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.