Across Viet Nam and around the world people who care about Viet Nam are presently trying to make sense of the significance (or otherwise) of events Thursday, when the National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (and its ruling Communist Party) formally ratified a revised constitution after more than year of unprecedentedly open debate concerning the merits and demerits of a constitution that reinforces the status quo. At this point three observations seem most pertinent.
First, as news item, the passage of the constitution hardly passes muster and would certainly not have gained wide attention had it not been for the national debate to which it was subject. The National Assembly has – from its origins to the present – been a body of, by, and for the Communist Party of Viet Nam. Saying so is uncontroversial and, if anything, helps to explain the 486 to 0 outcome in a body that describes itself as representative. There is, in essence, nothing surprising about the outcome itself except the hint of drama that surrounded the meeting; drama that itself owed to forces largely extraneous to the National Assembly itself.
Second, the passage of the constitution, while perhaps reflecting the views of the “great majority’ of ‘representatives’ to the National Assembly offers very limited information about the true state of politics in Viet Nam. While the final vote tally suggests that there is Party discipline among the 488 carefully-vetted individuals who cast votes, there are hundreds of Party members of equal or greater stature who have and will continue to advocate for fundamental reforms. Today, anyone who knows anything about politics in Viet Nam knows that beneath the veneer of unity and consensus, competition, discord, and disunity within the Party (if not the assembly) is at unprecedented levels. The 98 percent approval for the revised constitution approaches North Korean levels of ‘consensus.’
Third, while the historical significance of Viet Nam’s constitutional revision process remains uncertain, we have good reason to suspect that its most important effects will not be seen with respect to Viet Nam’s formal institutions which, after all, have seen mostly negligible changes; but rather with the quite dramatic changes we have observed in Viet Nam’s political culture. For the first time in the history of Communist Party rule in Viet Nam, the country has seen the rise of a largely unmediated public discussion of politics. Energized by a petition initially singed by 72 intellectuals and notables with longstanding connections to the party and state, Viet Nam today features a vibrant political culture that stands in stark contrast to anything observable in China and which has, thus far, withstood state repression.
For Vietnamese and for many friends of Viet Nam, there are shades of disappointment. Even those, like the present author, who are sympathetic to socialist ideals, cannot help but feel shades of disappointment at what appeared to be an historic opportunity to address basic institutional constraints that are holding Viet Nam back. Speaking for myself, I will continue to devote myself to better understand and explain contemporary developments n Viet Nam as a friendly critic alongside friends within and outside the state who are working for a bright future.
Viet Nam retains enormous promise. Yet today’s outcome gives us reason to pause before pressing ahead. My own view is that the single greatest challenges Viet Nam faces stems from the lack of transparency and accountability in its political system; institutional traits that have become major liabilities, undermining the foundations of sustained rapid growth and social equity.
The day before the constitutional vote took place, Viet Nam’s state passed yet another decree promising punishment for those who spoke ill of the state or party using social media platforms; this in a state that only two weeks ago gained a spot on the UN Human Rights Council of the United Nations. In gaining a spot on that council Viet Nam has pledged to promote human rights globally and within Viet Nam itself. These are indeed values that inspired Viet Nam’s first constitution.
There is, then, some irony at work. The constitution vetted and approved by Ho Chi Minh himself in 1946 is if anything more progressive and supportive of human rights than the one passed in his name 67 years later. Alas, Hồ’s subsequent decision to strip the National Assembly of its democratic essence still haunts Viet Nam today and may very well threaten the country’s growth prospects.
There is no shortage of bright, capable, committed people in Viet Nam and even within the country’s state apparatus. What the country lacks are the institutions necessary for a highly productive economy. Given Viet Nam’s geographical location and emerging role in world trade, Viet Nam’s economy will continue to grow. But the pace, distributions, and quality of that growth will remain in doubt so long at the country is governed in a non-transparent manner. There is a lot to be gained from listening to friendly critics both within and outside the country and within and outside the state.
For defenders of the status quo, and those inclined to embrace Chinese triumphalism as to the presumptive wisdom the of the one-Party model, the passage of the constitution and ascension to the UN rights committee are occasions to scoff at the rest of the world, particularly champions of (presumably) ‘Western’ liberalism and democracy. In fact, Western liberalism and (especially) neo-liberalism and democracy are in many places in crisis; with the US being exhibit A. Yet perhaps there is something to be learned from both the market-Leninist and neo-liberal camps. In both contexts, political and economic elite have seized control of the state machinery to advance their own selfish aims. What is needed in both contexts are institutions and activism that can put politics at the service of the people.
Whether constitutions are meaningful or meaningless depends less on their contents than the degree of support and consent they enjoy. Today in Viet Nam, National Assembly delegates made clear their own preferences. One wonders what the outcome of the constitutional reform process might have had Viet Nam had a different constitution, one that guaranteed Vietnamese the right to enjoy the rights that both the 1946 constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises. With such a constitution, Vietnamese from across the political spectrum, including the Communist Party, could make contributions to the country’s development on a fairer and more transparent playing field.
Today’s vote may be greeted with disappointment in many quarters. Yet politically, Viet Nam is in a much better place than it was just one year ago. Viet Nam today has a vibrant, largely-unmediated, and decidedly pluralist political discourse.
This morning, National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung mentioned before the vote that there would be business “after we pass the constitution,” suggesting along with the final vote tally that the “rice had already been cooked.” He also declared, with a tinge of sentimentality, that leaders of the Assembly’s constitutional committee have a deep respect even for the many dissenting views that were presented in and around the constitutional revision process. Let us hope he and other Vietnamese truly share this sentiment.
Rather than clamping down on dissent with decrees, Viet Nam’s incipient public political discourse and the populations increasing interest in politics should be encouraged. Reform advocates, the present author included, believe the road to prosperity requires a constitution more adequate to the requirements of accountability and transparency than that passed today. No one ever said politics was easy. But Viet Nam, do not lose hope!
This post was initially titled “Beating the constitutional blues”