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Is Vietnam Now A Country Without A Solid Leader?

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President Nguyen Phu Trong. Photo Credits: Getty Images

For more than half a year, the health of Vietnam’s President Nguyen Phu Trong has remained a top secret while rumors and speculation about him continued to spread across social media. Trong was not able to visit the United States in October 2019 as planned, and that fact stirred up new discussion about his health. Surprisingly, the health of the man who currently holds the top positions as the president of Vietnam and general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) remains a state secret in Vietnam.

How is that possible?

According to the new Law on the Protection of State Secrets (link inVietnamese), passed in November 2018, all information that “protects the health of the top leaders of the (Communist) Party and of the state” is a state secret. 

This law now appears to be coming under increasing public scrutiny as a result of growing  speculation regarding the current health condition of the most politically powerful man in Vietnam. 

Rumors about Nguyen Phu Trong’s health have consumed the entire nation since mid-April 2019, and effectively bumped his name to the top of Vietnam’s Google trends on the weekend of April 13, 2019, pushing it to the No. 2 slot that Sunday evening. 

It apparently all began with a Facebook post by freelance journalist Le Nguyen Huong Tra, which quickly went viral after she announced around 4pm on Sunday, April 14, that the 75-year-old Trong suddenly became ill while visiting Kien Giang province in the south. Helicopters were called to take him from the province back to Ho Chi Minh City for an emergency admission to Cho Ray Hospital. 

Later that evening, more rumors from social media pieced together the puzzle and alleged that Trong had suffered a brain hemorrhage, probably the result of a stroke, which affected the left side of his body. Some pictures, allegedly taken late Sunday afternoon at that hospital, also showed police officers surrounding the premises, leading more people to believe Trong was indeed admitted there for emergency treatment. 

As the country’s other top leaders remained completely silent, pro-government trolls on Facebook immediately went to work. 

Kien Giang province, however, has long been perceived by many Vietnamese as a “kingdom” that belongs to the family of Nguyen Tan Dung – Vietnam’s former prime minister,  a man who was also Trong’s old foe and his rival for the top Communist Party post in 2016. The place is Dung’s hometown, and where his power has taken firm root. In fact, Dung’s eldest son, Nguyen Thanh Nghi, currently holds the top leadership position in the Communist Party’s provincial committee there. 

The animosity between the two former rivals, Trong and Dung, is not believed to have ever ceased to exist. If anything, it has intensified with Trong’s anti-graft campaign in recent years, in  which most of the convicted corrupt officials were identified as Dung supporters in the past. As such, the rumor that Trong felt seriously ill in Kien Giang became even more of a tantalizing tale that the public failed to resist. 

Trong, as the leader of both the state and the Communist Party, has been enjoying an unprecedented power that has not been seen since Le Duan’s death in 1986. The possible downside of this setup, perhaps, would be that the country’s future hinges on his wellness. And in the worst case scenario, the Party will have to promptly fill two top positions at the same time to maintain stability until its next Party Congress. It would, then, seem to be a reasonable demand from the public to ask the government for an official account of Trong’s current condition.

But with the current Law on Protection of State Secrets, however, the details of the health of a Vietnamese leader may never be disclosed, even when the public does have a legitimate reason to demand the facts, as in the case of President Trong. 

At the time this law was under debate in the National Assembly, one legislator, Bui Dang Dung, had questioned whether it was reasonable to classify leaders’ health as a state secret. Nevertheless, he was in the minority and the law was passed with a more than 91 percent approval.

But why can’t the public in Vietnam be informed about the health of their top leaders and about their fitness for office? 

The answer probably would lie in the manner with which the Communist Party controls and decides elections, as well as its appointment of the top leadership in Vietnam. Despite having a law on elections, in reality, voting in Vietnam is essentially meaningless. Vietnamese people often joke that we don’t have free elections, but rather a selection. And it is a selection that takes place among the Communist Party’s factions, after all the infighting has settled.

