Vietnam: Social Unity Under Stress?


Shane Wall

There is no doubt the economic lives of all Vietnamese have changed for the better since the adoption of the Doi moi (Renovation) economic policy in the mid-80's. From top to bottom, the populace as a whole is enjoying increased personal wealth, including the poorest of the poor. Poverty reduction strategies are making steadfast, resolute progress. Consumer confidence and spending are on the rise. Savings, both in the banks and 'under the bed' are at all time highs. For the first time in perhaps four generations, the average Vietnamese citizen is starting to plan for life beyond today and tomorrow.

While all the macro-economic indicators are trending in the right direction at the national level, they do not mask the growing disparity between the rich and poor at the street and village level. Almost as a mirror image of China over the past 5-10 years, it is plain for all to see that although the lives of the poor are continuing to improve for the better, there is a small but growing segment of the population enjoying a disproportionate amount of this new wealth.

Unlike its near northern neighbor, on the whole, Vietnam is nothing if not a socially cohesive nation. The predominant culture, history and even the language, reinforce the feelings of solidarity and unity shared by the 80 per cent ethnic Kinh majority. It is perhaps unique that the rich and poor rub shoulders on the streets of Saigon, Hanoi and other commercial hubs, on a daily basis with absolutely no feelings of animosity or envy. They are 'as one'. Meanwhile, the minority peoples of the mountains and uplands, while gratefully better off economically than they have ever been before, have been largely by-passed by the new national wealth. Ditto the majority of the 65-odd million residents of rural Vietnam.

To date, the strength of cultural unity within the majority Kinh population has prevented the wealth-gap from becoming a major issue. However, in common with China, expressions of dissatisfaction with the local results of policies or actions are beginning to appear. For the last three months, a group of 15-20 people have been camped on the footpath outside a local government office in a Saigon suburb, seeking greater compensation for being forcefully relocated to make way for the upgrade of a major road into the city from the airport. Anecdotal evidence from people on the street has it that other less visible protestations are also becoming more common. None of this is reported in the local press.

WTO access will undeniably be a macro-economic benefit for Vietnam as a nation. However, with history and circumstance as guides and China as a case study, the benefits will not be shared equitably by all. Those segments of society in a position to do so will benefit enormously. In the early years, the vast majority will experience only marginal benefit at best. At worst, the economic 're-arrangement' needed to meet WTO commitments will in fact make life worse for some of the great number of unskilled and under-educated poor. Concurrently, the rural poor and the ethnic minorities will see little change in their economic prospects until benefits at the national level are so large, strong and sustained that they begin to filter down to them. Will they wait that long?

WATCHPOINT: Will social disunity percolate to the surface as the wealth gap increases, and how will the Government handle any growing dissent?


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