietnam can still improve its own competitive position by going for a higher quality kind of development based on the establishment and enforcement of higher safety, quality and efficiency standards for all machinery and equipment and other products it imports and exports, much as the US does, for example, in the auto industry. Improved labor standards would help Vietnam’s poor image. Vietnam must also develop reliable alternatives to its current heavy dependence on Chinese goods as inputs to Vietnamese exports and should at any rate eliminate many of the toxic products it imports legally and illegally, such as agricultural inputs. While the future of the TPP agreement in unclear, one expects that a President Clinton or non-Trump Republican will ultimate endorse it and the TPP treaty will provide Vietnam incentives to go for the sort of higher-quality growth outlined above.

 A Courageous Path at Home

Vietnam can best strengthen its position abroad by undertaking reforms at home. While Vietnam’s upcoming National Assembly session is intended to confirm the leadership selected by the Party General Secretary it should better be an occasion for the country to wake up to the challenges it faces, because Vietnam cannot afford another five years without political reforms. The Party and the National Assembly in general should avoid silencing dissent and limiting diversity of viewpoints but rather encouraging the expression of constructive ideas in the spirit of democratic debate, civic duty, and love of country.

Vietnamese people must decide on what sort of politics they want. But it would seem clear that politics in Vietnam should no longer be about keeping the public in the dark, about maintaining rigid and undemocratic procedures, or about stating and restating slogans that are so scripted and so ‘correct’ as to be meaningless. Nor should Vietnam’s politics be about silencing dissent and limiting diversity of ideas.

On the contrary, Vietnam needs to find a way of allowing and encouraging competent people in government and civil society to express their ideas, including score of bright and competent people who are continuously accused of conspiring with the “hostile forces” but whom have no history whatsoever of such ties. Vietnam faces critical choices about critical issues and needs a vibrant and open debate. Restricting discussion and debate and the expression of diverse views is enormously damaging and renders statements about democracy farcical at best.

Restricting debate not only limits the pace and scope of much-needed domestic reforms, it also generates wide-spread discontent among Vietnamese and lowers their view of political leaders. In these times, Vietnam needs an empowered citizenry, a free press, and a politics that is more democratic and pluralistic.

There are, of course, many, many things that need to be done militarily, diplomatically, and with respect to communicating a clear message to the world. Yet as we anticipate the election of a new National Assembly, let us not neglect the importance of building trust among the Vietnamese people in their political system. A truly civilized democratic polity shows tolerance and respect for different political views and recognizes that constructive debate with room for disagreement is vitally important and far superior to any fake consensus imposed in the name of discipline and loyalty to an outdated political model.

Thus in the next few months and beyond, instead of devoting energies to achieving the appearance of ideological conformity in the face of a national security emergency, Vietnam, its leaders, and its people can show the world how and why Vietnam respects rights and home and internationally and why it deserves the world’s support at this critical juncture in its history.


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Vietnam: Where to from here?


Vietnam’s recently concluded Party Congress, which appeared to mark the end of protracted and tense process of leadership succession, is perhaps more appropriately seen as the beginning of a generational shift in the country’s top leadership, rather than an indication of where the country is heading. After a tense and unprecedentedly visible succession process, a mood of anti-climax has quickly settled in. For all the excitement and intrigue it generated, the 12th Party Congress came to an abrupt, air-sucking end.

What happened? Through a mix of procedural means and clever politicking that took many by surprise, sitting Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his supporters ably short-circuited and, by appearances, effectively ended the political career of the self-styled and now outgoing political maverick, Nguyen Tan Dung. Vietnam’s Prime Minister served two terms, and his period in office generated a mix of high hopes, dashed hopes, raised eyebrows, and resentment. Dung’s period in office saw Vietnam’s growth lose momentum, but then regain that momentum.

Widely labeled a reformer, the outgoing Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s record never squarely fit that characterization. Mostly, Dung was a smooth politician who built up a powerful patronage network and initiated reforms that promoted the interests of well-placed persons and foreign investors, sometimes to the detriment of the country’s economic performance. Dung projected himself as being committed to a more open and democratic Vietnam, while his critics dismissed such a possibility. Be that as it may, Prime Minister’s style and wit led many Vietnamese to see his bid for the Secretary General Position as a bid for a new direction in Vietnamese politics which, though imperfect, would at the very least bring change.

Instead, the opposite has occurred. Had he emerged victorious, Vietnamese state-controlled press would likely be hailing a new day in the country’s politics, much to the chagrin of party conservatives. Today, it is the party conservatives who are smiling, while the state-run press is awash with photos of Nguyen Phu Trong being congratulated by his handpicked clutch of appointees. These include appointees to the key posts of Prime Minister, State President, and President of the National Assembly. By contrast, images of Nguyen Tan Dung have him either standing stoically by or heading for the exits. Never a good look.

So whereto from here? Within Vietnam, in the country’s lively cyberspace, and in the international press, the result of the leadership succession is seen as a vote for continuity within the Party. This is, in many respects, a reasonable conclusion. After all it was Trong, however doctrinaire and ridiculed, who has prevailed. It is he who insisted that he stay on for two more years and it is he who got his wish. As it stands, General Secretary Trong will remain in his position for an additional two years. Still, it unclear who would replace him, or whether the secretary will be able to directly select or otherwise determine his successor. As such, the direction and spirit of Vietnam’s elite politics remains an open question.

