Viet Nam, do not lose hope!

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!

In solidarity,


This post was initially titled “Beating the constitutional blues”

Mistaking the symptoms for the cause?

The news this weekend that Viet Nam’s state has sentenced two state-linked businessmen to death on corruption charges is, in and of itself, unsurprising. We would expect as much in Viet Nam or indeed in any authoritarian polity, as in such polities it is normal for authorities to respond to perceived existential threats with attempts to demonstrate the state’s absolute power.

Whether and to what extent corruption poses a genuine existential threat to Viet Nam’s current leadership is debatable.  What these death sentences and those that may follow do seem to demonstrate is that Viet Nam’s state emphatically lacks the sorts of power it needs to address the plague of corruption that now so threatens the country’s growth prospects. To understand why requires that we appreciate three important features of Viet Nam’s political economy that are not widely grasped by those unfamiliar with the country.

death sent

Vu Quoc Hao is handcuffed after receiving the death sentence on November 15/Tuoi Tre News

The first of these features is that power in Viet Nam, though commonly assumed to be centralized (particularly given the presence of a Leninist party-state) is in fact profoundly decentralized and has grown even more decentralized within the past two decades.  Yes, Viet Nam’s political institutions are highly centralized. But the ways in which political and economic power and influence are exercised are not.

Yes, local authority in Viet Nam has always been resistant to central power. But within the last two decades, Viet Nam’s central state has become increasingly captive to local interests. Indeed, local officials have ascended to the commanding heights of state power and have been instrumental in pushing forward programmes of administrative and (limited) political decentralization and well as quasi-privatization of state enterprises. The net effect has been great increases in the powers and discretion of provincial political bosses and high-ranking enterprise managers. Regulatory measures to ensure transparency or accountability have been week or absent. This, in an environment of rapid economic growth, cheap credit, and seemingly limitless economic opportunities for wealth accumulation has produced levels of corruption and shadiness not seen in Viet Nam since the colonial period. Indeed, Viet Nam today displays the features of a highly decentralized patrimonialist regime that is largely resistant to higher authorities, let alone regulation.

The second feature of Viet Nam’s political economy is that Party discipline is less strong than imagined. Many, perhaps most members of the ruling party in Viet Nam are complicated though honest people. It is impossible to deny, however, that a great deal of corruption in Viet Nam has swirled around Party members and ‘party people.’ This, as Lord Acton has suggested, is not surprising. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without checks or balances and absent the rule of law, those in positions of power, whether in Viet Nam or elsewhere, tend to brazenly use their political power for personal financial enrichment.

The price of corruption in Viet Nam is steep. Its sorry result has been profligate waste. In Viet Nam, a country ripe with potential but in dire need of skilling and appropriate infrastructure, corruption has meant that hundreds of million and perhaps billions of dollars have been siphoned out of state coffers and out of the productive economy into non-deserving pockets and into non-productive outlets, such real estate speculation and conspicuous consumption.

A third and final feature of Viet Nam’s political economy Vietnamese of all brands, including many within the party-state apparatus are deeply alarmed by the specter of corruption. Disdain for official corruption in Viet Nam has grown. After two decades of remarkable progress in poverty reduction, real improvements in Viet Nam ‘s living standards have slowed. Economic vulnerability remains acute among large segments of the population. On the other hand there has seemingly been no slowdown in the sales of Bentley automobiles and the like, a fact not lost on the Vietnamese street. It is true that various forms of corruption – from petty to grand – have become institutionalized rules in the context of a market economy.

In fact, corruption in Viet Nam, however complex, is in fact merely the symptom of more fundamental causes. For the most fundamental threats to Viet Nam’s prosperity are not greedy officials but the presence of institutions that allow for and encourage corrupt practices. Which is to say Viet Nam’s main deficit is institutional.

One can concur with principled persons who lament corruption in all its forms. On the other hand one may not deny that even large-scale corruption can, under certain cases, coexist with and even propel economic growth. The cases of Wen Jibao and Xin Jin Ping come to mind, as do the robber barons of the United States, past and present.  When the gallows open they tend to do so for political reasons.

It is also the case however that in many and perhaps most contexts pervasive corruption tends to undermine economic growth as well as the integrity of government. This is what we observe in Viet Nam.  Viet Nam retains great economic promise and it is conceivable that the country will overcome its present malaise. IT is clear to many, however, that the country presently lacks the institutions in needs to ward off the scourge of corruption that is so damaging the national interests

The Vietnamese are proud people and their country has befitted enormously from two decades of sustained economic growth. Now that economic growth is sputtering in the face of corruption and political near-sightedness, the country requires farsighted leadership. More than death sentences, Viet Nam today requires political leadership and a determination by all Vietnamese to achieve a society in which principles of fair play apply to all, regardless of their status, rank, or party.