Some thoughts on Secretary Trong’s visit

I was asked to provide some comments on the significance of Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming White House visit. Here are some preliminary thoughts, with more thoughtful thoughts to follow:

Secretary Trong’s visit is clearly a milestone in Vietnam-US relations. While there has been great emphasis on the visit’s symbolism, particularly given Trong’s status as the party secretary, it is now important to appreciate the very practical and substantive way in which the two countries’ strategic interests are converging across a number of core issues, including trade and investment and regional security.

Former President Clinton’s role, past and present, should not be understated. The fact that the President invited General Secretary Trong to visit his home suggests real efforts are underway (if not a full scale ‘charm offensive’) at deepening mutual understandings between key US the Vietnamese political elites.

Although Vietnam and the United States are both set for leadership changes in the next year, it is clear that the the two states’ short, medium, and long term interests are converging in unprecedented ways. In addition to the TPP and greater security cooperation, one can expect Trong’s visit to add momentum to a process of broadening and deepening of ties and to pave the way for concrete progress on ongoing projects and a host of fresh initiatives across a variety of fields.

If Trong and Hanoi can not just promise but deliver additional progress on rights, relations between the two countries could improve well beyond what is seen as possible today. Trong is not typically regarded as among Vietnam’s visionary leaders. Yet given the broader context, conditions for successful visit are strikingly clear. Whether or not the visit will generate historic breakthroughs remains to be seen.


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Yesterday I attended a conference entitled “40 Years of National Unification and the Cause of Reform, Development, and International Integration of Vietnam.” It was an interesting experience. An academic conversation 39 years and 363 days later.

The conference had two main sessions, one in the morning one in the afternoon; the first addressing the “greatest victory of the 20th century of the Vietnamese people under the leadership of the Party,” the second on the country’s achievements of the last 30 years of reform (yes, 30 years of reform!). What lies ahead for this country of 94 million remains unclear. What is clear is the country has come a very long way in 39 years and 363 days, though perhaps not far enough to comfortably say that it has fully come to terms with its past.IMG_6030 IMG_6037 IMG_6039 IMG_6046

These last statements might be considered controversial and even objectionable among Vietnamese authorities, among whom I have many friends. I say it because while Vietnam has indeed come along way, the traumas of multiple wars and its social and political legacies have yet to be addressed in a manner consistent with the admittedly fuzzy notion of ‘national reconciliation.’ Then again, millions of bombs and deaths across several decades followed by two decades of isolation and a penchant for Leninism will do that to a country.

Listening to the papers yesterday I would say that, by and large, the spirit and content of the discussions were more introspective than 10 years ago. And yet the tendency to embrace a single “correct” narrative clearly remains. Differences are expressed on the margins. At the end of yesterday’s conference a comrade/gentleman from the Police Research Institute gave a brief and well articulated paper festooned with references to ‘political security,’ ‘internal Party security,’ ‘ideological security,’ and so on. Liberation?

Over the past few years I have expressed the view that Vietnam is on a path toward a more open political society. But the thought police are still there in force. My personal hope is that in the ten years between now and the 50th anniversary of the 30th of April 1975, and hopefully much sooner, the Communist Party of Vietnam will at last recognize the benefits of a more open, transparent, and pluralistic political culture; a Vietnam in which ‘internal party security’ is not permitted to douse, stomp on, and stamp out reasoned and open debate.

One reason to be skeptically optimistic is the very strong appetite in Vietnam these days for speech about a “just, democratic, and civilized” Vietnam. I do not think its just talk. But I also am of the view that the sort of political vision and courage needed to put the country on the road to a more comprehensively independent, democratic, and prosperous social order in Vietnam are still lacking. The greatest obstacles to Vietnam’s development really are institutional.

I do not believe the brightest, most forward-looking people in the Communist Party of Vietnam have China or Russia or Singapore in mind for their preferred political and social model. Brighter Vietnamese know that Russia is run by a Mafioso, that Beijing’s expansionism is real, and that Singapore is boring. Nor do I assume they desire America’s bankrolled version of ‘the best democracy money can buy,’ with large swathes of the population left neglected in countless ugly suburbs and burning ghettos.

Social democracy is the most promising path for Vietnam and comes closest to the true aspirations and will of the Vietnamese people. Can social democracy be built in a developing country? Conservatives will say no until someone says no to them.

Whatever Vietnam becomes over the next decades will be the result of political decisions made by the Vietnamese themselves, within and outside the Party. The more deliberative, transparent, and public these decisions are the more confident I will feel about Vietnam’s social, political, and economic future.


