Vietnam: Where to from here?


Vietnam’s recently concluded Party Congress, which appeared to mark the end of protracted and tense process of leadership succession, is perhaps more appropriately seen as the beginning of a generational shift in the country’s top leadership, rather than an indication of where the country is heading. After a tense and unprecedentedly visible succession process, a mood of anti-climax has quickly settled in. For all the excitement and intrigue it generated, the 12th Party Congress came to an abrupt, air-sucking end.

What happened? Through a mix of procedural means and clever politicking that took many by surprise, sitting Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his supporters ably short-circuited and, by appearances, effectively ended the political career of the self-styled and now outgoing political maverick, Nguyen Tan Dung. Vietnam’s Prime Minister served two terms, and his period in office generated a mix of high hopes, dashed hopes, raised eyebrows, and resentment. Dung’s period in office saw Vietnam’s growth lose momentum, but then regain that momentum.

Widely labeled a reformer, the outgoing Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s record never squarely fit that characterization. Mostly, Dung was a smooth politician who built up a powerful patronage network and initiated reforms that promoted the interests of well-placed persons and foreign investors, sometimes to the detriment of the country’s economic performance. Dung projected himself as being committed to a more open and democratic Vietnam, while his critics dismissed such a possibility. Be that as it may, Prime Minister’s style and wit led many Vietnamese to see his bid for the Secretary General Position as a bid for a new direction in Vietnamese politics which, though imperfect, would at the very least bring change.

Instead, the opposite has occurred. Had he emerged victorious, Vietnamese state-controlled press would likely be hailing a new day in the country’s politics, much to the chagrin of party conservatives. Today, it is the party conservatives who are smiling, while the state-run press is awash with photos of Nguyen Phu Trong being congratulated by his handpicked clutch of appointees. These include appointees to the key posts of Prime Minister, State President, and President of the National Assembly. By contrast, images of Nguyen Tan Dung have him either standing stoically by or heading for the exits. Never a good look.

So whereto from here? Within Vietnam, in the country’s lively cyberspace, and in the international press, the result of the leadership succession is seen as a vote for continuity within the Party. This is, in many respects, a reasonable conclusion. After all it was Trong, however doctrinaire and ridiculed, who has prevailed. It is he who insisted that he stay on for two more years and it is he who got his wish. As it stands, General Secretary Trong will remain in his position for an additional two years. Still, it unclear who would replace him, or whether the secretary will be able to directly select or otherwise determine his successor. As such, the direction and spirit of Vietnam’s elite politics remains an open question.

There are other signs of continuity. One example in the abundance of public security and party watchdogs in the newly selected Politburo. Notably, Vietnam’s newly anointed state president and symbolic leader hails from the Ministry of Public Security. As for selections to the other top two leadership posts, the positions of Prime Minister and National Assembly President these include, respectively, a rather non-descript bureaucratic from the country’s central region whose appointment is seen in part as a bow to sentiments for regional balance, and a southerner (who is also female) who has a demonstrated competence in social affairs though has yet to distinguish herself otherwise. Perhaps the most important underlying continuity is the organization of the upper tiers of Vietnam’s political system itself. While an outgoing Minister of Planning called for ‘urgent political reforms’ Vietnam will remain a country ruled by committee. In this respect Vietnam differs from virtually every other country in the world.

Nor should we be too fast to assume the leadership succession will lead Vietnam to somehow slow down. In addition to the police and party watchdogs mentioned above, the new politburo has a number of younger, able, and energetic members, representing such key policy areas as finance and foreign affairs, just to name two. Moreover, the broader spirit of Vietnamese politics is, however halting, not one of inaction. The country’s leadership is committed to internationalization and expanding and deepening ties, even as they act to ensure doing so does not threaten the Party’s long-term interests. With all four of Vietnam’s top leaders having visited the US within the last year and with the entire politburo and central committee recognizing the US and an indispensable trading and security partner, it is clear that times have changed, even with a conservative at the helm, and even in the absence of Nguyen Tan Dung.

Most people who know Vietnam believe the country’s economy should be performing better than it has. It is almost certain that the Party’s leadership recognizes this fact and one should not presume that, while the newly selected leadership are not reformers, they will not take at least some tangible steps to shore up weaknesses in the areas of transparency, infrastructure, and skilled workers and so on. Whether the steps taken will be the right steps or effective in their implementation is another question. But Vietnam has a lot going for it. While its state has been weakened by overzealous decentralization and commercialization, Vietnam is a society is dynamic and, one would hope, still full of promise.