There are other signs of continuity. One example in the abundance of public security and party watchdogs in the newly selected Politburo. Notably, Vietnam’s newly anointed state president and symbolic leader hails from the Ministry of Public Security. As for selections to the other top two leadership posts, the positions of Prime Minister and National Assembly President these include, respectively, a rather non-descript bureaucratic from the country’s central region whose appointment is seen in part as a bow to sentiments for regional balance, and a southerner (who is also female) who has a demonstrated competence in social affairs though has yet to distinguish herself otherwise. Perhaps the most important underlying continuity is the organization of the upper tiers of Vietnam’s political system itself. While an outgoing Minister of Planning called for ‘urgent political reforms’ Vietnam will remain a country ruled by committee. In this respect Vietnam differs from virtually every other country in the world.

Nor should we be too fast to assume the leadership succession will lead Vietnam to somehow slow down. In addition to the police and party watchdogs mentioned above, the new politburo has a number of younger, able, and energetic members, representing such key policy areas as finance and foreign affairs, just to name two. Moreover, the broader spirit of Vietnamese politics is, however halting, not one of inaction. The country’s leadership is committed to internationalization and expanding and deepening ties, even as they act to ensure doing so does not threaten the Party’s long-term interests. With all four of Vietnam’s top leaders having visited the US within the last year and with the entire politburo and central committee recognizing the US and an indispensable trading and security partner, it is clear that times have changed, even with a conservative at the helm, and even in the absence of Nguyen Tan Dung.

Most people who know Vietnam believe the country’s economy should be performing better than it has. It is almost certain that the Party’s leadership recognizes this fact and one should not presume that, while the newly selected leadership are not reformers, they will not take at least some tangible steps to shore up weaknesses in the areas of transparency, infrastructure, and skilled workers and so on. Whether the steps taken will be the right steps or effective in their implementation is another question. But Vietnam has a lot going for it. While its state has been weakened by overzealous decentralization and commercialization, Vietnam is a society is dynamic and, one would hope, still full of promise.

What is perhaps most uncertain is how Nguyen Phu Trong, the politburo, the Party Central Committee, and the Vietnamese people will cope with Beijing, and how Beijing itself will conduct itself in the boiling maritime dispute that is rapidly leading to the militarization of the entire region. Nguyen Phu Trong has in the past been someone who has advocated a conciliatory approach toward China. Indeed, it is in Vietnam’s best interest to have as good relations with Beijing as is possible. There is much to gain from good relations and a great deal to loose from bad ones. Yet maintaining neighborly relations has become a huge challenge, even for Trong. Backed into a corner, Vietnamese will defend their country.

So where do we stand? With this selection of leaders, will Vietnam take steps backwards? I would say no. While there are many in Vietnam who are clamoring for change, they increasingly recognize that change by way of reforms is unlikely to come solely or even mainly from the top. Indeed, Vietnam’s people are now politically engaged and are demanding reform and greater transparency, and the state is slowly responding. Vietnam now features a quasi-liberal brand of authoritarianism that, while still tarnished by regular human rights abuses, at the very least allows space for open discussion of social and political issues. Does the country have a bloated security apparatus? Absolutely. And I worry about how that will be reined in.

In the meantime and for the foreseeable future, Vietnam’s economy will continue to grow and is likely to grow rapidly. It is how to maximize the quality of that growth and how to ensure that that growth translates into benefits and opportunities for the Vietnamese people that is the key issue, along with promoting the country’s security and sovereignty. One hopes and expects Vietnam’s leadership grasps these challenges. Let us see how they respond.


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Ok, it’s over, it seems…

By late afternoon yesterday the (seemingly final) results of Vietnam’s protracted leadership succession process became known. Meaning that yesterday’s post (titled “It ain’t over yet, folks”) had a shelf life of four hours! Be that as it may, the final results were not known before then. Whatever has, might, or will be said, the process of elite succession this time around was especially tense and full of twists and turns. Owing to arrival of social and electronic media, it was an unprecedentedly public affair, even if the public remains as excluded as ever.

At any rate, the upper ranks of the Party have made their choice. The ‘new’ crop of state leaders indicate a selection in favor of continuity. The TBT remains in place. The national assembly is to have a new and (hopefully) more interesting leader. The party establishment of Quảng Nam will be pleased. Perhaps fittingly, Vietnam’s new president and symbolic leader hails from the state’s public security wing. While much of Vietnam’s population was awaiting the result, the actual result is just about as anti-climactic as one can image. Keep hope alive! Only 5 years to the 13th Congress! Whoopee! (ps. vẫn còn vài người bảo là còn chưa xong!)

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It ain’t over folks

When it comes to Vietnam’s leadership succession, virtually all of us are in the dark. This includes not only well informed Vietnamese but, indeed, well informed Vietnamese within upper ranks of the party. Too often in the past week, both domestic and foreign observers have fallen prey to the lure of being first to report, and/or the desire for certitude about the results of Vietnam’s leadership succession process. While the desire to know is understandable, there remains no basis for certitude. The process remains undetermined and fluid. It simply ain’t over.

