Vietnam is a moiré pattern: Squint at the country one way and you get an aspirational society zooming into the future. Squint another way, and you get an old-fashioned jailer of anyone who refuses to toe the party line. The sunshine lobby focuses on Vietnam’s lovely beaches, food, and allure as a tourist destination. Human rights reporters focus on patterns of abuse.
Yes, the country is opening to the West and rapidly developing. And yet — for all its sunny charms –Vietnam is a culture in ruins. The censors have silenced or exiled the country’s best artists. Vietnam’s best novelist and poets no longer write, except for those who circulate their work in underground samizdats. Journalism is a corrupt enterprise controlled by the government. Ditto for publishing. History is too dangerous to study. Freedom of religion, thought, speech — the ministers of propaganda curtail them all.
From Jan. 20 to 28, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is holding its 12th quinquennial pig roast known as the National Congress. Some 1,500 party members will gather in Hanoi to adopt a five-year economic plan and approve a recommended slate of candidates for the CPV’s Central Committee, its elite 16-member Politburo, and the party’s general secretary (the chap who sits at the head of the table). Corrupt from top to bottom, bloated by patronage and devoted to crony socialism and rent-seeking, the CPV maintains a hammerlock on Vietnam’s government, military, media, and 93 million people. “Marxism needs a dictator,” Russian refugee and author Vladimir Nabokov said, “and a dictator needs a secret police, and that is the end of the world.”
International observers study CPV congresses for signs that one faction or another is coming to the fore. In the next few weeks, expect to read articles about Western sympathizers vanquishing Chinese partisans, or vice versa. This narcissism of small differences misses the point. The CPV’s roughly 4.5 million members want their vig. “It’s like watching people fight under a rug,” said Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh about the closed meetings that produce Vietnam’s rulers.
Yes, the CPV has evolved since unifying the country after the Vietnam War in 1975. Facing starvation in the countryside, the sixth party congress in 1986 abandoned a Soviet-style command economy in favor of market socialism. The CPV allowed free markets to flourish at the bottom of society and encouraged “red capitalists” to emerge in the middle, while they reserved for themselves shipbuilding, banking, mining, and other state-owned enterprises at the top of society.
Along with these economic reforms came a brief period of cultural reform. Vietnam’s gray net of state surveillance was lifted long enough for the country’s four great postwar authors to publish their best-known work: short-story writer Nguyen Huy Thiep (“The General Retires”) and novelists Bao Ninh (The Sorrow of War), Duong Thu Huong (Novel Without a Name), and Pham Thi Hoai (The Crystal Messenger). But the gray net was already being tucked back into place by 1991, when the culture police raided Thiep’s house and destroyed his manuscripts. Since then, Thiep and Bao Ninh have lived in internal exile, publishing censored stories rewritten by party hacks. After spending eight months in prison in 1991, Huong now lives in Paris, and Hoai lives in exile in Berlin.
Other CPV course corrections occurred after the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995 and Vietnam’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2007. The latter opened a spigot of foreign investments, which evaporated a year later in the Great Recession. Oblivious to what was happening, the CPV kept pumping money into state-owned enterprises. This produced inflation that spiked as high as 60 percent at an annualized rate, a property bubble that quickly burst, and the bankruptcy of various state-owned enterprises, including the national shipbuilding company, Vinashin, which sank under $4.5 billion in debt.
This scandal was almost big enough to topple Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s prime minister. Dung was saved by his cronies in the Politburo and began campaigning for the top job as CPV general secretary, but he seems to have failed in this effort. In fact, Vietnam at the moment appears to be undergoing a kind of slow-motion coup in which Nguyen Phu Trong, the 71-year-old current head of the CPV — though legally required to retire — is jockeying to stay in power, at least for another couple of years.
Beside the CPV, the other constant in Vietnam is Chinese influence. In 2008, the deep-pocketed Aluminum Corporation of China bought the right to strip-mine bauxite in Vietnam’s central highlands. The following year, Beijing resurrected hegemony over most of the South China Sea. By 2014, Beijing was moving an oil rig into Vietnam’s offshore waters and building jet runways on artificial islands created from chopped-up coral. (Hanoi accused Beijing of bringing that oil rig back into Vietnamese waters several days before the start of this most recent National Congress.) Anti-Chinese sentiment — no longer containable by Vietnam’s police forces — boiled over. In May 2014, hundreds of factories believed to be Chinese-owned were looted or torched, and 21 people died. Unsurprisingly, Vietnam’s pro-Chinese faction is keeping a low profile.
