Vietnam: Some Things Don't Change


Professor Richard Broinowski

The long-delayed seventh Plenum of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee finally met in Hanoi from 8-16 August 1999. All Party heavies were there, plus senior advisers Do Muoi, Le Duc Anh and Vo Van Kiet.

The expected Party rhetoric - about revolutionary stages, national renovation through construction, correct thinking, and conscientious adherence to Party principles - occupied much of the meeting.

But a note of dissatisfaction, perhaps more persistent and pointed than in past plenums, acted as counter-point to the main theme. A mood of self-criticism and the need to tackle inefficiencies and corruption at the State level had been initiated through a letter published several weeks before by the General Secretary Le Kha Phieu. It was amplified by the just-concluded and very public trial of Minh Phung, head of a major Stare-owned enterprise. Minh's crime was to have been caught in over-extended financial circumstances when the Asian economic crisis hit Vietnam - hardly a hanging offence in any capitalist country, but something that is likely to incur the death penalty for Minh and some of his colleagues.

Nor has it been just corruption and inefficiencies among State-owned enterprise personnel that continue to concern Party leaders. Prostitution, bribery at lower levels of State organizations, and smuggling, continue to grow at worrying rates. Indeed, drugs and smuggling are major preoccupations of the leadership in Hanoi, who seem powerless to stop the flood of heroin coming in from the Golden Triangle, or from being cheaply available on streets throughout Vietnam's major cities. Obviously with the Party's approval, these problems have been given recent prominence in all major Vietnamese newspapers.

Another concern has been, as in China, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. The 1999 American film 'Three Seasons', the script for which was passed by Vietnam censors, touches on this and other social problems. At least the leadership is beginning to allow the foreign portrayal of such evils through film, something that would have been unheard of even five years ago. The censors nevertheless insisted that if such themes were to be used, the film makers were to ensure that Three Seasons end on an optimistic, uplifting note, which in a sentimental but not very realistic way, it does.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Communist Party's central dilemma continued to preoccupy Party members at the end of the Hanoi Plenum - how to introduce social and economic reforms into Vietnam whilst maintaining themselves in power. Also, how to revive foreign investment, exports, and foreign tourism, all seriously affected by the current Asian economic crisis. The revival of economic growth in other Southeast Asian economies will have a positive effect on the Vietnamese economy.

WATCHPOINT: When will signs emerge that a revival has yet begun in any serious way?


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