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From #MeToo to ‘Creating Our Own Tables’: How High Is The Glass Ceiling in Vietnam?

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Photo courtesy: kathmandupost.ekantipur.com.

The glass ceiling for women in Vietnam, to me, is as high as the sky for most.

Recent stories about sexual assault and other violent crimes against young girls and women not only caught the public attention but also gave observers glimpses of a patriarchal society which has remained – for centuries – the same in term of gender equality.

On May 28, 2018, Phụ Nữ (Women) newspaper published an online story, detailing a groping incident three days before, where the victim was one of the biggest music stars in Vietnam, Mỹ Tâm. As one of the most beloved pop singers in the country, known to many of her fans as the Queen of Ballads, Mỹ Tâm probably has one of the largest fan bases, if not the largest.

But none of that great fame was able to protect her from being a victim of sexual assault.

To add insult to injuries, Mỹ Tâm was assaulted while performing on stage at a private event in front of the whole audience, yet all she could do was to retreat to the backstage.

No one came to assist her; no one confronted the perpetrator who was mentioned in the article as an “important official.” The only kind gesture to show some sympathy for Mỹ Tâm was the fact that someone dared to make a report to the press.

It is still a big taboo for women who accuse men of sexual harassment and assault in a country like Vietnam because there would always be the fear that the public may not be sympathetic toward the victims.

It is true that when compares to other East Asian countries like its neighboring Japan, Vietnamese society shows signs that it is catching on to the #MeToo movement where people publicly support the victims.

The recent alleged rape allegations made by an intern at Tuổi Trẻ newspaper helped demonstrated this point.

But in a culture where, for thousands of years, women have been taught and praised for being able to keep quiet of their sufferings while making sacrifices for the sake of others, victim-blaming in most cases should come as no surprise.

People may not defend the perpetrators, but they will judge the women if they don’t fit the “proper” Vietnamese woman standard.

On April 27, 2018, dancer Phạm Lịch publicly alleged rocker Phạm Anh Khoa had made improper sexual advances at her. About a week later, another female dancer Nga My and an unnamed stylist also made public allegations against Pham Anh Khoa for sexual misconducts. And while Khoa eventually apologized for his behaviors on May 15, 2018, he only did so after UNFPA dropped him as one of its goodwill ambassadors, his appearances on TV were canceled, and a rock concert in Hochiminh City pulled the plug on him.

The public backlash against Khoa began after an NGO that works to promote gender equality in Vietnam, CSAGA, organized an event for him to explain his side of the story.

People quickly pointed out that CSAGA was given Khoa a platform to normalize improper and illegal behaviors against women because he was not acknowledging any faults, he was explaining that his conducts were “industry standards.” Phạm Lịch recently told reporters that she could not find any work for the past month after making her allegations against Khoa public. It is not too far-fetched to infer that she is likely being punished by the industry for breaking the silence on sexual abuse.

Both Khoa and CSAGA apologized immediately after the backlash, but with his half-hearted attempt to explain himself, Khoa inadvertently opened the pandora box and revealed a culture of subtle victim-blaming in Vietnam.

Such a culture became even more vividly portrayed just last week when a nude model alleged that a famous artist had raped her at work. Many commentators online, including democracy activists and lawyers, shifted the burden of proof to the alleged victim and insisted that she must prove she had forcibly fought back during her ordeal or it would not be rape.

No means no simply was not enough.

The victim’s credibility was questioned, and her job as a nude model took away a significant portion of public sympathy. People, women included, scoffed at her story when information surfaced that the perpetrator allegedly had used a condom.

Just this week, the case of alleged child abuse against Minh Tiệp, a sports newscaster at the national television broadcasting company VTV shows how victim-blaming extends to cases involving teenage girls as well.

When first asked about the alleged abuse, Minh Tiệp used the media to paint the victim, his 15-year-old sister-in-law, as a “bad girl.” She was, according to him, someone who has been dating as early as in 6th grade and always talked back at him and his wife, her older sister, while they were trying to teach her right from wrong.