The Party Congress is the backdrop for spectators to watch which candidates will come out as winners, or may we say, rulers of the country. This was the reason for the world to pay attention to Vietnam’s last Party Congress in 2016, where Trong triumphed over Nguyen Tan Dung. The Party members formed alliances and voted accordingly to protect their interests during that meeting. 

As citizens the Vietnamese people are presented with ballots to elect their representatives from among the Party-approved candidates during the general election that follows the Party Congress. The people rubberstamp Party choices for National Assembly members, which consist of those who will, in turn, rubberstamp the Party’s choices for our nation’s top leaders and policy decisions.

Every few years, however, rumors and unofficial accounts regarding the health of leaders mysteriously show up on social media in Vietnam. Sometimes, the rumors turned out to be true, as in the cases of Nguyen Ba Thanh (Head of the Internal Affairs of the party) or Tran Dai Quang (President). And at other times, the rumors turned out to be false, as with the story of the Minister of National Defense, General Phung Quang Thanh, back in 2015. Most of the time, the public would follow such news with keen interest, believing that they were getting a glimpse into the power struggle within the Communist Party. As the rumors have it, neither Nguyen Ba Thanh’s or Tran Dai Quang’s illnesses resulted from natural causes; instead they were likely poisoned by their political rivals. 

Regardless of whether such rumors contain any substance, negative information regarding a leader’s health can trigger factions within the Party to shuffle and change their alliances, causing the power paradigm to shift and create instability. For the Communist Party, it only makes sense that all information should be kept hidden and dealt with internally to avoid just that. The Party would, by all means, keep information away from the people’s scrutiny to avoid anything that could remotely affect its absolute political power in the country. 

After all, it does not matter how many factions there are in the Party and what they may fight about. Until now, Party members have always agreed, unanimously, that they must continue their political monopoly. With that, the culture of non-transparency and secrecy persists and continues, from the internal actions of the Communist Party to the governing functions of a state with no apparent distinction. 

The leadership of the Communist Party will be on full display in 2021 when their members meet for their Party Congress which will elect the next general secretary and the next group of leaders. During 2019, besides  Trong, the other two most powerful leaders of Vietnam,Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, have both faced major controversies that could diminish their power in their next Party Congress. But the health of Trong remains the top story among the public.

In October 2019, a video clip of less than 60 seconds showed Trong greeting Laotian leader Bounnhang Vorachith. In the video, viewers can see Trong’s frailty, probably due to an earlier stroke which left one side of his body extremely weak. His walking also showed problems and the question was once again raised among Vietnamese citizens: Is he well enough to lead his Party and the whole country? 

His failure to govern the country was exposed in the tragedy of the 39 Vietnamese citizens who froze to death in Essex, the United Kingdom, earlier this month. After the British and Vietnamese authorities confirmed the nationality of the victims, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc extended his condolences to their families. At the same time, President Trong remained silent, even though someone in his position – according to the Constitution – should offer state condolences to the victims and their families.

In Vietnam’s current regime, whether Trong is well enough to lead may not be a question that people may easily ask and have an answer for. Many people have assumed that it could very well be that within the Communist Party the infighting has already begun to choose the country’s next top leader. In the meantime, citizens can only pay attention to social media and non-governmental media outlets for news about the health of their leader and whether he is still be able to rule. 

For a bit over one year from now until 2021, VCP factions will continue to fight to select their leaders while close to 100 million Vietnamese citizens can only accept the party’s selection. How can this country have a solid leadership when the people do not have the right to elect their top leaders or to be informed about his or her ability to lead? 

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The Yin And Yang Of Vietnamese Nationalism: Phan Chau Trinh And Phan Boi Chau’s Thoughts On Vietnam’s Independence

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Phan Chau Trinh Memorial House archives (background)/ Wikipedia (portraits). Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Why Should We Care About Non-Communist Discourse of Vietnamese Nationhood?

While issues on Vietnamese nationalism have been widely discussed in academia, the English scholarship on Vietnam’s politics and political history since the 1950s has remained ambivalent toward what constitutes the authenticity of modern Vietnamese nationalism.

