The Vietnamese version is now here.
There’s something happening here, what it is aint exactly clear…
There’s a man with a gun over there, tellin’ me I got to beware
I think its time we stop, children what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down
There’s battle lines being drawn, and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds, getting so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound. everybody look what’s going down
– Buffalo Springfield, “For what it’s worth”
Important things are happening in Viet Nam. Most attention has been given to state repression, an attribute of Viet Nam’s polity that continues to sully the country’s reputation internationally. Yet within the past few months, Viet Nam has experienced decisive and indisputable changes in its political culture, a development that is of much greater significance than repression itself.
The changes in political culture have diverse manifestations. They consist not only of petitions by notables or sporadic acts of defiance, though the significance of these should not be neglected. More importantly, Viet Nam in a very short period of time has developed a lively and pluralistic political culture.
Recognizing these changes also means recognizing their limits. Driving through central Viet Nam’s countryside just one week ago the present author was reminded of how Stalinesque the country can sometimes be. The point, however, is that this side of Viet Nam is no longer the only face of politics in the country. Politics as usual is under attack along multiple fronts and the typical big stick response is no longer effectual.
So what exactly is going on? Three developments seem most important. The first is the growing sentiment in Viet Nam, held even among many with with access to power, that the country’s social institutions and its political institutions in particular are in dire need of repair. A few significant pockets of delusional thinking and entrenched conservative reflexes notwithstanding, virtually every serious observer of Viet Nam’s political economy knows it is time for change.
Second, Vietnamese people are finding their voice. This is no longer simply a handful of brave dissidents willing to bear the full wrath of the state. Calls for change are emanating from diverse quarters, from within, outside, and on the borders of ruling power structures. To be sure, the voices that are emerging are diverse. They say different things. But they are also increasingly independent. They are in the open. And by the look of things they will not soon be silenced.
Every day now, legions of Vietnamese are taking to the blogosphere and laying out their perspectives. People within the party and state regularly access independent analysis. And the art of political commentary is seeing a renaissance. It is observable on Facebook, which is widely accessible in Viet Nam. It is observable on blogs, which are also hardly repressed. And sometimes it translates into political actions.
Just this last weekend, hundreds of Vietnamese took to public parks in Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nha Trang to participate in human rights and freedom of association “picnics.” Yes these acts have met with repression and threats. Nonetheless they persisted. And however fleeting, it was indeed a Tocquevillian moment for Viet Nam.
This brings us to a final and perhaps most curious element: the slow erosion of state repression. The repression is still there and it as nasty as ever when it bites. But for complex reasons and for an uncertain duration, the pervasiveness of repression in Viet Nam is dissipating. Photos of the rights picnic, for example, freely circulate online today.
The increasing power of oppositional politics, it is commonly argued, owes mainly to factionalism within the party, within which opposing groups realize benefits from publicly attacking each other. My own, somewhat different take, is that it reflects an evolving sentiment and recognition within the ranks of the Party that reliance on repressive tactics (as in China) is an unworkable and undesirable path going forward.
Make no mistake about it: Viet Nam’s political environment is still repressive. But it also a political environment that is evolving, is lively, and is increasingly interesting. Predicting political developments in authoritarian regimes is generally foolhardy. Yet it is newly conceivable to this observer that real political change could occur in Viet Nam within five years. There are many talented and motivated people within and outside the party and state who are finding their voice. At the very least, with its increasingly open political discourse, Viet Nam’s political development has entered a new if indeterminate stage.
(updated Sunday morning, 12 May HK time)