Foreign observers have gotten a particularly confused picture of things, mainly owing to:

(1) their failure to grasp the intricacies, pliability, and weirdness of the official rules governing the Communist Party’s succession process;

(2) their over-reliance on people who don’t know but say they do (the truth his, hardly anyone outside the process truly knows what’s going on, while even those on the inside may not know what’s going on, owing to restriction on communication with each other);

(3) confusion what has been (to be a fair) a confusing mixture of cryptic, quasi-official, and official even statements issued by certain Party officials that have variously turned out to be incomplete, incompletely true, self-serving, or  all of the above; and,

(4) reliance on second- and third-hand accounts of unverifiable claims which, though sometimes appearing to be credible or plausibly credible, cannot be verified. The confusion is hardly surprising.

So where do we stand? Well, by most appearances there does appear to be a grand tussle underway. On the other hand, the world is locked out and it’s near impossible to verify anything. There are reports of intense horsetrading, such this or that faction bringing pressure to bear on individuals and groups for their support with a mix of promises and threats. While the 11th Party Congress concluded with the issuance of a list of new personnel, the 12th congress is now seated and many of its members are demanding a voice. While the sitting party-secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has appeared skillful in using procedural means to block sitting prime-minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s path to power, it now appears Dung’s supporters are mobilizing a spirited rally.

In the mean time, those in charge of the Party’s external relations continue to insist that the process is orderly one and that talk of a fractious process on the outside is nothing more than malicious rumor. Could it be?

Vietnamese cyberspace is on fire, with ‘well-founded rumors’ and leaked documents unleashing wave after wave of intrigue. From external appearances, the Party-controlled press appears to struggling with the task of reporting on all of this. On one day a leading newspaper leads with headlines of a speech at the congress calling for urgent political reforms reforms. On the next day the same paper publishes a litany of fake or suspiciously fervent comments,congratulating the Party’s outgoing 11th congress on getting things right.

But now the 12th congress has taken its seat and there are suggestions that the proverbial rice has not been cooked. All these accounts can’t be right, can they?

So, is Trong likely to ‘win?’ My best answer remains maybe. What I am slightly more certain of is advice that until the dust settles it would be wise to avoid mistaking self-serving factional chatter and even official announcements and press reports as truly indicative of the real state of play. Barring unforeseeable events, we should expect the results to be known toward the end of this week and not before. If I am wrong, so be it.

What is perhaps more useful is to recognize that while the personnel decisions being made do indeed carry major implications, the selection process itself has turned out to a major political development, even if one whose contemporary or historical significance it is too early to know.

Certainly there’s been no shortage of drama. Two leading figures contesting for power. A senior state and party official taking the podium at the congress and calling for comprehensive and urgent political reforms. A Chinese oil platform drilling off the coast. And not least the inauspiciously timed death of turtle linked to a sacred defense of the nation’s sovereignty at the Congress’s outset. And this is only the stuff we actually know. Indeed, if anything is clear, it is that Vietnam’s elite politics today are unscripted. That’s a good thing. Not because it may portend a future of more open and democratic politics. But because you couldn’t invent this stuff (i.e. write such a script) if you tried.


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The Diplomat: Vietnam’s Leadership Succession Struggle

Vietnam’s Leadership Succession Struggle, published in The Diplomat (click here)dip leader

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Vietnam’s leadership succession update – Friday 8 January

While I do not have access to special information, I thought it might be useful to communicate bits of information that are emerging from deliberations over Vietnam’s tense leadership succession process (see my previous post for details) to an English readership and those Vietnamese speakers interested.

On Monday, the Party’s 14th Plenum will meet and take critical decisions in the run up to the Party Congress, scheduled to open on the 21st. Other foreign analysts, such as Carl Thayer and David Brown, are very likely to have a better handle on what is going on, though I suppose some of what I have to say and some of the perspectives I have may be of use. In this spirit, I’ll share some info and impressions as they emerge, beginning with following:

Friday evening, 8 January: People are describing the situation in Hanoi this evening as ‘extremely tense,’ with numerous reports of diverging views within the Politburo (not surprising) and, more significantly, between the Central Committee and the Politburo. Though not totally surprising, it seems apparent (and if true is significant) that the Party’s Central Committee is taking a forceful role, is being assertive, and has even managed to veto positions or recommendations handed down from Politburo.

If true, this indicates that the determination of Vietnam’s new leadership will be a genuinely deliberative process within the Party, which is significant.

With the 14th plenum scheduled for Monday, it appears that the tense chess match that has been unfolding among leading contestants for power and in the Central Committee is only intensifying. It seems certain the next few days will be filled with tension and that some real drama may unfold at the 14th plenum (again, scheduled for Monday).

At present it appears nothing is settled with respect to the selection of a new leadership. Perhaps the most significant bit of info is that the determination of Vietnam’s new leadership will occur through a process of intense deliberation, and that lower ranking members of Vietnam’s political elite (i.e. members of the Central Committee) are demanding a role, and appear in a position to shape the outcome.


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Notes on Vietnam’s tense leadership succession

In Vietnam, a pressure-packed political succession is entering its final stages, its outcomes still unknown. At stake is leadership over the Communist Party and its stamp on Vietnam’s development over the next five years and beyond. With its expanding economy still compromised by institutional weaknesses and its foreign policies congealing amid escalating regional tensions, Vietnam’s leadership succession carries wide implications not only for Vietnam’s development but for that of the broader regional order.

Still, while it is worth knowing what’s going on and whom the principal contestants for power are, the most important questions arising from the leadership succession are questions about the direction of Vietnam’s politics itself. To see why requires us to view struggles playing out at the commanding heights in relation to developments taking place within the broader elite and within and outside the party-state.

