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The Pleasant Lies Told About the Vietnam War, in Place of Unpleasant Truths

“To search for truth, to absorb information and then decide for oneself – that is true independence. Not the propaganda that the regime mouth-feeds the people to maintain its grip on power.”

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By Magdalena Slezáková

Will Nguyen (age 34) is a Vietnamese-American public policy specialist and an activist for the Vietnamese democracy movement. He was born in Houston, Texas to a refugee family from South Vietnam. He graduated with a Bachelor in East Asian Studies from Yale University and a Master in Public Public Policy from the National University of Singapore. Last June, for participating in an anti- government protest, he was imprisoned in Vietnam; after international pressure, he was released one month later and deported from the country. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta, Deník N.

Wikipedia says the Vietnam War started November 1st, 1955. Of course, that’s according to the Americans. The Vietnamese know well that the long, hellish days lasted much longer than the 20 years before Saigon fell (1975). How could it be otherwise – after all, the vast majority of lives lost in this war were Vietnamese. “In America, the Vietnam War is seen as a strictly American affair. I’d like to remedy that,” Will Nguyen, activist and descendent of South Vietnamese refugees, says in an extended interview with Deník N.

A passage in Michael Herr’s Dispatches reads: “We took a huge collective nervous breakdown, it was the compression and heat of heavy contact generated out until every American in Vietnam got a taste. Vietnam was a dark room full of deadly objects, the VC were everywhere all at once like spider cancer, and instead of losing the war in little pieces over years we lost it fast in under a week. After that, we were like the character in pop grunt mythology, dead but too dumb to lie down. Our worst dread of yellow peril became realized; we saw them now dying by the thousands all over the country, yet they didn’t seem depleted…”

The book written by Herr, an American military reporter, has become symbolic. It cuts like a knife, and it is hard to come by another work that describes as sharply what the Americans experienced in the Vietnam War.

But what did the Vietnamese experience? After all, it was their country. Unfortunately, for nearly its entirety, few saw the war as belonging to the Vietnamese, to their loss. And to this day, the wounds have not healed.

Will Nguyen knows this all too well. He was born in the United States to a woman who fled the communists—a South Vietnamese woman, to be more precise. Except Will doesn’t agree with black-and-white divides, even in his direct experiences with the Vietnamese Communist Party: last year, he was arrested for participating in protests in Ho Chi Minh City. Or is it Saigon? They’re the same city, with two different names; one was used before the communists took over, the other is the name used today. Current maps clearly label the city Ho Chi Minh City, but try using that name with South Vietnamese refugees!

So which is it: Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?

Nguyen: (Laughs) You tell me. I grew up with Saigon; it wasn’t until later that I found out on-paper, it was Ho Chi Minh City. I currently use both, depending on whom I’m talking to. With southern Vietnamese, I’ll use Saigon; in other contexts, Ho Chi Minh City is more appropriate. For me, either name is fine; I let the person across from me decide.

Yellow star, red stripes

You were born in Houston, as part of the South Vietnamese diaspora – you didn’t spend your childhood in Saigon, right?

When I was young, I didn’t really pay attention to politics. The first time politics hit me in the face, however, when I was doing a school report on my country of origin. I didn’t know what the flag of Vietnam looked like, so I opened up an encyclopedia and drew a pretty red flag with a yellow star. My mother saw it and immediately told me that flag wasn’t the “correct” one! I had to then draw the yellow flag with three red stripes, the one that Vietnamese in the US still use, the flag of South Vietnam.

A combination of the flags of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, left) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Photos: Wikimedia Commons, image created by Deník N.

It was until later that I began slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle. I learned how my aunt fled Saigon on April 29th, 1975, a day before the city fell to the communists; how after she arrived in the States, she helped my mother escape when war broke out between China and Vietnam in 1979. During that time, Vietnam was expelling all those of Chinese origin, so my aunt was able to sponsor my mother and helped her find forged papers claiming Chinese ancestry. My mother reached a refugee camp in Indonesia and from there, traveled to Houston.

In Texas, how did you put together the fragments of war? Americans, and the West by way of the Americans, tend to see the war as a nightmare for themselves. Oftentimes, the Vietnamese are seen as mere accessories, like decoration on military garb, or puppets in the hands of their masters.

I read whatever I could find around me. And the more I read, the more I understood that the majority of books I could find were written by Americans, about Americans; regarding South Vietnamese and the difficulties they faced during the war, you’d be hard pressed to find anything. So I began searching for books written by South Vietnamese. There aren’t very many [in English] and they aren’t very easy to find.

