Kerry’s visit, Viet Nam’s future

Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings in Hanoi on Monday represent an important event in the development of bilateral relations between Washington and Hanoi in the context of efforts to develop these relations into a ‘comprehensive partnership.’ But their broader significance, or potential significance, require a somewhat broader view of both the present and the future.

Kerry’s visit comes at a particularly interesting time in Viet Nam’s  political development. Indeed, the pace of politics in Viet Nam has accelerated and its contents are less predictable and hence more interesting than in the past. Most recently, constitutional reforms and human rights concerns have dominated the public discourse on politics. I will recap these developments before returning to the broader questions alluded to at the outset.

Reforms and rights

Let us start with the constitutional reform process and its anti-climactic conclusion and with recent developments with respect to human rights. After an unprecedentedly open and public discussion of constitutional reforms, including prominent discussions of the need for fundamental institutional reforms, Viet Nam’s 13th National Assembly decided on a revised constitution that by and large ignored for now any significant changes, much to the dismay (though not the surprise) of reform advocates within and outside of the state apparatus. In the wake of the Assembly’s vote, a small but high profile number of long-time members of the Communist Party of Viet Nam has left the Party. These and other reform advocates insist that if Viet Nam is to address its most pressing challenges, the country requires institutions that will promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law in a way the revised constitution fails to do.

Just days prior to the constitutional vote, UN member states voted to grant Viet Nam a seat on the UN’s Human Rights commission. As we might expect, this was result was met with great disappointment among reform advocates within and outside of Viet Nam’s state and among communities who have born the consequences of Viet Nam’s less than stellar human rights record.

What was perhaps not expected, either by authorities and most jaded observers of Viet Nam’s politics, was the very wise and forward looking response of Vietnamese reform advocates who, rather than throwing their hands up in despair or retreated gloomily into silence, have enthusiastically greeted the UN result as an opportunity to hold the state accountable to its responsibilities as a prospective Human Rights Commission member. This has been most clearly seen in civil society-based reform advocates’ efforts to further publicize Viet Nam’s membership, to highlight in a very specific way Viet Nam’s formal commitments to the UN International Convention on Human Rights, and to launch a surprisingly vibrant if loosely organized effort to education the Vietnamese public about human rights and indeed their rights as citizens the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

In the days 8 to 10 December, just six days before Kerry’s bilateral talks in Hanoi, and against a backdrop of ongoing (and by accounts quite intensive negotiations regarding the TPP), Vietnamese reform advocates held a series of events celebrating International Human Rights day with small gatherings, discussions with members of the international community, and the launching of the non-partisan Viet Nam Network of Bloggers. Persons involved in these activities gathered in a peaceful manner to disseminate information on Human Rights and Viet Nam’s commitment to them (a task the indeed the Vietnamese state should itself be involve with). Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, these efforts where met by an all-to-familiar array of repressive responses, including physical beatings by plain-clothes security staff and thugs, illegal confiscation of activists possessions, and threats.

One wonders how these interesting developments in Viet Nam’s political scene will shape Monday’s discussion.

The State of Play in Hanoi

A long-timer observer of politics and society in Viet Nam I have nonetheless never paid particularly close attention to US-Viet Nam relations. Yet in the present context I find these relations at once fascinating and important.  The position of Viet Nam in these talks – at this particular juncture in time – are particularly interesting, if difficult to decipher.

What, might we conjecture, is going on in Ba Dinh Square? Before addressing this question directly it is important to emphasize that beneath the veneer of a uniform one party state, Viet Nam’s state is in important respects pluralistic, albeit in counterproductive ways. Its behaviors can only be understood at the joint product of a competitive and at times feudalistic struggle among reform-minded elements and those committed to the status quo.

While the constitutional vote suggests certain limitations to the extent or significance of reform impulses within the state, the votes is in-fact misleading barometer of conditions with the state, as Communist Party Members are duty-bound to support centrally determined political conditions and an act of open defiance within the National Assembly – a body of for and by the party – is simply beyond the realm of present possibilities.

Given its desire to improve relations with Washington, expand outlets for trade, and revive sluggish investment, Viet Nam’s state stands to benefit enormously though a more nuanced, enlightened, and (as some Vietnamese might like to say) civilized approach to the manner in which regulates social life in the country, and political speech and advocacy in the country in particular.

I am not alone among analysts in my view that the single most important elements missing from Viet Nam’s political economy are transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. Ultimately, Viet Nam’s progress in reforms – and indeed in its economic performance – depend on tangible, effective responses to these institutional deficiencies. It seems clear that the achieving these responses will require an unrelenting constructive effort to relax the unconstructive, paranoid, violent, and indeed illegal patterns of social regulation we have observed in the past and present.

Yes, Vietnamese within and outside the state have major differences in their ideas about how Viet Nam’s political development should occur, with some maintaining that ‘perfected socialism’ may not occur to the end of the century. Yet for those serious about putting the country on a better course – including those serious about socialist, social-democratic, and liberal reform possibilities – there is a greater need than ever to overcome the repressive, paranoid impulses of the past. Viet Nam cannot afford and its people (I believe) do not desire years and even decades more of what we might call ‘Viet Nam syndrome:’ that particular combination of non-transparent, strangely pluralistic (in the sense of multiple power bases), but yet ultimately feudalistic and repressive impulses that have long characterized the country’s politics and which continue to undermine and limit possibilities for a more vibrant, economically dynamic, and just social order.

What Vietnamese deserve, the recent constitutional reforms notwithstanding – are practical and meaningful steps to address fundamental institutional constraints. Which brings us back to this week’s bilateral talks.

Past, present, and future

It is odd and fitting that at this decisive moment in Viet Nam’s contemporary history, the country’s leadership faces the challenge of constructive engagement with the United States. There is a special relationship between the United States and Viet Nam for reasons we all know. Secretary of State Kerry himself is a part of this history and is generally liked and respected by major portions of Viet Nam’s leadership. What better way, then, for Viet Nam to move forward, than to cease the politics of repression and backwardness and embrace possibilities for Viet Nam to move forward.

Meaningful institutional reforms will only come through a multi-directional process that at some point can overcome resistances within the more conservative, security-obsessed segments of the state. The brave civil society campaigners of Viet Nam today go about their work at great peril because they love their country and desire the basic freedoms to which their own state is constitutionally and internationally bound. In fact, it is the Vietnamese state – and not its citizens – if it desires to sit on the Human Rights Commission – that should be and is indeed required to promote human rights within the country. Rather than beating reform advocates, state elements should defend and engage these advocates in the spirit of ‘strategic’ trust.

Ultimately institutional reforms of the sorts Viet Nam requires will required efforts of diverse actors within and out of the state, including parts of the state that remain resistant to or simply ignorant of the need for reforms. Viet Nam is not China and never will be. And this is a good thing. Nor is Viet Nam a country that would foolishly embrace rank neoliberalism. Viet Nam needs to chart its own course. And it is the hope of this US citizen that Monday’s bilateral talks will together with reform effort within and outside the state help put the great country on a more promising course. One that can truly deliver the country the Independence, Freedom, and Happiness it’s people thirst for, regardless of their class, party, or rank.

JL, Hanoi