At the core of the leadership struggle are tensions surrounding the determination of the Party’s leadership for the upcoming 12th Party Congress, which will sit until 2021 and which is scheduled to get underway on the 21st of this month. The leadership roster, expected to be finalized next week, will determine who will serve as Party General Secretary, Prime Minister, State President, and National Assembly President, among other key positions. Thus, the most obvious answer to the question of ‘what is going on’ in Vietnam is a struggle for leadership over and influence within the Communist Party.

The most compelling sub-plot in this competition is the contest between current Party General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, and the current Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung. The Prime Minister’s pursuit of the Party Secretary position draws support from the power base he has cultivated among elites across various sectors over the course of his two terms in office. Yet the Prime Minister is a controversial figure.

To his supporters, the Prime Minister is Vietnam’s most proficient statesman, a true reform champion, and patriot ready to end Vietnam’s subservience to China. Indeed, the Prime Minister projects a commitment to market liberalizing reforms and a willingness to expand freedoms ‘in accordance with the law.’

Yet critics allege the Prime Minister is most committed to expanding the wealth and influence of his family and supporters and well placed foreign investors. They hold him responsible for large-scale bankruptcies and profligate lending that have left Vietnam with an onerous public debt. Reformers cast the Prime Minister as a dangerous fake with a penchant for talking about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ and for silencing critics through draconian means. Conservatives mistrust him for his alleged association with ill-gotten wealth, his call for a fresh approach to relations with China and his willingness to seek economic advice from the likes of Tony Blair. And yet despite all this mistrust, the Prime Minister retains a certain and in respects enigmatic appeal.

Crucially, however, party conservatives and in particular the Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong retain control over key levers of procedural power and are using these block the Prime Minister’s path to power. How might this occur? Though ineligible for another full term, there is precedent for the Party Secretary to install himself for another two years, during which time he may use his control over the means of Party discipline and ideology to buttress his support base and groom the viable successor he currently lacks. Not known for his intellectual dynamism, the Party Secretary and his supporters’ grit and determination have caught many off guard. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Party Secretary’s ‘under-the-radar’ success in cajoling several hundred central committee members to accept a decision authored by himself forbidding current or future committees from nominating or voting persons for leadership positions who are not on the official list endorsed by the general secretary himself. Still, outside his narrow support base, enthusiasm for two more years of his stewardship is modest at best.

The politics of Vietnam’s leadership succession, however, is not limited to a competition between Mssrs Dung and Trong and nor is it limited to the world of elite politics. While many members of Vietnam elite have benefited from patron-client politics, years of political stalemate under the Nguyen Phu Tong – Nguyen Tan Dung rivalry has taken its toll, leading increasing ranks of heretofore-passive observers to the view that interest group politics of the sort Vietnam has developed have undermined the coherence and effectiveness of state policy. There is indeed a chance that Vietnam will say goodbye to both Mr. Dung and Mr. Trong. This could happen as a result of an unhappy compromise between the two camps.

A far less likely scenario would be an override of the current party secretary’s ban on nominations by the party’s internal and (in principle) autonomous inspectorate. Such an outcome would amount to a procedural coup, effectively commanding the central committee to openly nominate and elect state leaders. If one or both the Prime Minister or Party Secretary exit, the main question is whether inheritors of the remaining top positions will be mere acolytes of established interest-based camps or more independently minded leaders drawn from the politburo or, intriguingly, the military.

For the 99.9 percent standing outside the theater of elite politics, the struggle for Vietnam’s future has generated intense interest, albeit interest pulsing with currents of willful optimism, resignation, and outright desperation. While proponents of reforms lament the passing of yet another undemocratic election, others see the drama and chaos of the succession struggle as part of a larger process of political evolution. Such a perspective is not without grounds. In recent years Vietnam’s political culture has become increasingly pluralistic; Vietnam today is a country with more than 30 million Facebook users and innumerable political blogs.

While in recent weeks party elites have be leaking and and counter-leaking internal memos, expressing their views over the net while active and retired party members have openly demanded the abandonment of Leninism and comprehensive institutional reforms. It is conceivable that tensions and chaos kicked up by the current leadership succession will lend momentum to these calls.

Vietnam’s politics are developing faster than its political elites are prepared to admit. In striking contrast to China, there are calls from within and outside Vietnam’s state apparatus for more pluralistic and democratic social order. Vietnamese from diverse walks of life are discussing the nation’s politics in an increasingly open and self-confident manner. They have grown tired of the land grabs and the loudspeakers.

The notion that only tiny fractions of Vietnam’s population are interested in politics is fast fading. While Vietnamese vary in their political perspectives, there is a broad desire among them for the country’s politics to be liberated from unaccountable power politics conducted among self-interested elites. Whether those seated at the 12th party congress can assist such an outcome remains to be seen.


Notes: I’ve written this piece for a broad, non-Vietnamese audience and as such the piece may not be terribly interesting or new to Vietnamese. I am translating it now.