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Secretary Trong’s Beijing Adventure

Today I was asked to comment on Vietnamese General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming trip to Beijing…. I’m no Carl Thayer, but here’s what I had to say:

Trong’s trip is an important opportunity for he and Xi to establish greater clarity on relations between the two states, particularly though by no means only with respect to the East Sea. In the past, Chinese leaders have always seemed to present Vietnam with a combination of “carrots” and “sticks” and there is no reason to expect this to change. At present, China appears intent on using “infrastructure diplomacy” to gain favor with countries across the region and around the world together with provocative displays of military expansion. Xi is also going full steam ahead in efforts to change the status quo by unilateral means, most notably by building up installations in disputed areas.

For Secretary Trong it is an opportunity to state his positions and his views of his own party to China in his own terms and to explore areas of mutual interest in party-to-party relations, ideology, the emerging global situation, and Vietnam’s relations with US in particular. The strategic calculus of the talks will be different this time however, in part owing to China’s aggressive behavior and challenges to Vietnam’s sovereignty and in part owing to the ability and willingness of Vietnam to collaborate with other regional and world actors in promoting its legitimate rights and interests.

As in the past, Trong is likely to hear a combination of seductive offers of assistance and threats of collaborating with “external” powers. Trong’s warm personality and great interest in cultivating stronger ideological ties are likely to result in a public display of friendship and solidarity. Nguyen Phu Trong and the Communist Party of Vietnam recognize the importance of having good and stable relations with China. The Party – and it is hoped Trong, too – also recognize that though China is a large and powerful country, a subordinate relationship based on outdated the principles of “big brother dominates little brother” are not in the best interest of  mutually beneficial relations.

Perhaps not the most nuanced analysis, but my two cents for the moment.


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Getting Rights Right at Vietnam’s Crossroads

Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming visit to Washington comes at a critical juncture for Vietnam and a time when a confluence of domestic, regional, and geopolitical factors are giving increasing salience to the importance of expanding and protecting civil and political liberties in the country. The most important step in making the case for human rights in Vietnam is to convince the country’s leadership that better rights will generate significant benefits for Vietnam both domestically and in the international arena.

Weak rights protections are harming Vietnam. Domestically, they are compromising the performance of the country’s political and economic institutions and undermining the party’s legitimacy. Weak rights also harm Vietnam’s international image and damage the country’s prestige at a time when international support is vital.

While there is no use in overstating progress, political and civil freedoms in Vietnam have improved significantly in recent years. These improvements are due to decisions and calculations by party elites and to the determined efforts of a diverse set of rights champions operating within and outside the party itself. Today, the party presides over a country in which political and civic freedoms are being openly discussed and debated, through admittedly more often online than in the public square. Vietnam’s increasingly pluralistic and open political culture should be recognized for what it is: an emerging strength that sets it apart from more repressive regimes like China’s.

As Vietnam’s leading ideologue and the author of such statements as “our regime must never change,” the congenial and soon to retire Trong might strike some as an odd choice to travel to Washington, particularly given the high stakes. But this is Vietnam. A country where party elders must be respected, party conservatives must be placated, and where pantomimed expressions of unity must be performed continuously before statues of the famous patriot Ho Chi Minh, who would no doubt cringe at his contemporary religious deification.

Vietnam’s political leaders have an historic opportunity to improve the country’s economic performance, bolster their legitimacy, and vastly enhance the country’s international standing. To do this they must strike a new balance between the need to protect rights and the need to ensure social order. Three areas deserve particular attention.

Freedom of speech. Vietnamese within and outside the party have found their political voice and they are unlikely to relinquish it. The Internet has emerged as a lively platform for public analysis of official news and has reawakened Vietnam’s rich tradition of social criticism, debate, and intellectual exploration. While party elites bristle at Internet whistle-blowers and despise anti-party haranguing, the Internet nonetheless provides unparalleled opportunities for expression and openness. Arresting and intimidating bloggers and rounding up dissidents under draconian anti-sedition laws will not deliver Vietnam the civilized knowledge-based society its leaders envision or earn the country international respect. Releasing dissidents and protecting the free flow of ideas will.

Freedom of association. The party began as an illegal organization committed to the causes of social justice and national independence. Protecting freedom of association need not be seen as a threat to the party’s survival. Surely a party that traces its heritage to struggles against brutal exploitation on French rubber plantations should recognize that sole reliance on employer-dominated trade unions is likely to place the interests of employers and investors before those of workers. Vietnam’s workers are not revolutionaries. They want decent wages and their basic rights to be respected.

