Vietnam’s bloggers challenging one party rule

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After years of conflict and hardship, Vietnam has emerged as Asia’s newest industrialising economy – but social and economic change present challenges to one-party rule, among them the vibrant blogging scene. Vietnam specialist Jonathan London charts the state’s pursuit of bloggers in Vietnam’s newly fluid political scene.

Two decades ago Vietnam had fewer than one telephone per 10,000 people, one of the lowest rates in the world. Today this country of 90 million counts 135 phones for every 100 citizens.

Internet uptake has also taken off. More than one in three has access to the web compared to just one in 33 a decade ago. History has indeed sped up in Vietnam, presenting both opportunities and risks.

The impact of the internet on Vietnam’s political culture has been significant and sudden. Until recently access to unfiltered information, news, and views in Vietnam was strictly limited to those with state power.

This situation has changed dramatically. Perhaps most significantly, political blogging is now well established in Vietnam, despite recent state efforts to root it out.

Forms of political blogging in Vietnam vary.

Some bloggers aspire to be independent journalists. Others focus on scandal and gossip, especially if it involves the country’s political elite.

Still others promote the causes of political reform and the plight of prisoners of conscience languishing in Vietnam’s jails. These are joined by the innumerable thousands of microbloggers on social media sites such as Facebook.

When they are silenced, whether through arrest or other means, they are swiftly replaced by new blogs and a flurry of internet activism critical of the state’s repressive tactics.

Thirst for change

Speaking out politically in Vietnam entails certain risks.

Within the past year several bloggers have been given lengthy prison terms under draconian laws meant to silence dissent and sow fear among the population.

Conditions in Vietnamese prisons can be harsh. On the inside, physical and mental abuse – and untimely deaths – are commonplace. Discrimination against family members on the outside is the norm.

Welcome to early 21st century Vietnam, a country ripe with potential but one creaking under the weight of a dysfunctional political system.

A country thirsting for modernity but one in which the state harshly punishes calls for fundamental change.

Vietnam’s bloggers are but one important part of an unprecedented, if still loosely organised, campaign aimed at encouraging, even compelling Vietnam’s one-party state to adopt fundamental political reforms.

Disparaged as “enemies” and “hostile forces” by regime conservatives and routinely the subject of threats, they are determined to see their country develop more pluralistic, transparent, and democratic institutions.

No longer hiding

In the past, Vietnam’s bloggers have hidden behind fake online identities to avoid detection and keep a step ahead of the authorities.

But increasingly, scores of Vietnamese are openly taking to the internet to be heard. They do so cautiously but with confidence and determination.

Indeed, in a very short period of time, open dissent has become an established feature of social life in Vietnam. The country’s political culture has changed in fundamental respects.

Nor are open calls for reform limited to tech-savvy youth.

Earlier this year, 72 current and retired state analysts and officials openly called for an end to Vietnam’s one-party rule. Petition 72 was a daring move and eventually gained more than 14,000 signatures, many from within the party-state apparatus.

While summarily rejected by the state, the petition circulated freely on the web and the open online debate that followed marked an indisputable watershed in the country’s political development.

None of this could have occurred without important changes within the regime.

Indeed, politics within the Communist Party, usually a dour, even depressing affair, has become interesting, exhibiting a degree of uncertainty not seen since the 1940s.

The restrained factionalism of the past has given way to a more open struggle that reflects a crisis of leadership.

Flagging economy

This crisis is itself the product of a growing sense and realisation that interest group politics and incompetence within the party are undermining the country’s prospects. To make sense of this crisis one need only look at the economy.

For decades Vietnam was East Asia’s poorest country. Wars and embargoes imposed by the US and China kept the country largely isolated from world trade.

Yet market reforms undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s unleashed explosive economic growth while Vietnam’s relatively cheap labour, its proximity to China and other East Asian markets, and its improving ties with European and American countries made the country a magnet for foreign investment.

In this period Vietnam saw dramatic if uneven improvements in living standards.

Within the last five years, however, Vietnam has descended into a lower-growth trajectory thanks mainly to economic mismanagement, itself driven by a brand of interest-group politics whose main product is profligacy and waste.

While Vietnam’s economy is growing and will continue to grow at a modest rate, its performance has been underwhelming. Reforms initiated in the 1990s have lost their momentum.

The state has failed sufficiently to address fundamental problems, such as infrastructure bottlenecks, and the need for a more skilled workforce and transparent governance of the economy.

In the meantime, state power is too often used by elites for elites and their associates. The country is restless.

Blogging clampdown

Sharing links to news stories or even mentioning general information on websites are threatened by new rules

Until now, the regime’s habitual response to calls for reform has been repression. This has sullied Vietnam’s reputation and undermined efforts to strengthen ties with such countries as the United States. The repression shows no sign of abating. But nor do increasingly open efforts to compel reform.

But are things reaching a head?

In recent months, the authorities have made use of Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code, which stipulates years of detention for “abusing democratic freedoms” and subverting “state interests.”

Last month, sensing a political opportunity in the meeting between Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, 103 bloggers launched a petition to repeal Article 258.

Within days of that meeting, Vietnam’s state countered with its own Decree 72, due to take effect on 1 September.

The decree appears to severely limit political blogging by barring internet users from making references to “general information,” quoting “information from state press agencies or websites,” or providing “information that is against Vietnam, undermines national security, social order and national unity”. Still, the precise aims and enforceability of the decree remain unclear.

A fluid climate

Just a few weeks ago a brave Vietnamese activist recounted how she had to sneak out her own house at 04:30 in the morning to avoid police detection, just so that she might attend a rally in support of greater political rights. While on August 13th a small gathering of young people in Hanoi who are active in net politics was violently raided, their phones and laptops seized.

Yet in the same week, a prominent member of the Communist Party urged his former comrades to quit the Party and join together under the banner of a new, yet-to-be-formed social-democratic party. And later that week, in a dramatic and unforeseen decision, state authorities effectively threw out lengthy prison sentences against two young activists, whose sentencing had drawn domestic and international criticism. One, a 21 year-old woman named Phuong Uyen, was even allowed to walk free from court, but not before admonishing the court itself.

Such developments are not normal in Vietnam; they reflect state apparatus under enormous pressure and the arrival of a much more unpredictable and interesting political scene.

Indeed these developments remind me of the anti-colonial politics that played out in Vietnam almost a century ago, when Vietnamese patriots of diverse backgrounds banded together in what would become a decades-long struggle for self-determination, greater freedoms, and a fairer economy.

Today, Vietnamese of diverse brands are standing up for many of the same ideals. But in doing so they confront an elite whose legitimacy has been severely eroded against a backdrop of political infighting, economic mismanagement and interest group politics.

Vietnam’s politics are now fluid. Whether fundamental changes will occur is uncertain. Clearly, however, there are many bright, competent, and committed people working within and outside the party-state in the interest of a more open and transparent social order.

Across all segments of Vietnamese society there is a great hunger for change. The hunger emanates not from hostile forces but from Vietnamese of all stripes who love their country and want a better future as early as is possible.