Luckily, I was fortunate enough to study at Yale, with its excellent libraries–whatever books they didn’t have, you could request by order. I read at least 20 or so books written by South Vietnamese authors – government figures, refugees, memoirs of life in South Vietnam before and after the revolution (1975). Similarly, I began researching sources of information from North Vietnam. Generals, spies, and figures in the North Vietnamese politburo.

Because you hit the nail on the head. In America, the Vietnam War is seen strictly as an American affair. Whatever the Americans carried out…

… would have to be suffered.

Exactly! Americans lost about 60,000 lives in Vietnam, a terrible number, but on the Vietnamese side, deaths numbered several million, and this disproportionality is never mentioned. American lives lost is still center-stage. I would like to remedy this. And I believe the first step is researching the war thoroughly from all sides, in order to shed this problematic “black-and-white” framework.

“After Saigon fell, my mother escaped to America. By good fortune, I was born in the States, where I was provided better opportunities. I recognize that my upbringing was ultimately a privilege—one which I want to pay forward by helping native Vietnamese fight for their own freedom and independence of thought. This doesn’t necessarily mean slandering communists.” Photo: Gabriel Kuchta, Deník N.

You know, it’s not just the Americans who are guilty of black-and-white thinking. We Vietnamese have a similar tendency. It’s north or south—nothing in between. But its hard to be surprised at such an ideological divide, solidified as it was by a devastating civil war. It’s still a sensitive topic. Moreover, this north-south division has historical roots. Hanoi, in the north, is seen as the cradle of Vienamese culture; as you go further south, its influence weakens. This is still true today; the Vietnamese Communist Party has a stronger base and more faithful party members in the north.

It’s like with the two Koreas, especially in the older generations. The division between right and wrong, good and bad. And sometimes even in the Czech Republic: in the north the evil communists; the south, the righteous democrats. But South Korea had a period of authoritarianism, and in Vietnam, communism went hand-in-hand with the anti-colonial struggle for independence.

The interesting thing is the communists weren’t always the only players in Vietnam. Especially in the south, there was a strong nationalist movement spearheaded by non-communists. And in the 1940s, they worked with the communists for the sake of a common goal (Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and the Indochinese Communist Party, the Viet Minh – a coalition of northern and southern nationalists formed during the second half of the 1930s in Nanjing, China, was officially re-established in Vietnam in 1941).

Only, the communists had their own vision of an independent Vietnam. They had greater numbers, were better organized, and were more ruthless, so in the end, they swallowed whole the other nationalists, completely obliterated them. Vietnam in the 40s and early 50s was a tumultuous time. French rule followed by the Japanese invasion, famine, then the First Indochina War, then the Viet Minh defeated France in 1954 and the French withdrew. The struggle between Vietnamese communists and Vietnamese non-communists played out against this backdrop and continued through the Cold War era—and it would be this civil struggle that would ultimately determine Vietnam’s fate.

A heavy-handed government

When peace talks began in Geneva in April 1954, Vietnam was de-facto divided: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declared by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945 ruled the north; the State of Vietnam, aligned with the French, ruled the south. Both Vietnamese states saw themselves as the only legitimate government; the Geneva Accords de-jure recognized this division, establishing a border at the 17th parallel.

Yes, with a plan for nationwide elections in 1956 to determine Vietnam’s fate and unify the country. But the south, led by prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem, knew that they could not win the election. And because the south technically did not sign the Geneva Accords, they refused to hold the elections, claiming that the elections would be rigged by the communists. Instead of the general election, the south held a referendum declaring the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam, with Diem elected president (with a spectacular 98.2% of the vote. In Saigon, President Diem received 600,000 votes out of a total 450,000 registered, according to reports). In Geneva, the US also refrained from signing the accords, which Ngo Dinh Diem counted on.

November 1955: President Diem speaks with standard-bearing members of the Civil Guard during a ceremony marking a denunciation of communism. On November 1st, 1955, America officially begins participating in the conflict in Vietnam by establishing the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Photo: PhotoQuest / Getty Images, Flickr, CB BY 2.0.

In the north during that time, the Chinese had convinced Ho Chi Minh to abandon plans for military action in the south and to wait for the election to resolve the big questions. The communists conducted a land reform campaign that killed thousands, while the south pursued its own brutal anti-communist campaign. The CIA embarked on a psychological war, sowing fear and panic among Catholics in the north, convincing perhaps more than a million to flee south.