What is perhaps most uncertain is how Nguyen Phu Trong, the politburo, the Party Central Committee, and the Vietnamese people will cope with Beijing, and how Beijing itself will conduct itself in the boiling maritime dispute that is rapidly leading to the militarization of the entire region. Nguyen Phu Trong has in the past been someone who has advocated a conciliatory approach toward China. Indeed, it is in Vietnam’s best interest to have as good relations with Beijing as is possible. There is much to gain from good relations and a great deal to loose from bad ones. Yet maintaining neighborly relations has become a huge challenge, even for Trong. Backed into a corner, Vietnamese will defend their country.

So where do we stand? With this selection of leaders, will Vietnam take steps backwards? I would say no. While there are many in Vietnam who are clamoring for change, they increasingly recognize that change by way of reforms is unlikely to come solely or even mainly from the top. Indeed, Vietnam’s people are now politically engaged and are demanding reform and greater transparency, and the state is slowly responding. Vietnam now features a quasi-liberal brand of authoritarianism that, while still tarnished by regular human rights abuses, at the very least allows space for open discussion of social and political issues. Does the country have a bloated security apparatus? Absolutely. And I worry about how that will be reined in.

In the meantime and for the foreseeable future, Vietnam’s economy will continue to grow and is likely to grow rapidly. It is how to maximize the quality of that growth and how to ensure that that growth translates into benefits and opportunities for the Vietnamese people that is the key issue, along with promoting the country’s security and sovereignty. One hopes and expects Vietnam’s leadership grasps these challenges. Let us see how they respond.


Ok, it’s over, it seems…

By late afternoon yesterday the (seemingly final) results of Vietnam’s protracted leadership succession process became known. Meaning that yesterday’s post (titled “It ain’t over yet, folks”) had a shelf life of four hours! Be that as it may, the final results were not known before then. Whatever has, might, or will be said, the process of elite succession this time around was especially tense and full of twists and turns. Owing to arrival of social and electronic media, it was an unprecedentedly public affair, even if the public remains as excluded as ever.

At any rate, the upper ranks of the Party have made their choice. The ‘new’ crop of state leaders indicate a selection in favor of continuity. The TBT remains in place. The national assembly is to have a new and (hopefully) more interesting leader. The party establishment of Quảng Nam will be pleased. Perhaps fittingly, Vietnam’s new president and symbolic leader hails from the state’s public security wing. While much of Vietnam’s population was awaiting the result, the actual result is just about as anti-climactic as one can image. Keep hope alive! Only 5 years to the 13th Congress! Whoopee! (ps. vẫn còn vài người bảo là còn chưa xong!)

It ain’t over folks

When it comes to Vietnam’s leadership succession, virtually all of us are in the dark. This includes not only well informed Vietnamese but, indeed, well informed Vietnamese within upper ranks of the party. Too often in the past week, both domestic and foreign observers have fallen prey to the lure of being first to report, and/or the desire for certitude about the results of Vietnam’s leadership succession process. While the desire to know is understandable, there remains no basis for certitude. The process remains undetermined and fluid. It simply ain’t over.

Foreign observers have gotten a particularly confused picture of things, mainly owing to:

(1) their failure to grasp the intricacies, pliability, and weirdness of the official rules governing the Communist Party’s succession process;

(2) their over-reliance on people who don’t know but say they do (the truth his, hardly anyone outside the process truly knows what’s going on, while even those on the inside may not know what’s going on, owing to restriction on communication with each other);

(3) confusion what has been (to be a fair) a confusing mixture of cryptic, quasi-official, and official even statements issued by certain Party officials that have variously turned out to be incomplete, incompletely true, self-serving, or  all of the above; and,

(4) reliance on second- and third-hand accounts of unverifiable claims which, though sometimes appearing to be credible or plausibly credible, cannot be verified. The confusion is hardly surprising.

So where do we stand? Well, by most appearances there does appear to be a grand tussle underway. On the other hand, the world is locked out and it’s near impossible to verify anything. There are reports of intense horsetrading, such this or that faction bringing pressure to bear on individuals and groups for their support with a mix of promises and threats. While the 11th Party Congress concluded with the issuance of a list of new personnel, the 12th congress is now seated and many of its members are demanding a voice. While the sitting party-secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has appeared skillful in using procedural means to block sitting prime-minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s path to power, it now appears Dung’s supporters are mobilizing a spirited rally.

In the mean time, those in charge of the Party’s external relations continue to insist that the process is orderly one and that talk of a fractious process on the outside is nothing more than malicious rumor. Could it be?

