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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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Ranked 32nd Most Powerful Country in the World, Communist Vietnam Set to Assume Greater International Role in 2020

Ranking comes on heels of defense white paper release detailing foreign policy, assumption of ASEAN chairmanship and UN seat

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U.S. News and World Report ranked Communist Vietnam the 32nd most powerful country in the world in 2019, placing it ahead of nearly all of its peers in the region, with the exception of Singapore, which came in 20th. Of the 80 countries included in the survey, Indonesia ranked 47th, the Philippines 51st, Myanmar 53rd, Thailand 54th, and Malaysia 58th.

The magazine defines powerful countries as those who “consistently dominate news headlines, preoccupy policymakers and shape global economic patterns” and forms its rankings “based on an equally weighted average of scores from five country attributes that related to a country’s power: a leader, economically influential, politically influential, strong international alliances and strong military.”

Communist Vietnam rose two spots in the rankings from 2018, bolstered in particular by its high score for “strong military”. The country’s weakest attribute was its lack of “strong international alliances”, an area which is unlikely to improve, according to the country’s recently released defense white paper.

Communist Vietnam released its 2019 defense white paper November 25, in both English and Vietnamese. It has released such reports irregularly, in 1998, 2004, and 2009. Photo: VNExpress

The paper was the first of its kind released in more than a decade, and at its official launch November 25, Deputy Minister of National Defense Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh highlighted the “4 No’s” that would guide Communist Vietnam’s foreign policy: “Vietnam will not join any military alliances, will not associate with one party to oppose another, will not allow foreign countries to set up a military [base] in the country…” and “will not use force or threaten the use of force in international relations” unless it is under attack.

In an interview with VNExpress, Vinh defended the country’s policy of no military alliances, stating that “Being a part of such an alliance means you have to completely align with one side and possibly have to confront the other, which means more enemies. Vietnam does not stand by any side but peace, reason, justice, and international laws.”

In writing the white paper, the Central Military Commission (CMC, the highest party organ in Communist Vietnam on military policy) and the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said they consulted with representatives of former senior military leaders, as well as with members of the public who expressed reservations about non-alignment.

The CMC and the MND defended their position, equating non-alignment with independence: “Countries that are members of such an alliance will be placed under the leadership of one country, normally a large and powerful one, and will have to adhere to that union’s principles, even when they are not entirely compatible with the country. Member nations of such a bloc will no longer be independent and have the autonomy to decide things on their own.”

Vietnam watchers have acknowledged that the country’s one-party regime is in a difficult position politically, and an active alliance with either the US or China would bring about its own set of challenges, some existential.

The country’s policy of pacifism, self-defense, non-alignment, and multilateralism, however, belies the strong language it uses against encroachment in the East Sea and even stronger language wielded against “hostile forces” in the domestic realm.

Without explicitly calling out China as the culprit of “unilateral actions” and “power-based coercion”, a section in the white paper makes Vietnam’s opposition clear:

New developments in the East Sea, including unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violations international law, militarisation, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Viet Nam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction as provided in international law, have undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

Communist Vietnam uses even less-restrained language for its domestic opponents, whom it considers to be at virtual war with:

The hostile forces who conspire with reactionaries and political opportunists inside the country have no given up their plots against the Vietnamese revolution. They focus on destroying political, ideological foundation with a view to eliminating the leading role of the CPV and the socialist regime in Viet Nam, “depoliticising” the VPA, sowing division in the entire nation’s great unity, and driving a wedge between the people and the CPV and the VPA.

“Hostile forces” and “reactionaries” “against the revolution” are blanket phrases that the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP or CPV) reserves for those who seek to end the Party’s monopoly on power. State media routinely uses these terms to describe activists, dissidents, and those who advocate multi-party democracy and liberal values. That the Vietnamese communist revolution ended in 1986 with capitalist market reforms has not abated the usage of these anachronistic and binary terms.

The VCP also implicitly acknowledges the threat social media and online sources of information pose to “national defense”, and similar to other authoritarian, one-party states, conflates Party security with national security. A cybersecurity law that sparked nationwide protests in 2018 went into effect at the beginning of 2019, and the end of 2019 has seen an upsurge of Vietnamese citizens arrested for writing Facebook posts critical of the communist regime.