The old historiography of the Vietnam War has mistakenly represented Marxist-Leninism as the authentic discourse of Vietnamese nationhood. Prominent Vietnam War historian William Duiker criticized the republican nationalism of Phan Boi Chau as theoretically immature and inherently gullible [1]. As a leading scholar of the new generation of Vietnam War historians, Tuong Vu notes that there was the tendency to allow “the Cần Vương, Đông Du and Việt Minh (the front organization for the Indochinese during the war years) to be lumped together.”[2]

Under the pervasive influence of party propaganda, the local historiography of Vietnamese nationhood has been dominated by the Marxist dialectical materialist interpretation of history in which republican nationalists are tainted by “bourgeois mentality.”[3]  

For the past two decades, a small number of regime critics and democracy activists have turned to the republican thoughts for new ideas on the future model of Vietnam’s democratization and development.

In Ha Si Phu’s sophisticated critique of Marxism, Chia Tay Y Thuc He [Abandoning Ideology], the author argues that one crucial precondition for Vietnam transition to democracy is the “People’s Enlightenment” [Dan Tri], which as I will discuss later, is central to Phan Chau Trinh’s discourse of Vietnamese nationhood.

The idea has been echoed and elaborated in Nguyen Quang A’s Phan Chau Trinh va Thuyet Hien Dai Moi [Phan Chau Trinh and the New Modernization Theory] and Mai Thai Linh’s commentary on the meaning of the 2009’s Vietnamese Bauxite Mining Opposition, Tu Dan Tri Den Dan Khi [From the People’s Enlightenment to the People’s Will]. In contributing to the English and Vietnamese scholarships in Republican Nationalism, I will discuss and compare the political thoughts of Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh in great depth. 

Print-Capitalism and the Emergence of Early Modern Vietnamese Nationalism

French colonial rule was the reality of every Vietnamese person between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regardless of who they were, what they did, and where they lived. It is more significant to uncover how the experience of living in such a colonial context inspired the development of Vietnamese nationalist thought. Related to this was the increasing access to books and other print materials in the second half of the 19th century. 

During the pre-colonial period, Confucian literati did not have any reason to print their texts for mass consumption. Hence, their writings were only made accessible to a small number of people from the elite class. However, the spread of these writings, alongside many other newer texts, was crucial for the rise of modern Vietnamese nationalism.[4]  

By the end of 1935, about 15 or 20 percent of all children between six and twelve were enrolled in public and private schools. Somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of the population were literate; these figures continued to increase.[5] Likewise, French censorship did not stop the influx of Western, Chinese, and Japanese ideas to Vietnam through the ports of Hai Phong, Hue, Saigon, and Hanoi.

It was through the translations of propaganda pamphlets, open letters to government officials, textbooks, political manifestos, newspaper columns, public proclamations, petitions to international agencies, translated philosophical and political works, and poems that local people and young Confucian intellectuals started to imagine what the Vietnamese nation could be.[6]

Inspired by the idea of reforming colonial Vietnam, the young Confucian literati played a vital role in the emergence of modern nationalism through their writings on colonial policies and social reforms. They were a small group of young intellectuals who, after receiving French education at home or studying overseas in Japan or France, became disillusioned with the corrupt and decadent Vietnamese monarchy. They were also enraged by the pervasive socioeconomic inequality between the wealthy landowners and the peasants, the power asymmetry between the mandarins and the people, and the French colonizers’ brutal exploitation of the indigenous people. 

Understanding Republican Nationalism in Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh’s Political Theory

The writings of Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh can be seen as the “Yin and Yang” of early Vietnamese nationalism. They can be divided into two distinct discourses: conservative and radical nationalist. [7] Chau was a prominent champion of radical nationalism, while Trinh was a staunch proponent of the Franco-Vietnam alliance.

Chau and Trinh were the leaders of the Dong Du and the Duy Tan movements respectively and enjoyed several years of friendship. [8] However, Chau’s fixation on taking back the country from the French via borrowing Japanese military support and Trinh’s desire for building a free Vietnam through education and peaceful diplomacy led to much tension between them, and eventually, their friendship ended. 