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Time for Vietnam to Reassess its South China Sea Strategy

Published on COGIT Asia, a blog of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on November 2, 2015

Vietnam People's navy BPS-500 class antisubmarine warfare corvette HQ-381. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Vietnam People’s navy BPS-500 antisubmarine warfare corvette HQ-381. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi this week comes at a time when Beijing’s efforts to change the status quo in the South China Sea through the construction of manmade islands has raised tensions across the region. Only Beijing sees the “nine-dash line” it uses to advance its claim to 90 percent of the entire South China Sea as legitimate. Yet, if anything, tensions in the region appear to be on the rise. Be that as it may, the commencement of U.S. patrols aimed at demonstrating the right of ships to travel anywhere in the South China Sea that international law permits, together with an arbitral tribunal’s finding that it has jurisdiction to rule on many of China’s claims, invites all parties, including Vietnam to reassess the broader conflict and attendant opportunities and risks.

The China-based scholar David Arase has recently observed that smaller states such as Vietnam and the Philippines can increase their leverage in the dispute through greater cooperation with each other, greater willingness to exercise legal means in concert to defend international norms, and recognition that selective cooperation and non-cooperation can influence regional politics. Within the context of a big power stalemate, he argues, smaller states can propose cooperative governance schemes that preserve their own rights and promote their interests while also generating benefits for big powers. In light of recent developments, including China’s conduct and Vietnam’s improving relations with the United States and other powers, Hanoi should consider taking a more proactive approach.

Hanoi should specify its territorial claims while undertaking actions to ease remaining disputes with the Philippines (and Malaysia, if necessary), while reaching out to Indonesia. More concretely, Hanoi should consider renouncing its claims on all rocks within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia on two conditions:

  1. These states accept that all small islands under dispute are uninhabitable rocks unless ruled otherwise by international law, and as such are entitled to 12-nautical-mile territorial waters but not EEZs; and
  1. They agree with the principle of sharing resources that lie outside any country’s EEZ and the territorial waters of any of the rocks.

Doing so will narrow the scope of disputes in ways that can facilitate movement toward resolutions based upon principles of international law, while also demonstrating credible commitments to cooperation, sharing, and trust. Vietnamese committed to the notion that all of the Paracels and all of the Spratlys belong to Vietnam should embrace a more realistic, practical, and strategic mind set. If China can relax its current position and embrace these principles, it would be a breakthrough. If not, Vietnam and the other claimants still stand to gain.

Vietnam should also help form a multilateral contact group aimed at reducing and ultimately resolving regional tensions. It can invite Beijing to participate. While the group in question might include members of ASEAN, it should not be organized within ASEAN, whose members with little stake in the dispute. Instead the group should include Southeast Asian claimants together with the United States, Australia, Japan, India, the European Union, and other countries. Formation of the group would be a means toward changing the status quo and altering the political opportunity structure of the wider tensions in ways that might be conducive to the long-term management and resolution of tensions. In the absence of cooperation from Beijing, the ASEAN group should consider joining other nations in the group in patrols.

With the momentum of the arbitration tribunal’s ruling, this group could act in a concerted manner in support of various modalities of arbitration and conflict resolution, taking collective legal actions and other peaceful steps on the basis of international law to protect freedom of navigation and curtail illegal activities based on excessive sovereignty claims. While there are certain risks in forming a bloc outside ASEAN, there is nothing to prevent Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei from adhering to and requesting that China conform to a common set of principles forged under the ASEAN-China working group, or initiating alternative dispute resolution and arbitration mechanisms.

Hanoi should address Beijing more directly and publicly. It has a great chance to do this week, when Xi Jing Ping himself visits Hanoi. Politically, this would be a difficult step forward for Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, whose relations with Beijing have always taken place through back channels, threats, and innuendos. Yet modernizing Vietnam’s relations with China is long overdue and would have the benefit of communicating Hanoi’s intent to resolve the tensions with support from international partners and on the basis of international law.

Specifically, Hanoi should ask if Beijing’s nine-dash line claim refers only to a claim over the islands of the South China Sea, as President Xi implied during his September 25 visit to the White House. A clarification would help identify at least the areas under dispute through a proper interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While Beijing may not respond, taking this step will be helpful for Hanoi in making its case to relevant international bodies, if necessary. Xi’s recent statement that, “We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests,” omits that China’s claims are not founded on international law, which is precisely why Beijing has pursued enforcement of its claims with attempts to change the status quo through brute force and threats.

Beijing and Hanoi have government-to-government committees working on sea disputes as well as an agreement on fundamental principles to settle maritime disputes which specifies that Vietnam will only discuss matters with China bilaterally. Yet Vietnam rightly maintains that outside parties should be involved in multilateral disputes, as is the case with the current tensions. Barring some unforeseen grand bargain, Hanoi is unlikely to bow to Xi’s whims.

Given Vietnam’s history and the particulars of its current circumstances, Hanoi’s pledge never to form an alliance with one country to counteract another makes a certain sense. Vietnam has much to gain from good relations with China. But neither should Hanoi shy away from taking a more active role in shaping the region’s future. Vietnam’s own future is in the balance.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

Mr. Vu Quang Viet is a U.S,-based analyst. He was formerly Chief of National Accounts Statistics at the UN and served a member of the Advisory Group on Economic and Administrative Reform to Vo Van Kiet, the former prime minister of Vietnam.

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Stop worrying (only) about Nhân sự

Despite seemingly endless speculation about who the Communist Party of Vietnam has elected or will elect or select to lead it over the next five years, the answer for now remains simple: we don’t know. Vietnamese politics remains a black box. With little in the way of real news we are left with various imitations. Last week the country’s supervised press reported that the Politburo and Party Central Committee had assembled to deliberate on key personnel decisions, an opaque but by all impressions tortured exercise that goes under the mundane heading of “personnel,” or “nhân sự.”