A member of Vietnam’s National Assembly – Phạm Tất Thắng – played down the case as “one of those that should be dealt with by the family,” even after the father of the teenager told newspapers that Minh Tiệp slapped his daughter. Mr. Pham is a Vietnamese congressperson who belongs to a committee which deals with culture, education, women, children, and teenagers matters.

These stories should not come as surprises once you realized that they all attempted to portray the victims as being “improper.”

Because the “proper” Vietnamese woman only dresses and speaks in an approved manner, she will not work certain jobs, and above all, she endures her sufferings for the sake of others. She will not bring attention to herself and definitely keeps quiet about her injuries and her pains if they would bring shame to her family.

This proper woman thus is a virtuous one who would sacrifice all that she is for the well-being of her loved ones, and for that, she has been idealized, worshipped and expected to be placed on a pedestal throughout Vietnamese history for future generations of girls and young women to follow.

We were taught folklores like Quan Âm Thị Kính, a woman who was being misunderstood all her life, wrongfully accused of crimes she never committed and yet she never tried to explain herself. She would keep her mouth shut and endured the injustice until the day she died, and only after death that her name was cleared.

Then there was the story of Thiếu phụ Nam Xương, a lady wrongfully accused of infidelity by her husband who left for military service and returned home years later. Again, just like Thị Kính, talking back and explaining herself were not the options. And like the other story, our heroine could only use death to prove her innocence, so she killed herself.

Being demurred, forcing oneself to bite her tongue instead of speaking up, and learning the ability to suffer in silence and not complaining are virtues that aspiring young girl was told to keep.

I grew up in such a society for the first 12 years of my life, and despite being raised by parents who would raise other people’s eyebrows for the way they let me speak my mind and shout back at them when I think they were wrong, I had mastered those virtues by the age of 5. I was often seen as a quiet girl, sitting properly and politely with a half smile on her face, whose voice was rarely heard when visiting homes of my parents’ friends. I had convinced myself then, that conforming to societal norms would be the best and easiest way to save myself and my parents from unnecessary headaches.

For the next twenty years though, my life drastically changed as my family immigrated and I was growing up in the West, adapting to a new set of values. I have grown up to become a Westernized woman, one that my parents’ old friends from Vietnam could no longer recognize as the same quiet and demurred child they have met back in the home country.

But who could believe that it only took less than 15 months of living in the old settings among Vietnamese people to morph my 30’s something-year-old self back to my pre-teen’s personality?

I work in the NGO sector, and one would have thought that I must be among comrades who promote the same values as mine – gender equality included – but I have found that I needed to put in twice the efforts compared to my male counterparts in most things that I do. I always felt the need to prove my self-worth to others, and I was constantly looking for approval. Even in my field of work – where people often believe they are somewhat more progressive than the rest of society – it still seems as if the “seats reserved at the table” are only offered to women who fit the “proper” descriptions.

So I bit my tongue instead of speaking back and letting others know how I felt, how I did not agree with them, and how I thought that they were wrong. I sacrificed my happiness to keep others happy. I had changed so much that I could not recognize myself when I stared at the woman in the mirror on the wall one day in the middle of Southeast Asia, and I broke down, completely.

If life was this difficult for me – a woman with an advanced degree from the West – imagine how it would be for those who have fewer opportunities and those who never had the chance to live outside of Vietnam.

While I was lucky to get out of that environment to save myself a trip to the emergency room for depression treatment, it dawned on me how high the glass ceiling is for most Vietnamese women. The #MeToo movement has brought many important issues about women’s rights to the discussion table in Vietnam, and I hope gender equality will now receive the attention it deserves.

Opinion-Section

Biden’s Emphasis On Soft Power And What It Means For Vietnam’s Democracy Movement

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Photo credit: Na Kim (illustration), Tom Brenner (photo)/ Thinh Nguyen, Luat Khoa Magazine/ Kao Nguyen, AFP. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly emphasised “soft power” in his foreign policy speeches. Will this policy work in Vietnam? And how will it affect Vietnam’s democracy movement?

Biden’s emphasis on soft power: what’s in store for Vietnam and should one believe it?

