Vietnam: How Much Change?


Professor Richard Broinowski

The new General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nong Duc Manh, has been confusingly and unflatteringly described abroad as a progressive, a conservative, or in some cases as the lowest common denominator candidate for the position.

There are indications however that these views may be too cynical, and that Manh may be just what the Party, the economy and the country needs at this time to turn about a stalled, even retrogressive, reform process.

The task is urgent and the challenges daunting. Over the last 15 years, corruption among Party officials at all levels has become endemic. Inequitable and unjust land appropriations in many provinces have increased, leading to widespread provincial irritation linked to distrust of the central government’s ability to rectify the problem. Unrest has grown among various hills tribes as lowland Vietnamese occupy more and more of their traditional farming lands. Literacy standards among primary school students have fallen, in some cases even below what they were under the French, with fewer children having access to an increasingly impecunious public system, teachers losing status, and a growing private school system taking the children of the wealthy. And the public health system, once a source of pride in Vietnam, has become increasingly chaotic, with falling standards of access and treatment.

In fact, the Ninth Party Congress has recognised all these problems, and the Central Committee’s Political Report may provide a blueprint for change. But for the plan to be effective, the General Secretary must be particularly adept at developing consensus for reform in the Party and the Government.

It will not be too hard for Nong Duc Manh to do better than the outgoing General Secretary, Le Kha Phieu. As Chairman of the National Assembly and its Standing Committee since 1992, he has pushed through many reforms. First among them has been a growing tradition of real debate on real issues leading to real outcomes. The Assembly no longer rubber-stamps everything from the Party. Second, Manh has achieved some success as Head of the Nationalities Commission, owing perhaps to his own Tay ethnicity as well as his ability to get things done. Third, Manh is conciliatory and charming, qualities he exercised with some success during a visit in 2000 to the United States. Fourth, although he won’t confirm or deny the rumour that he is the illegitimate son of Ho Chi Minh, it adds a certain charisma to Manh’s image.

No one would suggest Manh will do much to attenuate the political control of the Communist Party over Vietnam whilst continuing to pursue an increasingly flexible economic agenda. But he, together with the President (who may remain Luong Tran Duc) and Prime Minister (still, at the time of writing, Phan Van Khai), can be expected to do two things at least - push through reforms that subject the Communist Party more and more to the rule of law (something at which Phieu was a complete failure), and take the debate further on whether State issues can be separated from Party issues. The Vietnamese leadership must be particularly conscious of the failure of the Soviet Communist Party to make this latter separation. When the Communist Party fell, so did the Soviet State apparatus because it was inextricably linked to the Party.

Meanwhile, corruption among Party officials in Vietnam, whilst widespread, should be kept in perspective. It has not got to the stage in several other Southeast Asian countries, where leaders send their earnings to Swiss bank accounts (although suspicions exist about Prime Minister Phan Van Khai). But less blatant corruption is increasingly common. Officials demand and receive bribes or payoffs, and send their underqualified offspring on overseas scholarships.

WATCHPOINT: Whatever reforms occur between the Ninth and Tenth Party Congresses will probably be gradual, but occur they must. At stake is the current system of governance in Vietnam.


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