And so it goes. Each day, more or less informed analysts within and outside Vietnam put forward guesses about who may rise and who may not, about who may decide to strategically stand down so others may also stand down without losing position or face and so on. With nothing substantive to say or report, journalists and pundits made news of the announcement that for the first time in history, the party had issued fitness criteria for its top posts. Some propose any big changes in “nhân sự” will be delayed a year or more. We are in Kremlinology mode, with occasional flashes of the intriguing and the absurd providing the only relief. Take, for example, the claims of an exiled dissident, that sitting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, a leading candidate for the post of Party General Secretary, will assume control of Vietnam under a personal dictatorship before disbanding the Party. Vietnam’s Gorby has finally arrived. Other analysts boldly state that Vietnam’s next crop of leaders will be… younger. I am being playful here. Perhaps Dung will deliver Vietnam. That Vietnam’s next crop of leaders will be younger seems certain. As for other speculation, time will tell.

What I would like to propose here is that until the names of the new leadership are announced it may be more useful for us (i.e. those in the world outside the most secretive corners of Ba Dinh district and who care about what’s happening in Vietnam) to take a few steps back and observe the bigger picture.

Stop worrying (so much) about nhân sự. For while Vietnam’s leadership decisions are of a certain significance, it is more important to recognize that Vietnam is at an extraordinary point in its modern history and that decisions about which of the country’s 13 to 20 leading comrades will sit on Politburo are ultimately less important than the tensions, contradictions, limitations, and yes, the opportunities and sense of possibility that animate politics in contemporary Vietnam.

It would seem fair to say that Vietnam has a problem (or, more diplomatically, faces certain challenges) with respect to the efficiency and transparency of its process of elite selection. As it stands it rewards loyalty over competency, procedure over substance, and backward looking secretive conservatism over forward looking, open, deliberative debate. In this context, crafting, promoting, and debating substantive reform proposal and strategies are a better use of political energies than pondering the workings of an outdated system.


Taking three steps back, three features of the present juncture suggest why a focus on what can be done rather than what is being done to bring Vietnam and its people to their rightful place in the international order. First, after decades on the margins, Vietnam has emerged as a strategic if still not fully adept player in East Asia. Failure to significantly enhance its competencies in the fields of domestic governance and international affairs should be seen as the country’s primary risk. Second, Vietnam has embraced and increasingly stands to benefit from internationalization. Internationalization need not be a progressive force. It can, for example, take the form of a more or less skillfully calibrated strategy for maintaining current distributions of power, perpetuating corruption, and cashing in. It may also take the form of a more open-ended and open-access process. Unsurprisingly, both sorts of responses to internationalization are present in Vietnam today. Be that as it may, Vietnam’s integration with the outside would is and will continue to change social and intellectual life in Vietnam. Third, and however seemingly intangible, Vietnam is experiencing unprecedented changes in its political culture owing to the emergence of an increasing varied and spirited intellectual climate. The overconfident and inward-looking style of political elitism that has ruled Vietnam since the 19th Century is no longer tenable.

Let’s consider aspects of each of these points in brief. With respect to Vietnam’s emergence as a strategically important but not ye fully able state, consider the following. However dwarfed by China and otherwise overlooked, Vietnam’s economic growth, the country’s positioning in international economy, and its place uncertain place in the evolving, competitive, at times chaotic and dangerous regional security architecture lend the country a unique importance. To say that Vietnam is strategically important is not to say that it has its house in order. But the primary obstacles to a more prosperous, powerful, and internationally respected Vietnam can easily be addressed through appropriate institutional reforms. The only question is whether they will.

Vietnam’s principal weaknesses lie in the field of economic governance, rights, and foreign affairs. That’s a lot. But it may be less than it seems. The recent signings of the TPP and the (frequently overlooked) European FTA point to continued increases in FDI, expanded access to key markets, and a scaling up of the scale and scope of Vietnam’s involvement in the world economy. Most people who know Vietnam’s economy know that it is under-performing. While World Bank economists tell Vietnam its should be happy with six percent growth in a period of global recession, there is nothing more frustrating to informed Vietnamese than the crystal clear reality that their economy should be performing much better. The TPP and FTA pose a dilemma for Vietnam: Will it choose the road of low-growth, low-efficiency, low-standards capitalism of a sort that enriches select members of the establishment or the more ambitious but entirely attainable role of a more open economic order in which serious decisions about institutional reform, infrastructural upgrading, and investments in national innovation are made? The latter path is unlikely to be chosen in an environment where “nhân sự” is handled like it is today.

With respect to rights, the situation is both grim and hopeful. It is grim if one looks to past and present limitations. It is hopeful in that many in Vietnam’s leadership and a growing number in the state apparatus take the ideal of rights and even human rights seriously. While rights remain weak in Vietnam, awareness of rights and a determination to promote and defend them have grown stronger. Many within the state apparatus are sympathetic. Major hurdles, such as a free press, remain. While one might not expect rapid improvements in rights, one should not dismiss the overwhelming desire among Vietnamese of all backgrounds for a rights-based social order. For a sense of popular views on rights talk to normal Vietnamese. Recognize the privileged teens of the party’s Youth League in their crisp blue shirts and the Nuevo-riche for what they are: lucky.