It’s almost a year into Joe Biden’s presidency. Throughout his tenure, two keywords, “relentless diplomacy” and “soft power,” have echoed in every corner where US foreign policy is concerned: from the ending of the “forever war” in Afghanistan to the reorganisation of trans-Atlantic relations, and to engagement with Asia. The challenges for which President Biden will implement his “relentless diplomacy” and “soft power” approach are, in short, the covid pandemic, climate change, and China[1].

Vietnamese readers can be assured of Biden’s serious interest in Asia by, amongst others, the appointment of a competent expert Kurt Campbell [2] as the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, US support for Taiwan and its alliance with Japan, vaccine donations, and, most recently, Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the region and Vietnam specifically. 

Regarding China, Biden’s promise [3] of “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights” will be arguably the most effective tool for the United States in the realm of soft power. Economic and military strength notwithstanding, the Chinese regime is infamous for its authoritarian governance and long record of human rights violations. Ironically, China’s military strength, as observed in its actions in the South China Sea, makes its draconian image even more despicable. 

By contrast, the era of Pax Americana, despite criticisms of US imperialism, has built an overall image of the United States as a promoter of human rights and democracy. Although the recent Afghanistan debacle has damaged the reputation of the United States, Biden has been quick to assert [4] that the new era of US foreign policy will be about “lifting people up around the world” and “renewing and defending democracy”.

Speaking of Pax Americana, Biden’s emphasis on “soft power” and “relentless diplomacy” happens in a context different than that of American leaders of the past who boasted about a US “moral imperative” and “doing the right thing” only to turn a cold shoulder to their allies when the tide of geopolitics turned. In the post-Americana era, despite Biden’s denial/rejection [5] of the imminent “China-US Cold War”,  it is widely recognised (as indicated by the US “pivot to Asia”[6]) that US national interests depend on whether or not the United States can counter China’s plays in Asia. As such, one can expect Biden’s words to have substance rather than just simply paying lip service.

Biden’s “soft power” in Vietnam: the state-versus-people conundrum    

When it comes to China and human rights, there is a clear distinction between the perspectives of the Vietnamese state and the Vietnamese people. At the most basic level, Vietnamese leaders have little to no concern for the interests of their people because their positions are not determined by voters. Vietnam’s election is well known for being a farce [7].

The divergence between the Vietnamese public and the Vietnamese government on China could not be clearer. When the government approved a bauxite project related to China in 2009, the Vietnamese people signed a petition to oppose it. When the people took to the streets in the early years of the 2010s to oppose China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the government cracked down on these protests and detained several protesters. When the Special Economic Zone bill was announced, it was perceived by the Vietnamese public as giving questionable privileges to China and also was seen as a threat to Vietnam’s national security. As a result, massive protests broke out in the streets in 2018 and the bill was shelved as a result.

Most recently, the use of China’s COVID vaccines in Vietnam has been met with public resistance and fierce criticism of the government. Anti-China protesters’ shouts of, “Coward to the enemy, cruel to the people!” (“Hèn với giặc, ác với dân!”), is precisely the Vietnamese people’s attitude towards their government on China.

At this point, one may argue: “But the Vietnamese government has also spoken up against China many times, so it cannot be as pro-China as the above-mentioned events indicate.” This is true and quite a few analyses [8] have highlighted the stake for the Vietnamese government in playing US-China politics wisely instead of simply bowing to China. However, it is important to understand that when Vietnamese leaders do stand up to China, it is often “all bark and no bite.”[9] More importantly, whether Vietnamese leaders shake hands with Biden or with Xi, or play the superpowers off against each other, they do so first and foremost based on their, or the Communist Party’s, own interest [10], rather than on the interests of the country and the people.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that the United States will find a true ally in the Vietnamese government in its state-to-state diplomacy against China. Because of this, the US will also find it difficult to tap into the Vietnamese public’s anti-China sentiment. Hanoi has shown little to no concern about how Vietnamese citizens feel or about what they want, and it has unreservedly deployed force to quell anti-China protests and online dissent in the past.