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement is successfully negotiated among the 12 member countries, both Vietnamese workers and employers will benefit. By strengthening rights and protection for its workers, Vietnam can attract new investment and build a reputation for social responsibility, distinguishing itself from competitors. Increased freedom for labor unions will likely be required before the U.S. Congress will ratify a TPP agreement that includes Vietnam. But the main reasons for doing this should be to promote the rights and livelihoods of Vietnamese workers and enhance Vietnam’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign investors who take labor rights seriously.

Beyond the shop floor, independent research organizations should be encouraged rather than suppressed. Silencing criticism and dissent is self-defeating. Similarly, permitting peaceful protest under principles of enlightened policing and zero tolerance for unruly behavior should be chosen over arrests, brutality, and intimidation. The appeal of ultra-nationalist and radical groups will decline if ordinary Vietnamese are granted their natural rights to to peacefully demonstrate and petition their government.

Freedom of the press. Absent a substantially independent press, accountability and transparency suffer. When a tiny circulation newspaper reported that a member of the party’s anti-corruption commission had accumulated properties through illegitimate means it was the editor who was pressured to resign. And yet a more independent press is precisely what Vietnam needs if it is to improve state responsiveness and combat and reduce corruption. Policies are needed to promote press freedoms, not suppress them. Reformist members of Vietnam’s political establishment should prevail upon their conservative colleagues to abandon their proposals to further restrict press freedoms.

This year marks 20 years of normalized U.S.-Vietnam relations and 40 years since the conclusion of the two countries’ disastrous war. It also marks the 70th anniversary of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, in which Ho Chi Minh famously announced the birth of a free and independent Vietnam. This was followed by the 1946 constitution, which promised freedom of speech, freedom of association, and a free press. Since 1945, Vietnam has travelled a long and difficult path. If Vietnam’s leaders can embrace a real commitment to rights, a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam is well within reach.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian & International Studies and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (2014 Palgrave Macmillan) and the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Vietnam. Follow him on twitter @jdlondon1.

This essay is presently featured on the Asia blog of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Comments 50 years later

The UK newspaper The Guardian recently asked me for comments on the 50th Anniversary of the US Marine landing at Nam Ô Beach, near Danang.

The article appears here:

The author was particularly interested in knowing the meaning of the (US) war in Vietnam for Vietnamese youth, Vietnam’s development, and US-Vietnam relations. Disclosure: I’m not the most informed person on Vietnam-US relations and am not an expert on Vietnam’s youth. But here are my comments in full.

Does the war play much of a role in the lives of the Vietnamese youth or have they moved on?

It plays a significant role in the lives of young people, though it takes on many different forms. Take memories and representations of the war and their meaning. On an individual level, young peoples’ families have been shaped by wars and families’ memories and histories and their salience for young people vary across the country, depending on families’ specific connections to the war and its effects. This is particularly salient in a places like Da Nang, where the fighting and its destructive impacts were most widely and severely felt and where the war was experienced not only as an international war involving a global superpower but also a civil war that divided communities and even families. A lot of that history is subdued. But it’s there. People light incense on family prayer altars to remember those lost in battle, for example. This happens in households in ways that are hidden from view but which carry intimate meanings in ways hard to grasp. Families’ trajectories and their physical and mental health have all been profoundly impacted.

More broadly, young people continuously encounter state-approved and state-managed memories and narratives, which are continuously being transmitted to the young through the education system and through various channels of the state-run media and propaganda apparatus. Young people are not only taught about the war they are taught what to think about it. The officially correct lesson to be drawn is that the war and its outcome remind us of the historical indispensability of the Communist Party’s leadership in freeing the country from external domination and subordination. But once again, we shouldn’t lose sight of the war’s tremendous and lasting destructive impacts, which stunted Vietnam’s development for decades.

 Just how significant has the development of Vietnam been over the last few decades?

As recently as the early 1990s Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in Asia. The country’s development since has been very impressive. Economic growth has permitted rapid improvements in living standards and sharp declines in poverty. Life for the vast majority of Vietnamese is much, much better than in the past. Access to essential services has vastly improved. The country is motorized and internet penetration is among the fastest growing the world. Still, large shares of the population still live under conditions of socioeconomic vulnerability and social inequalities have intensified. The country’s economic growth is set to continue. The real questions are about what the pace of that growth will be and the equability of its outcomes. This will mostly depend on the effectiveness of the government’s economic policies and the success of reform efforts.

How much warmer do you expect Vietnam-US ties to become in the next few years?

