Ways forward: Vietnam Diary, 15 May

The situation is ugly, dangerous, and scary. The violence in Ha Tinh is likely to have repercussions. There are now (unconfirmed) reports of at least one and possible multiple deaths (of unknown nationality) and scores of injuries.  But even the riots must take second place to the main story, which is leadership, or lack thereof. Time to break the silence Hanoi. I for one hope that Vietnam can overcome this situation in the earliest possible time frame. In this essay I discuss concrete steps that need to occur.

I began yesterday’s blog post by calling the current situation in Vietnam a crisis, understood as a situation in which Vietnam’s entire strategic outlook in being called into question from many directions, and reminding that with crisis comes both danger and opportunity.

Within the last 24 hours the sense of crisis has deepened, in all three respects.

Today the world is abuzz about the riots that took place in Binh Duong Tuesday night and this buzz will continue amid reports of no-less intense and in respects ominous riots in Ha Tinh province, to the north of Hue. There are now pictures of the riots in Ha Tin online and they feature images of physical abuse. Four deaths (unconfirmed, nationalities unknown) have been reported. I certainly hope this will not result in open conflict. Things are getting scary, folks. The unrest has ended, but the repercussions are yet to be seen.

For this reason, the riots must take second place to the main story, which is leadership, or lack thereof. Indeed, it may not be going too far to call it a crisis of leadership. I for one hope that Vietnam can overcome this situation in the earliest possible time frame.


The Communist Party of Vietnam has always prided itself on its consensus based approach. Ho Chi Minh, for example, is commonly misunderstood to have been Vietnam’s ‘great helmsman,’ when in reality he was a consensus figure. While Vietnam’s consensus based approach has been useful at times, at other times it has thrown the country into protracted gridlock, such as occurred under the ‘reign’ of Le Duan (from the mid-1960s to 1986) (characterized subservient consensus) by and which has characterized Vietnam’s ‘leadership’ over the last decade or so (characterized by dysfunctional stalemate).

Specifically, Vietnam’s leadership has been characterized by a stalemate among its top leaders. On one side the stalemate has featured the reform-minded Nguyen Tan Dung (who has been indirectly linked to a number of large scale corruption scandals) and his political constituency of local and national state-business elite.

On the other is the triumvirate of the country’s General Party Secretary (Nguyen Phu Trong), its President (Truong Tan Sang) and the leader of the National Assembly (Nguyen Sinh Hung), who are generally seen to be more conservative and diffident (I wouldn’t use the word loyal) with respect to China. Domestically, their loyalty is to each other, the Party, and the status quo, with respect to Vietnam’s core institutions.  Internationally, their loyalty (how can I put this politely?) is to the enduring illusion that Beijing is a partner. While the current dispute has silenced such sentiments, these players have not yet developed an alternative rhetoric and this perhaps explains why they have said nothing.

Overall, the combination of corruption-tainted and insufficiently strong reformist tendencies combined mind-bogglingly dogmatic conservatism is what has Vietnam’s market-Leninist political economy growing much slower than it should be, while its people face greater economic and social vulnerabilities than they should.

Over several years, Vietnamese and reform minded analysts who know Vietnam have pleaded with its government for breakthrough reforms, but this has not occurred. Why the lengthy preamble? Because the crisis Vietnam faces today internationally and domestically may not be understood apart from the stalemate that is Vietnamese politics. Vietnam has virtually zero chance of coming out of the crisis in good shape if this stalemate is not somehow addressed. It is notable that at the 9th Plenum of the 11th Party Congress that is currently underway, the conflict with China has hardly been mentioned, at least to my knowledge.

A deafening silence

One of the clearest indications of the gridlock and the lingering hesitance to break with Beijing is the deafening silence issuing forth from Ba Dinh Square, where Vietnam’s Communist Party’s administration is located and where 69 years ago Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s Independence, quoting words from America’s own Declaration of Independence, in an ultimately failed bid to win Washington’s recognition.  A full one week on from China’s sovereignty challenge, a week in which Vietnam’s formidable news media has been given a green light to impugn China, a week in wich Vietnamese cyberspace is on fire and now, protests run amok, and Vietnamese have not heard one single statement issued by any leading figure of their Party, State, or Government. Not a word.