And yet, anti-Chinese sentiment has not translated into less Chinese influence in Vietnam. China continues building islands, strip mining the highlands, and doing whatever else is required to keep Little Brother Vietnam securely in the orbit of Big Brother China. So tight is this alliance that a surprisingly large number of Vietnamese — citing something called the Chengdu Agreement — believe that their country is actually owned by China. (At a secret 1990 meeting in Chengdu, China, the CPV sold itself to the Chinese Communist Party, which swapped massive bribes for offshore oil, bauxite, and other natural resources, or so the widespread belief goes.)
Hanoi does a better job of manipulating its relationship with the United States than its relationship with its massive neighbor to the north. The CPV will likely implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the 12-nation trade agreement initialed in November. Designed by Washington to be a green wall of commerce stemming the red tide of China, the TPP offers a potential windfall for Vietnam. The agreement has some pesky provisions regarding labor rights, but Hanoi will likely ignore these — like other international protocols that it has signed and spiked. Vietnam ranks near the bottom of every human rights index. It has the most political prisoners per capita of any country in Southeast Asia, but it still struts like a peacock into its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Who is going to care whether a few more labor organizers are imprisoned alongside Vietnam’s 300 other political prisoners?
After implementing the TPP, Vietnam will be gunning for the United States and the European Union to drop its designation as a “nonmarket” economy. (“Market economies” are better protected against anti-dumping lawsuits.) This is a big deal for Vietnam, which is hoping that the TPP will open U.S. markets to Vietnamese products, including one item over which the two countries have been fighting for the last few years — catfish. In July, to grease the skids for getting these trade agreements in place, U.S. President Barack Obama invited CPV General Secretary Trong to the White House for what the latter called a “truly historic meeting.” And why was this first visit to the White House by Vietnam’s Communist Party leader “historic”? Because “the White House acknowledged Vietnam’s political structure and the party’s leadership” — thereby legitimizing, according to Trong, the CPV’s rule.
But consider what this rule looks like: The Central Department for Propaganda and Education has tentacles that reach through the Ministry of Information and Communications into “security bureau” PA 25 — and from there into every CPV cell that controls the media in Vietnam. In his position as Vietnam’s chief censor, Trong is responsible for running what the journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in a September 2013 report, called a “gangster state” replete with “waves of arrests, trials, physical attacks and harassment.” “In 2012 alone,” according to a July 2015 article by the same organization, Trong’s judicial minions “prosecuted no fewer than 48 bloggers and human rights defenders, sentencing them to a total of 166 years in prison and 63 years of probation.”
The sunshine lobby scorns talk like this as alarmist. Indeed, it does seem old-fashioned, like something out of a 1950s time warp. But the news out of Vietnam is alarming. It is alarming for Vietnam, which has to cope with this cultural wreckage, and it is also alarming for the rest of us, who are confronting in our own societies the pressures of censorship, the rise of mass surveillance, and the dominance of commercial interests to the exclusion of all other values. From this perspective, Vietnam is not a time warp from the past, but a window into our future. Could this freakish outlier become the new normal?
One thing we know about Vietnam’s 12th party congress is that it won’t stop police brutality. In early December, plainclothes police beat human rights campaigner and lawyer Nguyen Van Dai with metal bars. Ten days later, Dai was arrested on his way to meet European Union delegates who were visiting Hanoi for the fifth EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue. The country’s most famous blogger and journalist, Nguyen Huu Vinh (aka Anh Ba Sam) is currently in prison, charged with “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.” Vinh’s trial, formerly scheduled to open on Jan. 20 — the same day as the National Congress — has been postponed indefinitely.
A cultural ground zero in a police state that beats democracy advocates with iron bars, Vietnam gets away with being a bad actor because many people want to do business with its enterprising citizens, or enjoy the country’s pleasures. Vietnam will welcome tourists and haggle over global finance and transnational capitalism, no problem. But if you want to come to the party, forget it. Party members only.
Image Credit by: KHAM./AFP/Getty Images