I expect US-Vietnam relations to improve rapidly. This year is a particularly important year, not only because of the 40th anniversary but because of the culmination of the TPP talks and the high-level diplomatic talks that are scheduled to take place. Whatever the fate of the TPP, economic ties between the US and Vietnam are likely to improve considerably. Attitudes toward the US among Vietnam’s leadership have evolved swiftly, particularly within the last several ears and especially last year when the reality of China’s efforts to enforce its outsized maritime claims  directly challenged the country’s sovereignty. Enthusiasm for improving and deepening ties with the US remains uneven within the leadership and conservatives remain fixated on the US threat to the Party’s survival. But virtually all members of the leadership recognize the critical importance of further developing US ties, not only for reasons of trade but for national security. Vietnam finds itself in an extraordinarily challenging set of relationships. It needs good relations with both China and with the United States and must also promote its own interests. This is a tall order.

The pace and scope of improvements really depends on the appetite for improvements among Vietnam’s leadership and whether the leadership will be willing and able to live up to its pledges to promote democracy, freedom, and protection of rights, as it has pledged to do.  Any substantial improvements in these areas would permit deep improvements in US ties. On the other hand, continued harassment and imprisonment of dissenters would damage prospects. There’s tremendous potential for US-Vietnam ties. No matter how you look at it, Vietnam and America have a special relationship. I think leaders in both countries and people in Vietnam, perhaps in particular the youth, are keen to make relations with the US special for all the right reasons.

Jonathan D. London

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Nguyễn Bá Thanh

Today word came that Nguyen Ba Thanh, one of Vietnam’s leading political figures, has passed away. The following is based on my own reflections and knowledge of Nguyen Ba Thanh and his significance. It can not be considered to be an authoritative account because I am not deeply familiar with his career nor did I ever meet him in person. I did, however, live in Da Nang and Quang Nam in 1999 and 2000 and have followed those localities’ politics with considerable interest. The following should be taken as my own amateurish attempt at grasping his significance with incomplete information.


Nguyen Ba Thanh (18 April 1953 – 13 February 2015) was a native of Da Nang and among the most important leaders in the city’s history. He was a rare commodity in Vietnamese politics: an entrepreneurial and pragmatic political conservative with a strong record of experimentation and achievement. He will forever be associated with the rapid transformation of Da Nang from a sleepy nondescript post-revolutionary town into a still-quiet but increasingly impressive showcase for large infrastructure projects – especially new roads and bridges – and innovative government reforms. While the city still lacks a distinctive flavor, it’s transformation is remarkable by any standard and residents of the City frequently report high levels of satisfaction with a range of public services, ranging from education to waste management. He was a City leader of national stature.

Nguyen Ba Thanh’s reputation was not without controversy. While his billing as Vietnam’s “Mr. Clean” gained him considerably notoriety and admiration, this characterization was increasingly questioned by critics who took issue with his aggressive tactics in clearing neighborhoods for new infrastructure and allegations that he himself had engaged in corrupt practices. While his achievements in promoting Da Nang’s development have been widely praised and are in respects undeniable, critics have noted that the City’s redevelopment occurred without the creation of public spaces, and with an insignificant industrial base and middling service economy. The city’s famous beaches that have been increasingly enclosed within lucrative joint-venture property developments which, while no doubt contributing to the City’s finances, have generated uncertain contributions to interests of the city’s general population. These criticisms notwithstanding, the native of Da Nang will forever be associated with the city’s development and transformation at the turn of the century.

Da Nang and its neighboring provinces have always occupied an important place in the politics of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Nguyen Ba Thanh’s status as an effective leader made him a natural candidate for ascending to the highest positions within the party. Widely respected among much of the political establishment, Nguyen Ba Thanh’s political ascent nonetheless fell short of expectations when in 2013 he failed to win a seat in the 16-member Politburo. Politically, he will be remembered as an enterprising and unusually effective administrator, which is significant insofar as his achievements have inspired greater openness to experimentation and innovation in public management.

Nguyen Ba Thanh’s reputation as corruption free was challenged toward the end of his career even as he was appointed as Vice-Chair of the Politburo’s anti-Corruption Committee. Notably, his illness and ultimate passing came at a time when Vietnam has been confronted by a fresh wave of allegations of high-level corruption, allegations that are potentially harmful to the Party’s legitimacy and which are fueling renewed calls from within and outside the state for systemic institutional reforms.