While domestic leaders have spoken in glowing terms about Nguyen Tan Dung’s forceful speech at last-week’s summit, ASEAN is not the answer to Vietnam’s problems, Vietnam is the answer to Vietnam’s problems. (I would not call the ASEAN summit a failure because at least of its members has been bought and paid for already while others fear China or are do not know courage.) The problem is Vietnam’s leadership, it pains me to say, is in a state of paralysis.

At a time when Beijing has by most accounts violated both Vietnam’s sovereignty and international norms, the silence of Vietnam’s leadership means that it has no voice and indeed no narrative in global discussions currently unfolding.

The absence of a clear, coherent voice from Hanoi is doing great harm. Instead of communicating with the world with the confidence it should, Hanoi is on the brink of a public-relations meltdown that would make even Malaysian aviation officials blush. Indeed, the situation would appear to confirm what my colleague Adam Fforde has said in an interview with the AFP (quoted here), that Vietnam at present exhibits a “regime that offers no order or leadership capable of the efforts that will be needed” to stand up against China. Can Hanoi prove otherwise?

The riots

Now let’s turn to the riots. As noted, yesterday, the riots reflect popular outrage but also illustrate the hazards of nationalist fervor unleashed, particularly in repressive institutional environments such as Vietnam. The vast, (I emphasize) vast majority of Vietnamese, including those highly critical of the Party-state, condemn such actions, as they risk putting Vietnam in a bad light at a time when the country’s sovereignty has come under direct external threat. We can expect authorities to clamp down with maximum urgency and force. Alas, the riots seem to be the result of a botched attempt at orderly protest.

While evidence remains scarce, the riots appear to be the result of carelessly planned small-scale protests initiated by state-run or state invested foreign ventures which then quickly exploded.  The situation illustrates the profound nature of the challenges Hanoi faces in handling the crisis.

While virtually all of the media attention has been focused on Binh Duong, developments in Vũng Áng – Hà Tĩnh province, north of Hue are in respects more worrying still, as they appear to have involved violence and caused the (unconfirmed) death of four persons, nationalities unknown. Once photos of this incident circulate (I have seen them) we can expect the tensions between China and Vietnam to worsen still further.

Prominent civil society advocates (such as Nguyen Quang A) have emphasized that chaos is not the answer, while rightly maintaining that a constructive role for civil society in the current crisis will require human rights protections to which Hanoi has so far only paid lip-service. The riots are unfortunate. Vietnamese people are understandably upset by Beijing’s conduct but they risk doing great damage.

It must be recalled that Vietnamese have virtually no experience in participating in real politics of any sort, least loosely organized protests.Vietnam’s state is a capable state in many areas, such as flood evacuation, for example. The country also has a very large state-managed media operation and a wired population. Steps must be taken to address unrest. However, the old pattern of threats against the population will not be useful. Vietnamese are worried about the future of their country. Repression won’t fix that.

Ways forward

If Vietnam is going to confront the crisis in an effective manner, gain control of the situation, and address the underlying issues of sovereignty the following developments need to occur:

1. As soon as possible, hopefully within the next 24 hours THIS AFTERNOON, or at the earliest possible Hanoi must issue a statement. BUT NO ORDINARY STATEMENT. This should be televised (preferably live) and presented by a leading figure in Vietnam’s Party, State, or Government; In my view, the state should consider two statements, one in Vietnamese by a head of state, such as Nguyen Tan Dung (who has the greatest international experience) and one in English, delivered by a suitably high-ranking official in the Party, State, or Government who is fluent in English. Nguyen Thien Nhan, a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s politburo and head of the Party’s leading mass organization may be a suitable candidate.These statements, which would address both international and domestic dimensions of the situation; would aim to stabilize the situation by stating in the clearest possible terms Hanoi’s intention to address the crisis in its relations with China through diplomatic, legal means, and creative/cooperative means not yet discussed (e.g. joint development, shared sovereignty over buffer zones, etc).