With respect to international affairs, Vietnam’s outlook must go beyond the expansion of trade and investment and the defense of home turf. Once again, we encounter signs of limitations and possibility. Hanoi’s management of its China relations is especially notable in this respect. Contrary to the sentiments of knee-jerk nationalists, it remains in Hanoi’s objective interests to maintain and promote good and even strong relations with Beijing without compromising the country’s core interests. Today, the number of top Vietnamese leaders willing to speak sentimentally of their country as a “little brother” to China has mercifully declined to a less than a handful. Limitations that remain on Vietnam’s power, influence, and prestige in the international sphere, and its ability to cope with China also bear noting.

The determinants of Vietnam’s international standing have mainly to do with domestic factors. The excessively slow pace of institutional reforms has come at the cost of an unimpressive economic performance. Bold steps by the country’s leadership to respect the Vietnamese people’s desire for a more transparent, pluralistic, and democratic social order will vastly improve public confidence in government and win instant international praise. Before elaborating on this point, it is useful to consider the significance of internationalization.

Within respect to internationalization, and in contrast to China, few members of Vietnam’s ruling class or population continue view internationalization as a threat. True, some see internationalization and principally an opportunity get rich. But beyond this, there is no grand inquisition of foreign ideas in Vietnam. While more “religious” elements of the Communist Party maintain dysfunctional levels of paranoia about outside influences, attitudes about Vietnam’s place in the world have changed even, and perhaps most notably, within the Party. There remain real constraints on international engagement. The party-state continues to mediate Vietnam’s engagement with the rest of the world. Party members must listen to recitations of warnings about Party-security and the continued need to be suspicious of foreign plots, such as “human rights.” But these features of social life in Vietnam tell us more about habits of thought and the bloated numbers of the country’s security personnel (many of whom are fine, smart people who have families and should be devoting their talents to other pursuits) than they do about the the spirit of social life in Vietnam today. Vietnamese desire more, not less, international engagement. And they are getting it.

Third, Vietnam’s political culture is becoming both more pluralistic and democratic. Yes you read right. Granted, the point being made is an impressionistic one. But neither is it romantic delusion. While Party protocol still matters, the vast majority of Vietnamese (including those within the Party state) are keenly aware of the “on stage” vs. “back stage” aspects of politics in their country. For most, state sloganeering is devoid of meaning. It is not that ideas don’t matter. They do. It is rather that meaningless ideas and empty slogans are increasingly recognized for what they are. Vietnamese know that a new crop of prospective leaders is currently competing over positions that will influence the country’s direction. Most would appreciate a more open and transparent process.

But pluralism and democracy you say? Yes. While arrests, beatings, detentions, and all sorts of other nasty behavior remain common, and while genuine political pluralism remains a dream in a country without even an independent press, there can be little question that the thirst for a more transparent and democratic social order is alive and well within Vietnam. Or is it? Some have dismissed Vietnam’s fledgling reform coalition as too weak and meek. A famous and exiled dissident even suggested it members were “cowardly and stupid.” Yes, change requires political courage but it also requires wisdom, timing, political opportunity, and respect for potential allies. In a country where life-chances continue to be mediated by the party and state, and where speaking up leads to getting smacked down, it only makes sense for reform-minded Vietnamese to conceal their preferences or wait for a propitious time. Yes, waiting carries its own risks. And legions of Vietnamese have taken to Facebook and other media to make their views known.

How, then, to initiate system change? History suggests “waiting for the next generation of leaders,” is a less than promising strategy. The recent spectacle of certain risers with the Party tipping over themselves in support of the construction of new and yet larger statues of Ho Chi Minh provides an illustration of both the powers and dangers of political deification. It is also my sense (perhaps I am wrong) that while Vietnamese desire a process of institutional reforms and a more open society they value social order. In commenting on this piece, a fellow Vietnam watcher, David Brown, has usefully suggested to me that that many progressive Vietnamese inside and outside the Party hope for a reform consensus to emerge within the CPV, even though their emphasis tends to be more on economic reforms than civil rights. This is understandable. Many Vietnamese, he notes, fear that change not mediated thru the Party would result in chaos and that fears are not unreasonable, even as they tend to inflate and aggravate the paralyzing effects of residual mid-20th century dread. Do orderly transitions to more open, pluralistic, democratic societies occur? Koreans and Taiwanese would say yes.

Around the 40th anniversary of April 30, 1975 simplistic reports in international news media made much about Vietnam’s economic transformation. “People care about the market, not politics,” the stories read. While in no society do we observe a majority of the population to be politically engaged, such characterizations of Vietnam are off the mark. While survey data on political attitudes are not available, I do not think it is a stretch to assert that majorities of Vietnamese understand that to develop, the country needs breakthroughs in politics as usual. Whether they are right to think so, it seems that most Vietnamese appear either to desire changes to occur within the Party or to believe that only with credible commitments from a significant share of Party members will institutional reforms of the sort discussed above be possible. Spends time in Vietnam and get to know Vietnam I expect you will agree and see that most people support the notion of a more pluralistic and democratic society, even as they disagree about whether and how it might take form.


