Vietnam: Trade And National Identity In The Age Of Globalisation

2000

Dr Greg Lockhart

In the last few years there has been much discussion about ‘globalisation’ in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government declined to sign the US-Vietnam trade agreement after long negotiations in 1999. Liberal critics of this decision suggest that, as it masks the Vietnamese Communist Party’s fear of loosing control of the economy, this decision represents a conservative reaction against free trade, which only serves to retard the country’s economic development. The World Bank is currently saying that in the first year of an agreement Vietnam’s annual exports to the US would nearly double to over US$800 million and that within four years 70 per cent of exports could be heading for the United States. But whatever the merits of this argument, the process of globalisation is more complex than it suggests.

From the late 1980s the Vietnamese government responded to domestic poverty and the processes of globalisation by introducing elements of a market economy. It encouraged FDI, exports, and consumer driven production. This led to a significant increase in the national standard of living. At the same time, however, regional disparities in wealth became glaring. With more FDI and aid money than ever in circulation, corruption and the abuse of power by local officials also caused widespread discontent. In the reflexive process of globalisation, local politics, which included the uprising in Thai Binh Province in 1997, forced the government to give high priority to ‘national security’ and ‘social order’ issues. And its promotion of ‘national culture’ in the late 1990s is a good example of how it moved to do this.

Consider a typical promotional piece in The People’s Daily called ‘The role of popular culture in contemporary life’ (Nhan Dan 24 September 1999). It states that ‘today, the world is like an electronic global village’, but that ‘development detached from tradition will lead to instability and destroy both the environment and society.’ For over ten years, it continues, ‘the dark side of the market system has seen egotism, worship of money, and abandoned behavior threatening to destroy good morals and customs.’ As presented in the piece, however, popular culture is not passive. Rather, as a response to globalisation, it ‘spontaneously comes into play.’

Old songs, tunes, and lullabies automatically ‘crystallise’ the ‘national essence’ and keep people attached to their pasts. Each time a village festival is organised, people automatically participate in and affirm ‘the precious inheritance of their fathers’. At the same time, however, the ‘cultural essence is not immutable, it is changing.’ It reflects ‘the demands of contemporary society,’ which is “national development” leading to ‘an equal and civilised society.’ Evoked by globalisation, this agenda will produce the ‘new culture’ from the revival and reorganisation of old cultural forms.

Both in this officially sponsored view and in reality, therefore, the US-Vietnam trade agreement raises issues that go well beyond any Communist Party fear of loosing power. In the reflexive process of globalisation, it raises the issue of what kind of trade policies - free or protectionist -- will allow Vietnam to have both national development and a national culture, which is to say a stable sense of national identity.

WATCHPOINT: How will Vietnam embrace globalisation while preserving national identity?

 

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