* Visits by top leaders to the factories affected and meetings with enterprise managers of Chinese (and Taiwanese) factories and injured persons should be considered. With all necessary apologies, guarantees, and assurances.

2. Vietnam’s political leadership and leaders of the country’s developing civil society, which has elements both within and outside the state, need to enter discussions. These should include representatives of the country’s top leadership, representatives of the Group of 72 Petitioners (for constitutional reform, a loose grouping of intellectuals and others with longstanding links to the Party); senior members of leading civil society organizations. This is the most promising and indeed the only conceivable strategy for Hanoi to both gain control over the domestic narrative and achieve the kind of “big-tent” solidarity necessary to engage the international arena in an effective manner while also eliminating domestic chaos; I do not have great confidence in the current non-strategy of protest, which has featured meetings of local political elite in cities across the country; poorly organized protests, and extensive press coverage of the confrontation at sea; Leaders of Civil Society must, in turn, exercise leadership in their own right, by reiterating and broadcasting as widely as possible and through all possible means the need to refrain from violence and chaos; the trust of Civil Society and the support of the international community can be enhanced by the rapid release of important political dissidents under a set of principles to be negotiated. (Xin thông cẩm các bạn từ phía nhà nước Việt Nam, tôi rất ủng hộ Việt Nam và như vậy xin phép nói thẳng thắn như vậy! Đang nỗ lực để có môt cách tiếp cận xây dựng nhất!)

3. Vietnam must enter a national discussion and debate of all its options. The country and the region cannot afford a military conflict and conflict must be avoided at all costs. Obviously, discussion are ongoing within the Vietnamese leadership, and I recognize high level discussions are rarely open. That said, the country will benefit from open discussion and debate and as a contribution to those discussions and broader discussion I would like to share some final thoughts:

Yesterday I entered into an exchange with the noted US scholar and intellectual Amitai Etzioni, who has advocated a strategy of “Mutually Assured Restraint” in relations between the US in China. I asked him of his views on the Vietnam case, to which he offered the following sentiments, which I would like to share here:

No country should use coercive diplomacy, by establishing new facts on the ground, as a way to change the status quo.  It should be changed through negotiations, arbitration, or IR courts.  This was what I stated in the original Mutually Assured Restraint and what my colleagues stated in a position paper on MAR (“Changes to the status quo should be accomplished through negotiations between the parties involved; through arbitration, mediation, or international bodies and courts; or by finding new, creative solutions such as sharing sovereignty.”)

Nations stepping on an escalator of military preparedness should note it is much easier to get on it than to get off, and ask themselves where it is leading.  All the nations involved have burning domestic needs, whose service will suffer the more they invest in military assets. So will the stability of their regimes.

I support these general sentiments and believe Vietnam should be pursuing precisely these avenues. Etizioni had other things to say about Vietnam’s current policy tack, which I may address in the days head. In the mean time Hanoi needs to get its house in order by:

  1. Overcoming its self-defeating stalemate (the Vietnamese people need and deserve leadership, the region needs leadership, and right now);
  2. Ending the silence of its top leadership through clear communication to Vietnamese and international audiences, and;
  3. Entering into discussions with members of civil society both within and outside the state (and among the overseas community) to achieve the kind of order and legitimacy that will be necessary to lead the country from its present position of peril to a more promising future.

The most promising way to address the current crisis is some combination of the above together with serious engagement the international community and ongoing discussions about how best to achieve and sustain a  stable and prosperous regional order.

More later,

Note 1. Apologies for any mistakes, mistakes, over-statements, or insults. I don’t have much time and want to get this out.

Note 2.  Regarding the pronunciation of Vietnamese names: The surname Nguyen, which seems to challenge just about every non-Vietnamese speaker, can be pronounced phonetically as “Nwin.” Vietnamese features the letters D and Đ, which is a source of confusion as Đ does not translate. D is sometimes pronounced roughly as is “Z” in English, as in the case of PM Nguyen Tan Dung and Binh Duong province.