Some of the significant contributions of their discourse are pointing out the distinction between the king and the nation and the moral decay of the Vietnamese monarchical system, which had been perpetuating false Confucian teachings by the old generation of Vietnamese literati. Vietnamese people had been taught to blindly revere their king without questioning his qualities and policies.[9]

In the History of Vietnam’s Loss [Vietnam Vong Quoc Su], Phan Boi Chau attributes the loss of Vietnam partially to the corruption and puppetry of the Nguyen Dynasty. He asserts that the “monarchy is a poisonous autocratic regime that sucks the blood of all the Vietnamese people…[and] the people are so ignorant,  [that] they fail to seize their own rights [dan quyen] and the fate of the nation [quoc menh] … [from] these poisonous men.” [10] The corrupt monarchy is the reason why popular rights and patriotism have never been realized in Vietnam because the king’s personal desires often go against the public interest.[11]

Phan Chau Trinh links popular rights with the ethics of a nation, which was non-existent in Vietnamese society at that time since the people’s love for their nation and their duty to protect it were dwarfed by their love for their king and their duty to serve him as his subjects. Trinh continues, “the people are therefore not aware of the distinction between king and country” and of the legacy their ancestors had left behind.[12]

Chau’s critique of the monarchical system is a combination of the Confucian (Mencius) vision of democracy, which centers on the idea that the government is responsible for the physical and moral well-being of its people, and the Republican concept of popular sovereignty in which the government is established to serve the interests of the people. [13] In his conception of the nation, the monarch must be treated as part of the government or state rather than above it, and patriotism means being loyal to the people rather than the king.

Both radical and conservative variants of the discourse on Vietnamese nationhood share the pessimistic view that Vietnamese people were born into a culture that perpetuated this vicious asymmetrical relationship. [14] The social ethics of the nation were lost under the monarchy. Vietnamese people lost their sense of solidarity and the public interest because the mandarins, who were “thirsty for glory bestowed by imperial dynasties,” created “laws that broke down the solidarity among the people” to protect their wealth and power. In other words, the selfishness of the king and mandarins led to their neglect of the public good. 

Conservative and radical nationalists differ in their modus operandi of freeing the nation from French colonialism. The conservatives proposed a non-violent approach towards building an independent Vietnam; they believed that deepening Franco-Vietnam collaboration and peaceful diplomatic relations could salvage the country from its socioeconomic regression and the decay of traditional education and cultural practices.

They maintained that social, economic, cultural, and political reform require Vietnamese people to learn from Western (particularly French) education, philosophy, and modernization. This idea is predicated upon the belief that the French would, at some point, give Vietnam autonomy and that after a period of modernization, the Vietnamese people would develop intellectually and would have enough material resources for self-rule. 

The “people’s enlightenment [intellectual understanding],” the “improvement of their resources,” and the establishment of modern socio-economic institutions (e.g., academia, public spheres, and commercial enterprises) take precedence over the right to self-determination given the social, economic, political and cultural backwardness of the Vietnamese people.

The conservatives believed that emphasis on social and economic rights did not come at the expense of failing to protect other civil and political rights. Rather, they held that Vietnamese society’s intellectual and socio-economic modernization was necessary for the development of political freedom. Violence would not be able to achieve true independence without the participation of well-informed and well-educated people. Pushing for immediate self-rule without these preconditions was seen as precarious and futile to Vietnam’s long-term survival. They believed that the genuine independence of the Vietnamese people would not only stem from their freedom to exercise their popular rights but from their capacity to understand how to use these rights to serve both their interests and those of the nation. 

