Vietnam: The Party Deliberates Tradition and Transformation


Professor David G. Marr

Western observers were surprised to see the most recent Vietnam Communist Party central committee plenum devote itself to a discussion of Vietnamese culture and identity - at a time when the Asian economic melt down is beginning to threaten Hanoi's 11-year old strategy of doi moi (renewal). However, the Party is increasingly concerned that economic growth exacerbates a host of "negative phenomena", such as corruption, crime, youth alienation, prostitution, divorce, conspicuous consumption and environmental degradation. Mass media incantations about rising gross national product or heightened per capita income no longer convince people that the future is bright. 'Industrialization and Modernization', the central doi moi slogan (indeed, a vital aspiration of all politically aware Vietnamese since the 1920s), now begins to look politically inadequate. Fifteen years ago, such 'negative phenomena' would have been denounced as residual capitalism, or evidence of foreign plots to undermine Vietnam's heroic march to socialism. Today, one occasionally still hears these arguments from military generals or ranking policemen, yet few citizens take them seriously. After all, Vietnam is now entwined in the international market economy, it welcomes foreign investment, allows its foreign debt to climb, prepares to open a stock market, and attempts to obtain most favoured-nation status from the Americans. With the Communist Party having hooked its fortunes to the market economy, and 'negative phenomena' becoming ever more substantial, some prescription must be offered to the public that goes beyond the tired old techniques of exhortation, Fatherland Front meetings and police harassment. One prescription accepts that rapid economic growth brings a host of new attitudes and behaviour traits that defy traditional classification and remedy. Another declares that today's 'social ills' are unfortunate by-products of the market economy which can be overcome if citizens revive and reaffirm traditional Vietnamese values and behaviour. Actually, this has already been happening spontaneously for at least a decade, as people revive local festivals, invest in larger weddings and funerals, restore family gravesites, rebuild temples, and openly consult spirit mediums and fortune-tellers. Some Party leaders continue to fret about superstitions and condemn wasteful expenditures, while others have shifted to emphasizing the moral benefits of serious religious commitment, and even citing economists who point out the stimulative effects of such activity. Meanwhile, however, corruption, crime, youth alienation and other 'social ills' continue to grow. What the Party would like is for citizens to agree that tradition means social order, rectitude, communal responsibility and, above all, readiness to sacrifice for the nation. Today's citizens are likely to nod respectfully on hearing cadres make such arguments, then go about their own business, perhaps commenting to relatives and friends about the cadres themselves not practicing what they preach.

WATCHPOINT: Will the Communist Party's continuing search for legitimacy focus increasingly on reaffirmation of Vietnamese tradition, or foster analyses of what it means to live as part of the international market economy in the 21st century?


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