To acknowledge but not obsess over Vietnam’s arcane leadership struggles permits clearer reflection on obstacles, opportunities, and possibilities for systemic, game-changing reforms. A first step in this direction is to acknowledge that in all countries, powerful groups aim to reproduce, protect, and expand their power base. This simple fact more than any other explains why – in any country – institutional change and systemic reforms are so notoriously difficult to achieve. A second step is to appreciate a corollary principle. Within any system of deeply entrenched rules and compliance procedures, those in lower social strata have few other choices than to do their best in navigating prevailing rules of the game. Like it or not, Vietnam’s current institutions are entrenched and are those within which people must pursue their livelihoods. If one agrees that incremental reforms are not what Vietnam needs what reasons are there, if any, to believe in the likelihood or possibility of real political breakthroughs?

Three factors guard against cynicism. The first of these concern the state of various debates within the highest levels of the party and the increasingly public interest in these debates and their outcomes. While problems with the country’s system of elite selection are obvious, and while public impatience with the politics of stalemate and infighting and its consequences are palpable, there are some hopeful signs with respect to the way some debates within the state apparatus (i.e. the party, state, government, and national assembly) have developed. The big debates within the party remain unresolved, perhaps because they are too big to be bitten off. These hinge on the scope and pace of institutional reforms on the one hand and direction of Vietnam’s relation to the world.

Perhaps there will is greater room for movement in smaller debates. Take, for example, debates on economic affairs. For the last twenty years this area of debate appeared to be largely between those who believe liberalization and the accumulation of individual wealth is perfectly compatible with Leninist rule and those who prefer less liberalization and more talk of socialism with Vietnamese characteristics. In practice, both camps share the aim of nurturing a national bourgeoisie within and subordinate to the Party and State. By contrast, might current debates shift to consider more nuts and bolts questions about how best promote economic opportunity in ways that maximize chances for all Vietnamese? According to some accounts such a debate has already taken form, with a crop of western-trained economists and young business people increasingly engaging with Government (here referring specifically to the government), which has in turn, been increasingly willing to initiate concrete steps to enhance economic governance. Whether and to what extent such changes can filter down to local authorities or affect state management of the economy in general is a large question. Nor should one exaggerate: land grabs and other spectacles remind us of underlying problems. Still, modest improvements in economic governance provide an example of how deliberative debates and state responsiveness to citizens’ concerns can overcome political inaction.

Another area of debate in which there has been certain movement concerns foreign affairs. In attitudes toward Beijing and Washington there has been certain progress. Beijing, which has done an excellent job of alienating Hanoi, has the advantage of massive economic and military might as well as not insignificant influence within certain quarters of the Vietnamese state. While I acknowledge that there are diverse views about “the China question,” China’s influence over Vietnamese politics is in my own view greatly exaggerated. If anything, Beijing has done Vietnam the useful service of investing deeply in the country’s “special relationship” with the United States.

In contrast to the past, there virtual unanimity in Vietnam’s leadership in appreciation of the indispensable strategic importance of the United States. This is a huge change in Vietnamese politics, even as there is no doubt a diversity of view on the meaning and desired scope of this “special relationship” and how it is weighed alongside Vietnam’s “traditional” ties, with countries such as Russia and China. One must also consider the under-reported deepening of relations between Vietnam and such countries as Korea, Japan, India, Singapore, and Australia, to name a few. I do not think I am wrong in my sense that most Vietnamese tend to embrace relations with the US and the countries listed under “warming ties” as opposed to any particular attachment to Mess’s. Xi and Putin. That does not necessarily tell us about the split within the party, where nostalgia for Russian vodka and weapons systems and opportunities to access Chinese capital loom large. Still, thinking about Vietnam’s place in the world has changed and its general direction is unmistakable.


I sense the biggest question in Vietnam today concerns not the country’s leadership selection, the lack of good advice as to how it should approach economic affairs, or a lack of direction in the international arena. The question of today is how Vietnam can breakthrough the stalemates and embark on a process of systemic reforms that will free the country of the clutches of know-nothing conservatism and the politics of patrimonial self-perseveration. While the Vietnamese will determine their own political future, the scope and pace of institutional changes in Vietnam over the next five to ten years will likely depend on whether, how, and to what extent Vietnamese of various walks of life give voice to their vision of the future. Change in the direction of a more prosperous, secure, democratic Vietnam will occur only through a multi-directional process driven by people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives who share in common a love of country and a desire for a more transparent, deliberative, pluralistic, and rights-based social order.

Perceptive analysts claim that real reforms in Vietnam will only occur with a solid reform majority in the party’s Central Committee. Whether such a majority is in the cards is a key question going forward. Accepting even this view, however, reminds us that the most important questions facing Vietnam are not solely who the next Party General Secretary, Prime Minister, State President, and President of the National Assembly will be. There are bigger questions at play both within and outside the party, such as whether or under what conditions reform coalitions might form paving the way for breakthroughs. So, Why not worry about “nhân sự?”

“The right personnel decisions,” as I have been advised, may well be prerequisite for any movement toward real reforms in Vietnam. For the wrong ones promise only to reproduce another generation of competing fiefdoms on an unhealthy foundation of decentralized patrimonial clientelism. So I will modify my earlier point. Don’t worry only about “nhân sự.” Vietnam really does need capable, courageous leadership. But it also needs to consider the opportunities, possibilities, and details of prospective reforms and other steps that can be taken toward a more prosperous, secure, and dignified future.


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