Vietnamese cyberspace is on fire, with ‘well-founded rumors’ and leaked documents unleashing wave after wave of intrigue. From external appearances, the Party-controlled press appears to struggling with the task of reporting on all of this. On one day a leading newspaper leads with headlines of a speech at the congress calling for urgent political reforms reforms. On the next day the same paper publishes a litany of fake or suspiciously fervent comments,congratulating the Party’s outgoing 11th congress on getting things right.

But now the 12th congress has taken its seat and there are suggestions that the proverbial rice has not been cooked. All these accounts can’t be right, can they?

So, is Trong likely to ‘win?’ My best answer remains maybe. What I am slightly more certain of is advice that until the dust settles it would be wise to avoid mistaking self-serving factional chatter and even official announcements and press reports as truly indicative of the real state of play. Barring unforeseeable events, we should expect the results to be known toward the end of this week and not before. If I am wrong, so be it.

What is perhaps more useful is to recognize that while the personnel decisions being made do indeed carry major implications, the selection process itself has turned out to a major political development, even if one whose contemporary or historical significance it is too early to know.

Certainly there’s been no shortage of drama. Two leading figures contesting for power. A senior state and party official taking the podium at the congress and calling for comprehensive and urgent political reforms. A Chinese oil platform drilling off the coast. And not least the inauspiciously timed death of turtle linked to a sacred defense of the nation’s sovereignty at the Congress’s outset. And this is only the stuff we actually know. Indeed, if anything is clear, it is that Vietnam’s elite politics today are unscripted. That’s a good thing. Not because it may portend a future of more open and democratic politics. But because you couldn’t invent this stuff (i.e. write such a script) if you tried.


Vietnam’s leadership succession update – Friday 8 January

While I do not have access to special information, I thought it might be useful to communicate bits of information that are emerging from deliberations over Vietnam’s tense leadership succession process (see my previous post for details) to an English readership and those Vietnamese speakers interested.

On Monday, the Party’s 14th Plenum will meet and take critical decisions in the run up to the Party Congress, scheduled to open on the 21st. Other foreign analysts, such as Carl Thayer and David Brown, are very likely to have a better handle on what is going on, though I suppose some of what I have to say and some of the perspectives I have may be of use. In this spirit, I’ll share some info and impressions as they emerge, beginning with following:

Friday evening, 8 January: People are describing the situation in Hanoi this evening as ‘extremely tense,’ with numerous reports of diverging views within the Politburo (not surprising) and, more significantly, between the Central Committee and the Politburo. Though not totally surprising, it seems apparent (and if true is significant) that the Party’s Central Committee is taking a forceful role, is being assertive, and has even managed to veto positions or recommendations handed down from Politburo.

If true, this indicates that the determination of Vietnam’s new leadership will be a genuinely deliberative process within the Party, which is significant.

With the 14th plenum scheduled for Monday, it appears that the tense chess match that has been unfolding among leading contestants for power and in the Central Committee is only intensifying. It seems certain the next few days will be filled with tension and that some real drama may unfold at the 14th plenum (again, scheduled for Monday).

At present it appears nothing is settled with respect to the selection of a new leadership. Perhaps the most significant bit of info is that the determination of Vietnam’s new leadership will occur through a process of intense deliberation, and that lower ranking members of Vietnam’s political elite (i.e. members of the Central Committee) are demanding a role, and appear in a position to shape the outcome.


Notes on Vietnam’s tense leadership succession

In Vietnam, a pressure-packed political succession is entering its final stages, its outcomes still unknown. At stake is leadership over the Communist Party and its stamp on Vietnam’s development over the next five years and beyond. With its expanding economy still compromised by institutional weaknesses and its foreign policies congealing amid escalating regional tensions, Vietnam’s leadership succession carries wide implications not only for Vietnam’s development but for that of the broader regional order.

Still, while it is worth knowing what’s going on and whom the principal contestants for power are, the most important questions arising from the leadership succession are questions about the direction of Vietnam’s politics itself. To see why requires us to view struggles playing out at the commanding heights in relation to developments taking place within the broader elite and within and outside the party-state.

At the core of the leadership struggle are tensions surrounding the determination of the Party’s leadership for the upcoming 12th Party Congress, which will sit until 2021 and which is scheduled to get underway on the 21st of this month. The leadership roster, expected to be finalized next week, will determine who will serve as Party General Secretary, Prime Minister, State President, and National Assembly President, among other key positions. Thus, the most obvious answer to the question of ‘what is going on’ in Vietnam is a struggle for leadership over and influence within the Communist Party.