The road to promoting human rights in Vietnam does not seem promising either, especially the rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, association, and fair trial. The promise of US leaders to “respect Vietnam’s political system” [11] seems rather odd because the very existence and stability of Vietnam’s political system rest on the suppression of exactly those rights. The relentless arrests of people who speak critically of the government on their Facebook pages and of those who ran as independent candidates in the lead-up to the May 2021 national election are just some examples.

What has played out so far in the field of human rights does not show much innovation. State-to-state talks about the situation of human rights in the country, assistance for specific high-profile activists who have been arrested and who are on trial, and US leaders holding meetings with local activists are all par for the course. It remains to be seen if Biden’s administration will open a new chapter of human rights promotion through public diplomacy or if it will lead to more of the same: the worsening of human rights and democratic freedoms in Vietnam. 

Public diplomacy and soft power: a look into the books 

The term “public diplomacy” was first coined in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, founder of the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at Tufts University (Cull, 2009) [12]. Definitions vary but all agree that public diplomacy is a foreign policy practice entailing nation A engaging with the public of nation B in order to influence B’s foreign policy through bottom-up pressure to A’s advantage (Bettie, 2014) [13]. In short, it is about image projection and national branding, which is distinctly different from traditional diplomacy which consists of state-to-state engagement. 

In the work of historian Nicholas J. Cull (2008) [14], activities that count as public diplomacy include (1) presenting new policy ideas to the foreign public (i.e., advocacy), (2) exportation of culture to foreign countries as well as two-way cultural exchanges, and (3) international broadcasting (i.e., reaching a foreign public through mass media).

While public diplomacy can be understood as a channel of persuasion, soft power is the content that gives a nation the power to persuade the foreign public. Prominent soft power scholar, Joseph S. Nye Jr., defines soft power as the attractiveness of a nation that lies in its culture, including its language, arts, cuisine, institutions, brands, and moral values (Nye, 2008) [15]. Soft power goes hand-in-hand with public diplomacy, as “public diplomacy tries to attract by drawing attention to these potential resources through broadcasting, subsidizing cultural exports, arranging exchanges, and so forth” (Nye, 2008, p. 95) [16].

Soft power may also be drawn from hard power. The presence of US military forces in the South China Sea to aid countries bullied by China communicates certain moral values to the people of those countries. However, underlying such a presence in the more complex and pragmatic interests of the United States than simply a normative or moral stance.

Using the above discussion on public diplomacy and soft power, how would President Biden’s plans for Vietnam measure up? What would his roadmap navigating the state-versus-people conundrum in the country look like?    

Evaluating Biden’s diplomacy and navigating Vietnam’s state-versus-people conundrum

Biden’s words promise a new era of US diplomacy, but his actions so far still seem to be following classic state-to-state diplomacy and militaristic intervention more than what is prescribed for public diplomacy and soft power. 

Furthermore, public diplomacy has always been a component in US foreign policy in previous administrations through supporting local registered civil society organisations and non-formal oppositional actors. Thus, with Biden’s emphasis on “soft power,” his administration will disappoint if over the next few years it rehashes many or most of the previous administrations’ actions; this old approach is effectively circumscribed by the state-versus-people conundrum mentioned earlier.

However, the good news for the United States is that despite the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump and the many upheavals in US politics and society, public opinion [17] in Vietnam is still in favour of the United States, especially when compared to China. The soft power is already there. 

As Vietnamese people have grown increasingly more concerned about Hong Kong and Taiwan, their opinion will also be shaped by how the United States intervenes in the Taiwan – China situation. The collapse of Hong Kong has done serious damage to the image of the West, but it is still looking good on the Taiwan front. In addition, the story of Taiwan is not just about standing up to China; it is also about nation-building and the nationalistic pride of a people who chose democracy over dictatorship. 

In summary, US soft power in/over Vietnam will come from the stories of human rights, democracy of the US itself, and its defence of Taiwan against China. This soft power will come across even stronger if US public diplomacy also promotes Taiwan as the protagonist in the region, as a counter to Chinese politics, and as an inspiring story of Asian democratisation. These narratives will further widen the gap between Vietnamese hearts and minds and China, while simultaneously raising aspirations for democratisation amongst the Vietnamese people. In doing so, the United States will also not give a reason for the Vietnamese state-owned media to be hostile towards democratisation and the Vietnamese democracy movement. State propaganda cannot accuse America of imposing Western political ideas and values, nor of hypocrisy and one-upmanship if the US approaches the issue in this way. 