The radical nationalists, by contrast, sought to convince their compatriots of the humiliating situation Vietnam found itself in. Their plan for nation-building involved leading the whole native population to expel the “evil French” out of Vietnam through military means, followed by building a new republican state governed by the people. This “penchant” for raising an armed revolution against the French to achieve national independence rested on Chau’s political doctrine on national independence, which held that a nation was made up of three parts: people, land, and sovereignty. Out of these three, Chau viewed the people as being the most important and the “soul” of the nation. For Phan Boi Chau, a nation is free only if its people are free: 

According to the established national law, a nation [nuoc] must be constituted by three elements: people [nhan dan], land [dat dai], and sovereignty [chu quyen]. Any nation lacking these three components is not considered a nation. Of those three, the people are the most important. Without the people, the land will be left uncultivated and national sovereignty will be lost. The nation survives when the people survive; the nation collapses when the people perish. [15]

Yet how does one know if a person is free? For Chau, the Vietnamese people are free only if they are free to exercise “dân quyền,” or popular rights:

In order to determine whether the people exist, one must see whether the rights of the people exist. If these rights are honored, then the people will be respected, and the nation will get strong. If such rights are violated, then people will be held in contempt and the nation will become weak. If such rights are completely lost, then we lose the people and the nation too.[16] 

When the Vietnamese people’s ability to exercise their popular rights was taken away by the French, Vietnam was no longer a free nation, even if territorial sovereignty and the people’s ownership of the land were kept intact.

Among these popular rights, Chau heavily emphasized the right to non-interference and non-domination from the French and the right to establish a government elected by Vietnamese people under the rule of law. He associated national liberty with the survival of the Vietnamese people and with their freedom to exercise the right to self-rule.

Specifically, Chau argued that the right to self-determination consisted of the right to be free from the domination and exploitation of the oppressor — the French. An independent Vietnam existed only if the Vietnamese people were free of the master-slave relationship with the French.[17]

To this end, Chau believed that the demise of the French government in Vietnam marked the birth of a Vietnamese sovereign, whose primary responsibility was to serve the interests of the citizens and to guarantee their freedom to exercise their rights. Each citizen, in return, had the obligation to serve the interests of the national community. The interests of the sovereign and its people were intertwined. 

Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh were the Yin and Yang of Vietnamese nationalist discourse. From a cursory look, their ideas may stand in contrast to each other. Nonetheless, a close comparison of their political thought has shown that their visions for Vietnamese nation-building were complementary; one was incomplete without the other. 

Trinh criticized Chau for being impetuous and irrational in his solution for securing the country’s independence, arguing that relying on the French did not necessarily mean that Vietnam would regain its autonomy. Chau may also have been naïve in his belief that Japan would have been willing to help Vietnam defeat France with little political costs, since by the turn of the 20th century, Japan had turned into another hungry and ruthless colonizer.

However, Chau’s writings on popular rights reflected the horrid conditions of France’s brutal exploitation of the native population, something which is understated in Trinh’s own discourse. Chau may have been an avid proponent for human rights protection in colonial Vietnam, yet these rights may not have been respected nor protected if the people failed to understand the significance of these rights in the context of the nation. Trinh maintained that the comprehension of human rights can only happen if the people are educated in Western science and philosophy. 

Trinh could also be said to have been too idealistic in his belief that it would be rational for the French not to have helped in building a strong Vietnam, for doing so would have threatened its colonial rule. Trinh’s conceptions of morality and ethics needed further theorizing and conceptual clarification since he never explained how Confucian teaching could be made compatible with Western theories on national and social ethics. In other words, Trinh had not examined the extent to which the five basic human virtues of Confucianism could be applied to Western philosophical thought.  

In the early 1900s, Vietnamese anti-colonial theory was still in its infancy partly because local scholars still lacked access to the original texts of Western political philosophers. Nevertheless, the writings of Phan Chau Trinh and Phan Boi Chau had a substantial impact on the crystallization of the early Vietnamese national consciousness by elaborating on the concepts of patriotism and popular rights, which were nonexistent in a monarchical Vietnam where the people’s love and duty for their nation were second to their public reverence for the emperor and his family. However, it may be that their thoughts, once again, will find their ways to be beneficial to the democratization and nation-building of Vietnam in this century.