The Americans encountered the South Vietnamese at the right time. They helped the South Vietnamese in many respects, most obvious of all, financially. I would assert that despite all this assistance, there was one decisive factor: the South Vietnamese had no idea what it meant to be a good citizen in a functioning democracy. To the majority of Vietnamese, the ideals of democracy were in reality, something completely unfamiliar, and as the Vietnamese tried to advance towards democracy…


In short, it was like a circus. Corruption was endemic, clientelism, and on top of that, war with the north. Imagine trying to build a healthy democracy in that environment! The South Vietnamese government was quite heavy-handed and far from resembling any kind of democracy; it was closer to autocracy. During the second republic at the end of the 1960s, after several coup d’etats, things calmed down a bit, elections were conducted properly, and prospects for democracy were looking up. If there was no war, who knows how far it would have progressed. You mentioned South Korea – the path to democracy for them took several decades. Same with Taiwan.

But in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem’s heavy-handed government only lasted until 1963, when the opposition assassinated him. How were the Americans involved?


Formally, Ngo Dinh Diem was President, but in actuality, he was a dictator. He was a symbol of everything we discussed earlier: authoritarianism, corruption, and nepotism. He came from a well-known family, and his relatives held many high positions of power in a type of oligarchy. There was nothing surprising about him facing powerful opposition. 


In the end, a group of South Vietnamese generals decided to test the waters with the Americans. If we wanted to get rid of Diem’s government, the generals probed in a meeting with the CIA, would you support us? Kennedy’s administration gave the green light. But my god! The generals got rid of President Diem in such an awful manner. The Americans didn’t imagine it that way. They thought Diem would live a life in exile, and the government would proceed to reform.

On the Saigon River, Viet Cong take turns on the lookout, October 1966. Photo: Manhai, Flickr, CB BY 2.0.

Instead, President Diem’s assassination opened up Pandora’s box. The ironic thing is some of Kennedy’s advisors warned about this very outcome: while Diem was a dictator and corruption was rampant, there existed no viable alternative to him. And it was true; the country was wracked with one coup d’etat after another. South Vietnam not only became enfeebled, but it endured continuous pressure from North Vietnam and communist insurgents in its own territory. The country’s ability to deliver its people from northern communism weakened by the day.

Up until April 30th, 1975, when Saigon was taken over by the communists. To North Vietnamese, that event was a “liberation”, but for Southerners, it was a “fall”. Is this still true?


Definitely. In the memoirs of South Vietnamese diaspora, they remember April 30th, 1975 and the “Fall of Saigon” with anguish, and not just figures from the older generations, but the majority of the diaspora’s descendents also see the event as an invasion.

And in Vietnam, where the communists have ruled for 45 years now?

The current propaganda is powerful. I believe many Vietnamese see April 30th in a positive way, a victory over colonialism, a liberation, a unification of the country. But the interesting thing is, in the south, when you speak with older people—and obviously this doesn’t happen right away because there are dangers in doing so—but when they trust you enough… my mother and I would often encounter more “sensitive” views when we were traveling around southern Vietnam. For example, taxi drivers would often reminisce positively about what life was like before 1975, as they drove us around the city.

Rosy history

In your travels around Vietnam, you were able to absorb a lot of literature and messaging, especially propaganda posters. These displays tap a lot into the past, right?

Most of them do. But that’s logical because the Vietnamese Communist Party derives its legitimacy from history and regularly reminds the people what it has achieved—1945 and the [August] Revolution, the defeat of the French, Ho Chi Minh, and of course, the greatest achievement of all: the liberation and unification of the country in 1975 [the latter technically occurring in 1976]. It’s like a broken record-player, stuck repeating myths.

A propaganda poster marking 60 years since Hanoi threw off the yoke of French colonialism. Photo: Vuong Tri Binh, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

And because these pages of history bear the hallmarks of the communist party, most people don’t pay it any heed. Is it a heroic story with a fortunate ending, or is it a happy lie? For some, either case is better than the sad truth. More easily stated, one way or another, many people realize the history is suspiciously rosy. But to find the truth, one must put in the work. It takes effort, and most people simply don’t feel the need.

Why?

Because they’ve directly experienced in their daily lives that the regime they live under doesn’t give them a voice. So the result is political apathy. This is especially true with young people, who have their whole lives ahead of them. They have no desire to rehash the past; they desire a comfortable future, with a high standard of living.