Having said earlier that the Vietnamese government has shown little to no concern about the Vietnamese people’s anti-China sentiments and that it uses brute force against human rights and democracy activists, what is the point of raising aspirations for democratisation and being critical of China? The point to be made is precisely about the kind of mass awareness and feeling of efficacy that will translate into the political agency and oppositional collective action. Old school public diplomacy has come short of this task and has failed to help the Vietnam democracy movement gain strength in numbers. 

My conversations with prominent activists in Vietnam’s human rights and democracy movement show that the seemingly invincible power of the Vietnamese government to repress dissent, the crackdown on protests, and carry on with unpopular policies, comes from the fact that the human rights and democracy movement is small in number and that the majority of the public lack the theoretical scaffolding to help them translate their discontent with the government and nationalistic sentiment into coherent and organised demand for democratisation.

This article, written from my perspective as a Vietnamese, a scholar, and a supporter of collective action towards democracy for Vietnam, has suggested a few ways for American diplomats and foreign policy experts to walk President Biden’s talk.

Meanwhile, Luat Khoa Tap Chi, a well-respected independent news outlet that serves Vietnamese readers, has already beefed up its column on Taiwan as an inspiring example of democracy for the Vietnamese. The comrades of Luat Khoa are also planning their next step, with Taiwan and mass awareness at the core of their strategy. The Biden administration, with the aim of utilizing soft power, should not miss this opportunity to work with them. 

Bibliography:

  1. Ash, T., G. (2020, 7 Nov). What will President Biden’s United States look like to the rest of the world? The Guardian.
  2. Green, M., J. (2021, 13 Jan). Biden makes his first bold move on Asia. The Guardian.
  3. Tran, B., T. (2021, 3 Jun). No Trade-off: Biden can both Deepen US-Vietnam Ties and Promote Human Rights. United States: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  4. Borger, J. (2021, 21 Sep). Biden promises end to ‘relentless war’ and start of ‘relentless diplomacy’. The Guardian.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. Vu, A. & Gerin, R. (2021, 21 May). Vietnam goes to the polls with state-approved candidates offering little choice. Radio Free Asia.
  8. Nguyen, T., T., Q. (2021, 30 Sep). Trans-Pacific partner membership and the love triangle of Vietnam – Taiwan – China. The Vietnamese.
  9. Reed, A. (2021, 14 Mar). The enemy of my enemy: tensions between the US, China, and Vietnam. The Vietnamese.
  10. ibid.
  11. Tran, B., T. (2021, 3 Jun). No Trade-off: Biden can both Deepen US-Vietnam Ties and Promote Human Rights. United States: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  12. Cull, N. (2009). Public Diplomacy Before Gullion: the Evolution of a Phrase. In: Snow, N. and Taylor, P. (eds). Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (pp. 19-23). Tayler & Francis.
  13. Bettie, M., L. (2014). The Fulbright program and American public diplomacy (unpublished doctoral thesis). The University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom. 
  14. Cull, N. (2008). The Cold War and the United States Information Agency. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  15. Nye, J. (2008). Public diplomacy and soft power. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616, pp. 94-109.
  16. ibid.
  17. Seah, S. et al., (2021). The state of Southeast Asia: 2021. Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

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Opinion-Section

Pham Doan Trang Is A Journalist, Her Profession Is Not A Crime

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphic: Trinh Huu Long/The Vietnamese Magazine.

As I am writing this beginning line, my mind is flooded with memories of Pham Doan Trang. I also realize that it has been almost seven years since I said goodbye to her before she left the United States to return to Vietnam. We had become friends and spent seven months together in the United States, and I have not seen her since December 2014. I also have not been able to contact her or speak with her on the phone since October 6, 2020. Vietnamese police arrested her near midnight that day in Saigon. My last text message to her was “Trang, answer me,” which I sent the night she was detained.