Bibliography:

  1. William Duiker, The Rise of Vietnamese Nationalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 9
  2. Tuong Vu, “Vietnamese Political Studies and Debates on Vietnamese Nationalism,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies,Vol. 2, Issue 1 (2007): 191-192.
  3. Patricia Pelley, Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).  
  4. Shawn Frederick McHale, Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam, New edition (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 33.
  5. David G. Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (Univ of California Press, 1981), 34.
  6. Truong Buu Lam, Colonialism Experienced: Vietnamese Writings on Colonialism, 1900-1931 (University of Michigan Press, 2000).
  7. The labeling is used for the purpose of categorization and based on Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1996), in which the author labels the anti-colonial activists in the early 1900s who advocated military means of resistance as “radical nationalist.” Thus, the terms “radical” and “conservative” refer to the strategy of resistance rather than their traditional meaning that is often understood as a person’s ideological position. The term “republican” is based on the labeling in Christopher Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam: A History (Penguin UK, 2016). For this paper, my interpretations of these discourses are mostly based on their most influential and well-developed representatives, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh for two reasons. First, their texts have influenced Marxist-Leninist discourse and other nationalist discourses. Phan Boi Chau’s militant ideas and his model of democracy influenced Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD) organizational and revolutionary theory.
  8. In Western tradition, it is the norm to reference authors by their last name. Nonetheless, in Vietnamese culture it is considered formal and polite to address professors, writers, and authors by their first name. Moreover, because the thinkers’ last names are identical, referencing their last name would confuse readers. For the rest of the article, when referencing Phan Chau Trinh and Phan Boi Chau in their full name, I will simply write Trinh and Chau respectively.  
  9. Phan, Phan Chau Trinh And His Political Writings, 108. For more criticisms of the monarchy, see Phan Chau Trinh, “Viet Nam Quoc Dan Phan Chau Trinh ky thu Viet Nam Duong Kim Hoang De” in Chuong Thau et. al, ed., Phan Chau Trinh Toan Tap [Complete Works by Phan Chau Trinh], v.3, 135-155.
  10.  Phan Boi Chau, “Tan Viet Nam” in Chuong Thau, ed., Phan Boi Chau Toan Tap [Complete Works by Phan Boi Chau], v. 2, 255
  11. For a detailed argument, see Phan Chau Trinh, “Quan Tri Chu Nghia va Dan Tri Chu Nghia” in Chuong Thau et. al, ed., Phan Chau Trinh Toan Tap [Complete Works by Phan Chau Trinh], v.3, 266-283.
  12. Chu Trinh Phan, Phan Châu Trinh and His Political Writings, vol. 49 (SEAP Publications, 2009), 110.
  13. Chau states that: “In this life, without Mencius the notion that “the people as the most important element” [in a nation] would not be realized; without Rosseau, the flag of “popular rights” would not be raised…Those who love themselves definitely love their compatriots, those who love their compatriots love their country, and those who love their country are willing to sacrifice their individual interests to protect their country. This is the true meaning of patriotism. See Phan Chau Trinh, Complete Works, vol .4, (Hue: Thuan Hoa Publishing House, 1990), 32-55. 
  14. In Quan Tri Chu Nghia va Dan Tri Chu Nghia, Phan Chau Trinh used the sentence “lot long me da chiu cai nghia vua toi” (p274).
  15. Phan Boi Chau, Complete Works by Phan Boi Chau, v.2, 386
  16. Ibid. 
  17. It is difficult to trace the philosophical root of Chau’s conception of liberty, but the following quote shows that that his proposition is a combination of Mencius’s limited version of democracy, which centers on the ideas of the responsibility of government for the physical and moral well-being of the people, and Rosseau’s conception of popular sovereignty in which a government is established from a social contract to serve the interests of the people. 