But of course, not all young people are like this; I’ve gotten to know quite a few young activists from Vietnam who feel the truth is worth pursuing. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s easier now to find information online. It only takes a little research to reveal why the yellow flag with three red stripes is banned in Vietnam. And why the Vietnamese diaspora numbers millions across the world.

To search for truth, to absorb information and then decide for oneself – that is true independence. Not the propaganda that the regime mouth-feeds the people to maintain its grip on power. Protecting the regime is the government’s number one goal. The Party has to make sure the boat doesn’t rock too much under its feet, and along with propaganda, it must also ensure that the economy develops while it conducts a balancing act between opposing China and allowing Chinese influence.

How are relations between the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party?

Very close, in an existential way. Vietnamese communists owe much to their Chinese counterparts, but at the same time, they have to be extremely careful not to be seen as Chinese puppets. This demands sufficiently independent behavior, opposing China in moderation, and at the same time, making sure not to offend their Chinese patrons.

Are they really patrons?

You know, Vietnamese leaders are slowly realizing they’re skating on the thinnest of ice. While I was imprisoned in Saigon, I spoke with police investigators about the situation in the South China Sea, and it was hard to miss the frustration written on their faces. They have to oppose China because that’s part of the Vietnamese national mythology: China is our hereditary enemy, and it’s forever finding ways to swallow Vietnam. If they don’t oppose China, then they face the danger of public opposition. That’s why Hanoi tries to find international support in their case against Chinese aggression. But it’s all one big act. No vociferous pronouncements will change the fact that China currently has the upper-hand in the South China Sea. China is several times larger and stronger than Vietnam, and Hanoi is fully cognizant of this, as well as the fact that Vietnam is economically dependent on China. And besides, the Vietnamese Communist Party imitates the Chinese Communist Party on a fundamental level. Their historic consolidation of power, their land reforms, and more recently, the cybersecurity laws.

And the general secretary? The similarities between Xi Jinping and Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, can’t be ignored: a strong, hard-line leader, pursuing an anti-corruption campaign.

Of course; if you observe down to a minute-enough level, you’ll always find differences, but the truth is the Vietnamese and Chinese models of rule are quite similar – including the issue of Trong becoming both General Secretary and President. Though for most of its history, the Vietnamese Communist Party has followed the path of collective leadership, Trong has spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign very similar to that of Xi: sure, you’re cleaning up the ranks, but you’re also inserting your own allies into positions of power.

The two parties [and their historical trajectories] are not exact replicas. But there are more than enough similarities to remind us of Mark Twain’s observation: “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Prison bars and television screens

You actually mentioned something I wanted to ask you about: last year, you were incarcerated in Vietnam. You went straight to prison after an anti-government protest in Saigon, right?

I had graduated [from my master’s program] in May and after that, had flown to Vietnam. When I found out [a few days prior] that there would be protests, I decided to attend because I also believed the two proposed laws were harmful to the Vietnamese people.

I walked the streets with protestors, cell phone in hand, recording as much as I could and uploading it immediately onto social media. It wasn’t an easy thing to do because the internet was slowed. The government often finds ways to prevent the spread of information. After a couple of hours, we ran up against a formation of police officers who stopped us and tried to get us to turn away from the city center. But I could tell that the officers were ill-at-ease; they were young, and looked just as worried and fearful as the protestors. It seemed like all it would take was one person to push through to break the line.

So I did it, and they ultimately let us through. But after a few intersections, the police parked a row of pick-up trucks across the road to block it. I wanted to help the people cross the barrier – I knew I could take on a little more risk because I wasn’t a Vietnamese citizen and I didn’t face as serious of punishment as they did. I knew I could be arrested, but to be beaten in the middle of the streets was definitely something I did not expect.

How many people were there around you?

Hard to say, but the streets were impassable, surging with people. They charged me not only with “disturbing public order” but added on the aggravating factor “causing serious traffic congestion”. They blamed me for making 14 people miss their flights.

And what were you facing?

Up to 7 years in prison.

At least you confessed on TV! And that’s yet another similarity between China and Vietnam: a recorded confession broadcast on national television…

It was all for show. In order to maintain their hold on power, the Party choreographs one performance after another and forced televised confessions are just one part of it. I had known about this “song-and-dance” prior to being captured, so I wasn’t surprised when they made me participate. But mostly, nobody was particularly enthusiastic about doing it. It was all pretty tiring: the security officers and I didn’t want to do it, but because the orders were coming from above, we wanted to just get it out of the way.

And you participated?