The most compelling sub-plot in this competition is the contest between current Party General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, and the current Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung. The Prime Minister’s pursuit of the Party Secretary position draws support from the power base he has cultivated among elites across various sectors over the course of his two terms in office. Yet the Prime Minister is a controversial figure.

To his supporters, the Prime Minister is Vietnam’s most proficient statesman, a true reform champion, and patriot ready to end Vietnam’s subservience to China. Indeed, the Prime Minister projects a commitment to market liberalizing reforms and a willingness to expand freedoms ‘in accordance with the law.’

Yet critics allege the Prime Minister is most committed to expanding the wealth and influence of his family and supporters and well placed foreign investors. They hold him responsible for large-scale bankruptcies and profligate lending that have left Vietnam with an onerous public debt. Reformers cast the Prime Minister as a dangerous fake with a penchant for talking about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ and for silencing critics through draconian means. Conservatives mistrust him for his alleged association with ill-gotten wealth, his call for a fresh approach to relations with China and his willingness to seek economic advice from the likes of Tony Blair. And yet despite all this mistrust, the Prime Minister retains a certain and in respects enigmatic appeal.

Crucially, however, party conservatives and in particular the Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong retain control over key levers of procedural power and are using these block the Prime Minister’s path to power. How might this occur? Though ineligible for another full term, there is precedent for the Party Secretary to install himself for another two years, during which time he may use his control over the means of Party discipline and ideology to buttress his support base and groom the viable successor he currently lacks. Not known for his intellectual dynamism, the Party Secretary and his supporters’ grit and determination have caught many off guard. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Party Secretary’s ‘under-the-radar’ success in cajoling several hundred central committee members to accept a decision authored by himself forbidding current or future committees from nominating or voting persons for leadership positions who are not on the official list endorsed by the general secretary himself. Still, outside his narrow support base, enthusiasm for two more years of his stewardship is modest at best.

The politics of Vietnam’s leadership succession, however, is not limited to a competition between Mssrs Dung and Trong and nor is it limited to the world of elite politics. While many members of Vietnam elite have benefited from patron-client politics, years of political stalemate under the Nguyen Phu Tong – Nguyen Tan Dung rivalry has taken its toll, leading increasing ranks of heretofore-passive observers to the view that interest group politics of the sort Vietnam has developed have undermined the coherence and effectiveness of state policy. There is indeed a chance that Vietnam will say goodbye to both Mr. Dung and Mr. Trong. This could happen as a result of an unhappy compromise between the two camps.

A far less likely scenario would be an override of the current party secretary’s ban on nominations by the party’s internal and (in principle) autonomous inspectorate. Such an outcome would amount to a procedural coup, effectively commanding the central committee to openly nominate and elect state leaders. If one or both the Prime Minister or Party Secretary exit, the main question is whether inheritors of the remaining top positions will be mere acolytes of established interest-based camps or more independently minded leaders drawn from the politburo or, intriguingly, the military.

For the 99.9 percent standing outside the theater of elite politics, the struggle for Vietnam’s future has generated intense interest, albeit interest pulsing with currents of willful optimism, resignation, and outright desperation. While proponents of reforms lament the passing of yet another undemocratic election, others see the drama and chaos of the succession struggle as part of a larger process of political evolution. Such a perspective is not without grounds. In recent years Vietnam’s political culture has become increasingly pluralistic; Vietnam today is a country with more than 30 million Facebook users and innumerable political blogs.

While in recent weeks party elites have be leaking and and counter-leaking internal memos, expressing their views over the net while active and retired party members have openly demanded the abandonment of Leninism and comprehensive institutional reforms. It is conceivable that tensions and chaos kicked up by the current leadership succession will lend momentum to these calls.

Vietnam’s politics are developing faster than its political elites are prepared to admit. In striking contrast to China, there are calls from within and outside Vietnam’s state apparatus for more pluralistic and democratic social order. Vietnamese from diverse walks of life are discussing the nation’s politics in an increasingly open and self-confident manner. They have grown tired of the land grabs and the loudspeakers.

The notion that only tiny fractions of Vietnam’s population are interested in politics is fast fading. While Vietnamese vary in their political perspectives, there is a broad desire among them for the country’s politics to be liberated from unaccountable power politics conducted among self-interested elites. Whether those seated at the 12th party congress can assist such an outcome remains to be seen.


Notes: I’ve written this piece for a broad, non-Vietnamese audience and as such the piece may not be terribly interesting or new to Vietnamese. I am translating it now.