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.

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