If I didn’t, it would only complicate things. Not just for me, but also for the investigators, the people who were in charge of (processing) my case. They treated me well enough, though obviously I knew it was related to the fact that I was American and that my case was receiving widespread international attention.

Moreover, I refused to lie. When they wanted me to apologize for causing traffic congestion or for making my friends and family worry, that wasn’t a big deal. But there was a part where they said I tried to flip a police truck and other things. I refused to read that. They accepted it and moved on.

As in there was a script?

The whole thing was so surreal. First, I wasn’t wearing the appropriate clothing, because I was a prisoner, so one of the police officers gave me the button-down shirt off his back to wear. Then, they styled my hair and had me sit down in front of the camera – we did around 5 takes, until I read the script convincingly enough.

The banality of evil

It all sounds like a joke, but in actuality, it’s nothing to laugh at right? Especially those with Vietnamese and not American citizenship.

Exactly. Suddenly, I had fallen into the belly of this oppressive regime I had researched for so many years; it was there that I was able to fully realize that the system ran on fear. It doesn’t have to be the kind of fear that stops your heart or takes your breath away. But as long as that fear becomes an abided part of your life, like an old coat, mundane and commonplace, then the system remains in place.

Like Hannah Arendt has written of, it’s all about the diffusion of responsibility: “I was just following orders!” You’re sitting behind bars, observing how police officers observe you. And you realize that they’re just cogs in the machine. But it’s precisely all of these small cogs that keep the machine going. If they weren’t there, the entire system would collapse. At the same time, they’re all just normal people. Outside of work hours, when they weren’t interrogating me, we would talking to one another like normal people.

With the small detail that you were behind bars and the police officers were in front.

Of course. You know, dehumanizing the other side doesn’t help anyone; don’t even get me started on caricaturing them as demons. I grew up in an environment where people spoke of communists as man-eating devils, and dissident propaganda often depicts Ho Chi Minh with horns. What is this good for? The more you put pressure on them in this way, the more they will dig in their heels in siege mentality. And that mentality leads to an increasingly oppressive regime. I believe in doing the opposite. Jettison the black-and-white paradigm and fracture an otherwise monolithic ideology.

How?

By treating these individuals like human beings. By convincing them that those who want to reform the system are not their enemies. As long as overseas Vietnamese communities across the world continue to demonize the communists as they do, then nothing will change. The banality of evil works both ways: people mold the system, but the system also molds the people. We have to work to fill the gap between the two sides, or at the very least, build some kind of bridge. I’m purposefully avoiding the word “reconciliation” because the communists used it after 1975, and then ultimately sent southerners to re-education camps.

This reminds me of the situation in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution. It’s a shame how the party and corruption went hand-in-hand, but enough people were able to “change outfits” after the transition [to continue their behavior]; some didn’t even bother to change. What’s going to happen if the same people are able to survive reform efforts in Vietnam?

I believe the Vietnamese Communist Party has a right to exist – this is something anti-communists have excluded me for saying, even accusing me of Stockholm Syndrome. But then there are anti-communists who are impressed with Trump and openly support him, and that’s something that’s completely absurd to me.

But most importantly: the Vietnamese Communist Party has four million party members. Their numbers are decreasing, and the Party itself is purifying in an ideological sense, getting smaller and older. But four million is still a lot. What are we going to do with them? Vietnam has suffered several decades of war. Millions have lost their lives, several more million have had to flee their homeland, and hundreds of thousands have lain their corpses at sea in pursuit of freedom… is this not enough? I understand your question, and I can’t say it doesn’t worry me. But what other way do we have to pursue reform but this?

I’m not so naïve as to think that we only need dialogue to reform a totalitarian regime. Obviously you can extend your hand across the table, but if the other side is not willing, then there has to be something to push them to the table. The people must speak up for themselves; they have to march if need be. Reform can’t be achieved without it. And in a similar vein, I also hope that young people reconsider joining the Party.

The economy plays a huge role: Vietnam’s labor productivity is quite low because the regime robs people of their initiative. Those with enough drive, those who can overcome the apathy find happiness overseas, where they go to work or study. But a number return with open eyes. For others, the internet opens their eyes. And people are slowly realizing, it doesn’t pay to be politically apathetic – if you don’t want to decide politics, then someone else will decide for you.

https://twitter.com/will_nguyen_

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The above article is an English translation of https://denikn.cz/222401/o-valce-ve-vietnamu-se-siri-stastna-lez-namisto-smutne-pravdy/ and was originally published on October 31st, 2019, in the Czech newspaper Deník N. 

 

Politics

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

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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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