Posters of US bombers crashing in flames festoon Hanoi to mark another anniversary in a long-finished war. But behind the usual propaganda Vietnam’s rulers face a modern-day threat — anger over the economy.
For years the leaders of the one-party state have leant on war-era nostalgia to shore up authority anchored in battlefield victories. With the state-dominated economy floundering, experts say touting decades-old military successes is no longer enough to shield the regime from growing public frustration.
“The communist party is skating on thin ice,” said David Koh, a Vietnam analyst from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “They must expect newer generations to look beyond these great moments of the past in deciding whether their political system is worth supporting.” A key way to strengthen the party’s legitimacy would be through serious economic reforms, Koh told AFP.
Despite tight controls over the media and demonstrations there are signs of rising public dissatisfaction — from a growing chorus of online criticism to daily, if small-scale, protests over corruption and land disputes in Hanoi. “The government should spend less time and money on celebrating historic events and pay more attention to improving people’s lives,” retired state official and ex-soldier Tran Van Duong, 65, told AFP. “Everyone seemed to earn less this year, everyone is complaining. People are not happy with the government’s performance,” he said, as the city marks the 40th anniversary of the 1972 “Christmas Bombings”. The aerial bombardment saw American B-52s and other aircraft drop 20,000 tons of bombs on or near Hanoi after peace talks with North Vietnam broke down. Once touted as the next “Asian Tiger”, Vietnam’s economy has run aground — its banking system drowning in toxic debts, foreign direct investment down sharply and dozens of major state-owned companies hovering near bankruptcy. From exorbitant healthcare costs and substandard education to traffic congestion, experts say the deep flaws in Hanoi’s version of state-mandated capitalism are surfacing in all areas of daily life.
“The formal political system doesn’t work…. You can’t run a country like this. It is sclerotic,” said Adam Fforde, a professorial fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies at Victoria University in Melbourne.
“People have lost confidence in the idea that there is somebody there who can pull levers and make things happen,” he said.
Over the past 20 years, Vietnam has used a Chinese-style mix of free markets and authoritarian governance to achieve rapid growth, but experts say deeper economic as well as political reforms are needed.
The current economic sluggishness is intensifying pressure on the leadership. Around a million young people enter the workforce each year and economists warn job creation and skills training are not keeping pace.
“The state apparatus is in a bit of a stupor,” said Jonathan London, an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong.
Despite being a one-party state, Vietnam has an “extremely fragmented power structure” within its vast communist apparatus, which means tough decisions are often not taken when needed, he said.
From the World Bank to party economists, there is widespread recognition of what needs to be done to lift competitiveness and boost GDP growth that was this year the weakest since 1999.
Reform the state sector, recapitalise banks and tackle corruption or “the dream of the economic miracle in Vietnam, which seemed like such a sure and palpable thing 10 years ago, will continue to dissipate,” London said.
The communist party itself seems aware of the problems — at a plenum in October mistakes were admitted in the stewardship of the economy but no officials were sanctioned.
Vietnam needs leaders who can stop powerful interest groups — from the military to the major state-owned enterprises down to provincial officials — running amok, in order to get the economy back on track, London said.
“It is not clear who is capable of doing such a thing,” he added.
Instead, Vietnam is stuck with “a sort of corrupt, patrimonial style of rule that leads to Bentleys and Rolls-Royces on the one hand, and tens of millions of people who aren’t doing so well on the other”, London said.
Vietnam, 50 years later
HANOI, Vietnam — It has been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. “advisers” to South Vietnam to help battle the communist North and 37 years since the end of that divisive war and the country’s unification under Communism.
Today, Vietnam is fighting a war with itself.
A local TV program reminds a visitor of Chinese propaganda “operas” circa 1970. Performers, some wearing military garb with a backdrop of missiles and an American B-52 bomber going down in flames, commemorate the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong ordered by President Richard Nixon. Banners and posters in the streets reinforce the government’s history lesson.
Younger people, who substantially outnumber the old guard, seem mostly indifferent to these messages, because few lived through the war. An American official tells me just 4 percent of the population belongs to the Communist Party.
While there are large pockets of poverty between and even within major cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi, prosperity is making inroads. The 1-year-old Da Nang airport is more modern than some U.S. airports. Luxury hotels, clothing stores and restaurants abound. While many cater to foreign travelers, many locals wear stylish Western clothes and transport themselves on motorbikes and in cars. Twenty years ago, the primary mode of transportation was the bicycle.
Vietnam eagerly wants to conclude a trade agreement with the United States known as TPP. Among other things, it would allow for more capital investment here and more Vietnamese goods to be sold in the United States. Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Phuong Nga tells me that since normalization of relations in 1995, the U.S. has become the “eighth-biggest foreign investor in Vietnam,” totaling $10 billion.
U.S. officials say human rights issues, including more religious freedom, are holding up American approval of the new trade deal. I asked Madame Nga about this and the recent sentencing of three bloggers to between four and 12 years in prison for criticizing the government.
She deflects the question by noting press criticism of government corruption (true) and claims people have freedom of speech so long as they do not cause “harm,” a word open to interpretation in a one-party state.
Vietnam recently opened two new areas to exploration for the bodies of American soldiers missing in action. Madame Nga says Vietnam has “actively worked with and supported the U.S. in finding the MIAs during the last 20 years,” but notes that on the Vietnamese side “about 3 million MIAs remain to be found.” She also says “there are more than 3 million Vietnamese known as victims of Agent Orange … while thousands of hectares of land are contaminated with dioxin.” She adds her appreciation for money provided by Congress to help victims and clean land, but she says more is needed.
As in many other one-party states, the Internet remains a powerful counterforce to managed information. The U.S. Embassy provides, and the government mostly allows, an information center where students and others can log onto iPads and search for information that is often counter to the government line.
The old guard remains suspicious about American objectives, seeing economic and political liberalization as a strategy to achieve among the Vietnamese people what America failed to in pursuing their “hearts and minds” in the war.
Professor Carlyle A. Thayer of the University of New South Wales, an expert on Vietnam, said recently, “Vietnam is motivated to keep the U.S. engaged in Southeast Asia, and the South China Sea in particular, as a balance to China,” which claims some territorial rights in conflict with Vietnam and is a formidable economic and military power on its northern border.
Vietnam is in transition, and it is unrealistic to expect too much progress too quickly. Considering where it was when the U.S. left in 1975, the country appears to be inching in a positive direction. Those Americans who died here left behind the seeds of democracy, capitalism and a desire for prosperity and freedom. Whatever one’s view of that war, it can be said they did not die in vain.