Doan Trang can be classified as many things, depending on the person you speak with. She is a journalist, an activist, a teacher, a political person who opposes the Vietnamese Communist Party, a prominent figure of the democracy movement in Vietnam, and more. Yet, for me, Doan Trang is a friend, a very close friend, and that’s it. My only hope is to help set my friend free because she has not done anything wrong. She deserves to be free so that she can continue to write.

And yet, sadly, her writing is precisely the reason that has put her in prison in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, writing or producing verbal speech (YouTube, TikTok, etc.) can be a severe crime when you refuse to obey the government’s censorship system or self-censor on your own. If you look at the details of any political case in Vietnam, I guarantee that you will only find the alleged wrongdoings to be the uncensored writings and speeches produced by these defendants. It does not matter how the Vietnam government classifies their crimes as “abusing democratic rights” or “propagandizing against the state,” their crimes are always their writing and speech.

For Doan Trang, I can also think of another aspect in which she has irritated the Vietnamese authorities even more. She was not just a journalist; she was also trying to encourage more people to write and be more aware of politics in Vietnam. I was one of the people she inspired to take writing as a profession and focus more on Vietnam’s human rights and political affairs. 

In my writing career, I have two people to be grateful for: my two co-founders of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV), Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang. If I had not met them in life, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to write in either Vietnamese or English, especially as a journalist.

I left Vietnam and came to the United States when I was 12-years-old. I was not too young to think of myself as a native speaker in English, but I was not too old to be confident in my ability to write in Vietnamese either. However, after meeting Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang in 2014, they changed my life as I believed in their cause and decided to co-found LIV. Starting from that point, I began to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Vietnam through journalism. Trinh Huu Long may be the first teacher in journalism for me, but Doan Trang is the inspiration for my decision to change my career from law to journalism.

Many people have asked me why I decided to quit my legal profession and started working for a non-profit organization that focuses on Vietnam. Maybe this career change was not advantageous for them and could be stepping down in life. But Doan Trang’s last words before she left the United States stuck with me throughout these years: “Every country needs a generation of young people who will sacrifice their lives to build a better society for others. If our generation refuses to take up this job for Vietnam, then who else will? Do we wait for the next generation to sacrifice for our country and choose an easier life now?” 

Doan Trang chose to take up this task to promote human rights in Vietnam, and she left America to go back to Vietnam, knowing that she would be imprisoned in the future. Then, for me, the decision of giving up my life as a litigation lawyer to write about human rights and political issues in Vietnam seemed to be a much easier job when I compared myself with Doan Trang. 

She’s inspired me, and we both have the same goal: to put Vietnam on the map for international audiences and encourage more Vietnamese people to care about human rights and democracy. To write about these issues should not be a crime in any nation because we only want to educate the public. What did we do so wrong that my friend Pham Doan Trang has spent one year incommunicado in Vietnam?

The Vietnamese government cannot explain away Pham Doan Trang’s case or any political cases that have sent hundreds of dissidents to decades in jail. However, I hope the international community and foreign governments can speak up louder and be more explicit against this injustice. 

Journalism is not a crime; writing about politics and human rights is not a crime. Vietnam continues to suppress the free press and the freedom of speech much harder now, which is not an action the international community should condone. Please speak up for those imprisoned by the Vietnam government, such as Pham Doan Trang, because we are on the right side of history.

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Journey To The West: Vietnamese Top Leaders’ Recent Vaccine Diplomacy

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Vuong Dinh Hue and Nguyen Xuan Phuc receiving COVID vaccines and equipment donations in Europe and the United States respectively (from left to right). Photo credits: Vietnamnet; Thong Nhat/TTXVN. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

In the past month, newly-elected Vietnamese leaders have been seen “touring” Western countries, from Europe to the Americas. From the chairman of the National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue, who went to Europe, to President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who went to the United States and Cuba, both are parts of the “four pillars” (tứ trụ) leaders – those at the very top of the Vietnamese political system. 

Not only are they two of the most important leaders of Vietnam; they are also newly-elected: although they have re-sworn their terms in the office about three months ago in July, they have held power since April of this year. But that is a different topic for another day.