According to the white paper, Communist Vietnam’s defense spending totaled approximately 5.8 billion USD in 2018, equivalent to 2.3 percent of GDP, an increase from 2.23 percent in 2010. For comparison, the United States spends 3.2 percent of GDP on defense, while China spends only 1.9 percent.

The full English copy of Communist Vietnam’s 2019 defense white paper can be found here, courtesy of Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales, Canberra.

Communist Vietnam is also set to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from 2020-2021, where according to Thayer, the country will be “in a position to exert strong leadership on Code of Conduct issues [in the East Sea] through bilateral consultations with other ASEAN members and by setting the agenda and issuing the Chairman’s statement at all relevant ASEAN meetings and at all ASEAN Plus meetings.”

Though ideologically aligned with China, Communist Vietnam has often been the lone member of ASEAN to speak up forcefully against Chinese activities in the East Sea, a trend which looks to continue. Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, Nguyen Quoc Dung, commented at a lecture at The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore that he “hope[s…] during our chairmanship China will show restraint and refrain from these activities [that violate Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone],” adding that “it wasn’t that other ASEAN countries supported China’s actions, but that they did not protest in the same way.”

Disputed claims in the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea). Photo: The Economist

The ASEAN chairmanship rotates through its ten members annually, in alphabetical order. Communist Vietnam last served in the position in 2010.

Concurrently, 2020 will also see Communist Vietnam serve as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), a position which it bid on and won by unanimous vote. The two-year term will begin in January 2020, and joining the country on the UNSC will be Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, and Tunisia.

According to The Diplomat, “during [Vietnam’s] campaign for the seat and in comments thereafter, officials have indicated that [their goals] would generally include areas such as promoting sustainable development and advancing preventive diplomacy, drawing on Vietnam’s own historical experience with war and peace as well as contemporary events such as its hosting of the second Trump-Kim summit.” Communist Vietnam last held a seat on the UNSC in 2008-2009.

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Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”

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At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”. 

Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”

In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.

In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.

“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.

Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.

The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure. 

Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.

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New Visa Rules Make It Easier for Foreigners to Work, Invest in Vietnam’s Coastal Economic Zones

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On November 25, the National Assembly (NA) of Vietnam passed amendments to its Law on Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners that would allow visa-free entry into coastal economic zones, as well as enable visa status changes from inside the country. The amendments were approved with 83.6% of the vote and go into effect July 1, 2020.

The amendments stipulate that in order for a coastal economic zone to quality for the visa-free exemption, it must be separate from the mainland, possess clearly defined territory and boundaries, have an international airport, and must not compromise national security or national defense.

Of note in the amendments is the alternate phrasing “special administrative-economic unit” used to refer to areas affected by the new law. The phrase “special economic zone” (SEZ) is considered sensitive after nationwide protests broke out in June of 2018, in opposition to a Special Economic Zones (SEZ) law that was being considered before the NA. The law would have established SEZs in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc, but widespread concern that the SEZs would be overrun by Chinese investors prompted the NA to shelve the law.  

Some Vietnamese have noted that Van Don and Phu Quoc of the previously-shelved SEZ law both qualify for visa-free entry under the new amendments, sparking concerns that the government is attempting to circumvent popular opposition. Representatives of the NA themselves have expressed concerns that opening up these areas to visa-free travel may pose a national security threat and have requested greater government regulation.

But Vo Trong Viet, chairman of the NA Committee on National Defense and Security, has argued that “the amendments would make it easier for foreigners to stay in Vietnam to learn about the market, and look for jobs and investment opportunities without wasting time and money on immigration procedures.”

Also included in the amendment is a stipulation allowing foreigners to change or renew their visa status while inside Vietnam, instead of having to leave the country entirely, as was previous practice. The amendment allows for visa changes by individuals in specific circumstances: “visitors who can prove they are investors or representatives of foreign organizations that make legal investments in Vietnam” and their family members, as well as foreign workers who receive job offers or enter with e-visas (provided they have the requisite work permit or work permit exemption).

Vietnam’s National Assembly, elected in 2016 and currently in its 14th session, consists of 496 members, 475 of which belong to the Communist Party (the remaining 21 are independents). Though largely considered a “rubber stamp” parliament due to a lack of public consultation and debate, discussions over pieces of legislation have increased in recent years, and the NA has begun to assume a larger political role in the eyes of the public. The NA meets twice a year to formally ratify laws, with individual members serving five-year terms.

Elections for the 15th session of the NA are set to take place in 2021.

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