As a man of the Party, Nguyen Ba Thanh’s willingness to experiment and his penchant for emphasizing the need for transparent and efficient government will remembered fondly by his many supporters. Among Nguyen Ba Thanh’s most notable qualities was his ability to speak at very great length — sometimes as long as three hours — but in a disarmingly free-wheeling, often persuasive, and consistently playful and humorous way that made his public speeches and pronouncements a spectacle, winning him additional admiration among his fans and begrudging respect among his skeptics. (See the three-hour and seven minute “clip” below.) Nguyen Ba Thanh will be widely remembered across Vietnam.


Photo credit:

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Vietnam: Open Secrets on the Road to Succession

Happy New year!

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted on this site. But with the New Year I hope and intend to increase my activity and output. Below, please find a link to my recent piece for the Center for International and Strategic Studies (Washington), titled “Open secrets on the road to succession.

cogit photo jan

Best regards,



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Appearance on Channel News Asia concerning warming Viet Nam – US ties

On 7 October I appeared on Singapore-based Channel News Asia (CNA) to discuss the US’s partial lifting of its arms embargo on Vietnam. You can view the programme below.

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Chat with Hong Kong students

The first part if an interview I conducted with four Hong Kong undergraduates in relation to the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement that intensified in late Sept/early October 2014.

In Part 2 I begin by discussing some the challenges of living as
a Hong Kong citizen and foreigners (especiallly academics)
in Hong Kong in an environment in which the promise of
an increasingly democratic society appears to be fading.

Here’s part 3. We talk about the complex relation between
democratic politics and livelihood issues and conclude.

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Warming US ties and Vietnam’s future

Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh’s visit to Washington this week marks an important event in a large process of warming ties between the US and Vietnamese state’s. The talks come after several months of high-level discussions between various representatives of the two sides in the face of the Chinese state’s aims to enforce its legally baseless sovereignty claims over vast swathes of the maritime Southeast Asia and change the status quo through various coercive means.

In the face of these threats – to Vietnam’s sovereignty and to regional security – a great deal of attention has been directly to the imminent easing of Washington’s ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Hanoi. Beyond transfers of military and security equipment and technology and its not inconsiderable symbolic meaning, the lifting of the ban portends deeper military-to-military cooperation. Yet talks between the two countries leaders extend well beyond the military sphere. Nearly 40 decades on from their disastrous war, the US and Vietnamese states share numerous interests spanning trade and investment, education, and not least a need to manage what the Vietnamese have diplomatically described as Beijing’s “unchecked unilateralism.”

Internationally, the spectacle of warming ties between Hanoi and Washington nearly 40 years after the culmination of their disastrous war in interesting on all sorts of levels. What is perhaps less understood among foreign observers is the incredible and almost indescribably complexity of recent developments in Vietnam’s domestic politics. These developments, though difficult to make complete sense of, are nonetheless deserving of attention. For Vietnam’s leaders and indeed its people are today engaged in a grand debate about the country’s direction.

The questions facing the Vietnamese today are large and they are multifaceted. Among these the urgent (if familiar) problem of ‘how to cope with China now’ is only the most obvious and intractable. The far more interesting and in many respects more important debates raging in Vietnam concern the course of the country’s institutional and political development. For there is an increasing sense that the country’s institutions and politics – and not any foreign power – are the key factors undermining the country’s economic performance, slowing improvements in living standards, and intensifying inequalities of income, opportunity, and rights.

Vietnam remains an authoritarian polity. Yet in recent years debates about democracy and (to a lesser extent) rights have slowly but surely become regularized features of the country’s tense but gradually liberalizing political discourse. Many of the strongest calls for fundamental institutional and political reforms are longtime party members, whose decades of service immunize them against repression. Other voices for change are found in the country’s vibrant, diverse, and increasingly confident civil society that, though subject to waves of repression, has become a robust force in the country’s politics. Last but not least are millions of overseas Vietnamese – including earlier and very recent international migrants – who together with their countryman are keen to see Vietnam break through its self-made pathologies and join the ranks of East Asia’s open and democratic societies.

How, then, should we understand Vietnam amid the clinking of champagne glasses in Washington? Vietnam remains a country with vast economic potential. The country’s economy can and should be preforming much better than it is, something virtually all Vietnamese sense or know. Vietnam’s people have seen very significant improvements in their living standards, but the improvements have come from a very low base, are unequal across income groups, and are proceeding too slowing owing to various institutional constraints that adversely effect everything from education, to health care, to economic opportunities.

Standing between Vietnam and a more prosperous future are a series of important political decisions about the country’s institutional development. Closer ties with the US are welcome and may assist Vietnam in addressing its institutional challenges. But ultimately it is the Vietnamese who must together decide.


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