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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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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

Ban Thời Sự. (2021, September 12). Chuyến thăm châu Âu của Chủ tịch Quốc hội – Sự khẳng định về “một Quốc hội hành động, một Việt Nam chủ động, nỗ lực.” Báo Điện Tử VTV. https://vtv.vn/chinh-tri/chuyen-tham-chau-au-cua-chu-tich-quoc-hoi-su-khang-dinh-ve-mot-quoc-hoi-hanh-dong-mot-viet-nam-chu-dong-no-luc-20210912192101944.htm

Bhatia, G., Dutta, P. K., & McClure, J. (2021, October 3). Vietnam: the latest coronavirus counts, charts and maps. Reuters. https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/countries-and-territories/vietnam/

Hoang T. H. (2021, September 13). Kết quả quan trọng chuyến thăm các nước châu Âu của Chủ tịch Quốc hội. VietnamPlus. https://www.vietnamplus.vn/ket-qua-quan-trong-chuyen-tham-cac-nuoc-chau-au-cua-chu-tich-quoc-hoi/740268.vnp

M.H. (2021a, September 10). Chuyến thăm châu Âu của Chủ tịch Quốc hội Vương Đình Huệ thể hiện chính sách đa dạng và độc lập của Việt Nam. Thông Tấn Xã Việt Nam. https://baotintuc.vn/thoi-su/chuyen-tham-chau-au-cua-chu-tich-quoc-hoi-vuong-dinh-hue-the-hien-chinh-sach-da-dang-va-doc-lap-cua-viet-nam-20210910194112584.htm

Ministry of Health Online Portal. (2021, September 25). Thủ tướng chủ trì cuộc họp Ban Chỉ đạo Quốc gia phòng, chống dịch COVID-19. Ministry of Health. https://moh.gov.vn/tin-noi-bat/-/asset_publisher/3Yst7YhbkA5j/content/thu-tuong-chu-tri-cuoc-hop-ban-chi-ao-quoc-gia-phong-chong-dich-covid-19

N.D. (2021b, September 16). Chủ tịch nước Nguyễn Xuân Phúc sẽ gặp doanh nghiệp sản xuất vắc xin của Mỹ. Tuổi Trẻ Online. https://tuoitre.vn/chu-tich-nuoc-nguyen-xuan-phuc-se-gap-doanh-nghiep-san-xuat-vac-xin-cua-my-20210916123224642.htm

Nguyen, D. (2021, June 30). Vietnam’s Unprecedented COVID-19 Challenge Compounded By A Deficit Of Trust In The Government. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/06/vietnams-unprecedented-covid-19-challenge-compounded-by-a-deficit-of-trust-in-the-government/

Reuters. (2021, September 18). Vietnam approves Abdala vaccine as president visits Cuba. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/vietnam-approves-cubas-abdala-vaccine-use-against-covid-19-2021-09-18/

T.H. (2021c, September 22). Ban Chỉ đạo được kiến nghị Bộ Chính trị xử lý cán bộ, đảng viên tham nhũng, tiêu cực. Vietnamnet. https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/thoi-su/chong-tham-nhung/ban-chi-dao-duoc-kien-nghi-bo-chinh-tri-xu-ly-can-bo-dang-vien-tham-nhung-tieu-cuc-777124.html

T.H., & P.H. (2021d, September 12). 70 hoạt động dày đặc tại 3 nước Châu Âu của Chủ tịch Quốc hội Vương Đình Huệ. Vietnamnet. https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/thoi-su/quoc-hoi/70-hoat-dong-day-dac-tai-3-nuoc-chau-au-cua-chu-tich-quoc-hoi-vuong-dinh-hue-774198.html

The Vietnamese Magazine. (2021, July 26). Vietnam Briefing: COVID-19 Crisis Deepening While The National Assembly Convened To Elect State Leadership. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/07/vietnam-briefing-covid-19-crisis-deepening-while-the-national-assembly-convened-to-elect-state-leadership/

Thông Tấn Xã Việt Nam. (2021, September 26). Cuộc gặp cấp cao Việt Nam – Campuchia – Lào. Vietnamnet. https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/thoi-su/chinh-tri/cuoc-gap-cap-cao-viet-nam-campuchia-lao-778199.html

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