In other words, these trips are important. National leaders who were just elected do not just go to other countries on official trips for no reason at all. Whatever they were doing in Western countries, it must have been calculated to yield significant political impact on their new term in office. 

But what exactly were they doing, or hoping to achieve from these trips? 

Despite what the Vietnamese state media is telling you about “comprehensively promoting economic and international cooperation,” the most important reason is very simple: getting more COVID vaccines for Vietnam. Is it to genuinely help the people back home to access vaccines or rather it is to save face after the government’s poor handling of the crisis in recent months? 

Vuong Dinh Hue in Europe 

On the occasion of the fifth session of the World Conference of Speakers of Parliament in Austria and the ongoing European Union – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), Chairman Hue’s six-day trip to Europe in early September seems to serve multiple purposes as he mainly visited Austria, Belgium, and Finland. 

However, upon the conclusion of the trip, the most important highlights according to Vietnam’s state-controlled media were all COVID-related. In an article published by Vietnamnet about Hue’s achievements during the trip, it was all about him successfully bringing back foreign-donated COVID vaccines or equipment, with the exception of buying 50 million COVID vaccine doses HIPRA from Spain (this vaccine is still in trial, so the doses are not being delivered immediately to Vietnam). In an interview with a high-ranking diplomat accompanying Hue on the trip, more than half of Vietnam Plus’ article is about Hue asking the EU to send more vaccines to Vietnam. VTV coverage of his trip reflects similar patterns. 

Nguyen Xuan Phuc in the Americas 

While Vuong Dinh Hue might have had more reasons to go to Europe than Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the COVID vaccine agenda in Phuc’s trip to the Americas – the United States and Cuba – is significantly more obvious. According to the deputy minister of foreign affairs Dang Hoang Giang, President Phuc’s main objective in the United States was to give a speech in the United Nations General Assembly and to meet with pharmaceutical companies to talk about vaccine supplies. Additionally, Phuc’s trip to Cuba also coincided with Vietnam’s very recent approval of Cuba’s Abdala vaccine

Questions arise about Vietnam’s plan to battle COVID

COVID vaccines being the priority of the two leaders’ foreign trips makes even more sense as we take into account the role of Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, another of the four pillars, who at the moment holds direct decision-making power over domestic COVID policy

As we know that the COVID pandemic is shaping the “four pillars” priorities during their new terms, I believe that there are two questions that arise. 

First, why did the Vietnamese government have to wait so long to actually conduct vaccine negotiations abroad? 

Vaccine diplomacy is good for a rising middle power like Vietnam, and the country had an advantage last year as it had an extremely low infection and mortality rates. While the mentioned leaders did not hold de-facto power until April 2021, they seemingly inherited little concrete plans from their predecessors about obtaining the vaccines or conducting early vaccine diplomacy. This is why the government’s abrupt fundraising plan for a “COVID vaccine fund” in June seems to reflect a lack of preparation at least and systematic governmental incompetence at most. 

This lack of preparedness eventually resulted in the newly-elected leaders literally begging for vaccines in foreign countries after Vietnam suffered from months of restrictions with the number of total cases approaching 1 million. Though the vaccination rates in Vietnam are getting better, and more vaccine supplies are always better for the people, it is definitely not a good look for these leaders and the government itself, despite what the state-controlled media tries to tell us. 

Second, I believe that we should also ask the question: What is Nguyen Phu Trong, the remaining member of the “four pillars” elite club, and arguably the most powerful, contributing to the government’s COVID plans? 

He is the oldest and longest-serving of the “four pillars” leaders. He also held the Communist Party’s secretary-general position over the past decade. While Chinh is tasked with the heavy-lifting duty of curbing domestic infections and Hue and Phuc are busy abroad, Nguyen Phu Trong seems to remain hidden behind the curtain. His most recent public appearances include an official meeting with leaders from Laos and Cambodia and speeches about corruption

While this makes sense because, in theory, the leader of the Communist Party cannot interfere in the executive function of the government, we must ask ourselves if this is really the case, and whether secretary-general Trong is dodging responsibility for the most serious national and legitimacy crisis that the Communist Party and the Vietnamese government have faced in recent years. 

Citations

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