The Vietnamese Magazine would like to thank the Asia Democracy Chronicles under the Asia Democracy Network for kindly giving us the permission to re-publish this article.
Why Vietnam strongly supports the former British colony’s fight for freedom
Many Vietnamese citizens hold Hong Kong freedom fighters Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow Ting in high regard. The Vietnamese cheer when a government expresses support for the former British colony’s fight for freedom. And they mourn whenever there is a crackdown—or a pro-democracy activist gets arrested or dies.
One might ask, why does Vietnam support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? The answer lies in the two country’s shared history and similar political movements.
Vietnam’s long history of battling China spans more than 2,000 years. It’s fair to say that the country’s history is basically one of surviving next to China. After all, Vietnam was colonized by China for about 1,000 years before it finally gained its independence in 938 AD. Most national heroes worshipped as gods in Vietnam today are those who fought China over the past 200 decades, such as Hai Ba Trung (1st century, fought the Han dynasty), Ba Trieu (3rd century, fought the Eastern Wu dynasty), Ly Nam De (6th century, fought the Liang administration), Phung Hung (8th century, fought the Tang dynasty), Ngo Quyen (10th century, fought the Southern Han dynasty, ended China’s 1,000-year domination over Vietnam), Ly Thuong Kiet (11th century, fought the Song dynasty), Tran Hung Dao (13th century, fought the Yuan dynasty), Le Loi and Nguyen Trai (15th century, fought the Ming empire, ended a 20-year domination over Vietnam), Nguyen Hue and Bui Thi Xuan (18th century, fought the Qing dynasty).
Today, some of the most central and important avenues in major cities of Vietnam are named after these national heroes.
In 1979, Chinese troops invaded Vietnam, waging a two-month bloody strike along the 600-kilometer border that the two nations share. This was followed by battles along the borders for another 10 years. Not many countries in the world have had such a long and complicated history with China as Vietnam does. As a result, the anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be deeply rooted in Vietnam’s culture.
Fast forward to today: The territorial dispute over the South China Sea—which also involves Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei—is also a factor behind this sentiment. China claims almost all of the area bounded by its nine-dash line. Vietnam claims sovereignty over islands in the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, as well as an exclusive economic zone that overlaps with China’s claims.
In 1988, China and Vietnam clashed in the South China Sea when China’s warships attacked and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers and seized the Johnson Reef. Another battle in recent history was in 1974, when South Vietnam’s navy lost some islands in the Paracel Islands to China’s hands after a bloody battle that left 74 casualties and dozens of others injured. Skirmishes still break out between the two countries, something the Vietnamese frown on.
Amid territorial disputes over these islands, Vietnamese people bear the brunt of China’s economic activity in their country. Poor-quality products from China (electronics, clothes, food, etc.) are being sold in Vietnam, and while people complain about shoddy goods from the mainland, they have not found a way to stop the sales of these goods within their borders. More than 91,500 Chinese workers were also living across the country as of January 2020, sometimes making up China towns and clashing with local people.
A Chinese-built section of Hanoi’s new urban railway “has come under fire after reports of deferred deadlines, cost overruns, and dangers to passers-by from falling materials,” reports the Financial Times. Given these trouble at sea, some people even suspect China of wanting to destroy Vietnam’s economy.
Although Vietnam is no longer a communist country and has a market-driven economy, the Communist Party remains the only legal political party. The party requires all Vietnamese to study communism and to worship communist leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin.
The society created by the communist regime is marked by corruption and inequality. Yet by an ironic twist of fate, it saved the Vietnamese people from the starvation that the party itself created before it began an economic reform program called Doi Moi in 1986. It abandoned the centrally planned economy model to open up the country to private businesses and foreign investments – a system which it eventually called the “socialist-oriented market economy”. Although Vietnamese people acknowledge that the country has improved significantly economically, severe corruption and deep inequality are among the biggest threats to the regime’s legitimacy. Vietnamese people are well aware that bad governance is the root cause of a slew of major challenges afflicting their lives such as unsafe food, land disputes, low wages, heavy pollution, low-quality education and healthcare, poor infrastructure, wrongful convictions, and a wide range of other human rights abuses.
The state of public governance in Vietnam is similar to China’s – a combination of a communist one-party rule that suppresses human rights and a party-controlled market economy that favors members and sympathizers of the party. It is a system that puts a premium on economic development at the expense of fundamental freedoms.
But while the pro-democracy bias may seem to overlap with the anti-communist sentiment, these are not exactly the same for Vietnamese people. Some of them oppose the communist regime but embrace other authoritarians at the same time. Many Vietnamese admire South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who was known for his authoritarian leadership style. This, while they lean toward democratization and support democratic movements such as the ones in Hong Kong, Burma, and Venezuela.
Mass protests introduced a radical change in a repressive regime like Vietnam. More than 30 years after the Vietnam War, joining a mass protest had been taboo in Vietnam, with the attendant risk of going to jail for decades. Few people dared to gather in the streets. Society had been frozen by fear.”
However, reports that China established administrative units in disputed areas in the South China Sea in late 2007 angered the Vietnamese public. Suddenly, mass protests against the Chinese government broke out in the capital city, Hanoi. More protests followed in Ho Chi Minh City in early 2008.
This confused the Communist Party. They had dealt with protests before, but those involved economic issues. These protests were about protecting the country’s territorial integrity, which was at the core of the nationalism that the party had spent its whole history building. Decades of fighting—from the independence struggle with the French before 1945, the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the Vietnam war with the United States, and 10 years of conflict with China starting in 1979—helped build the communist party’s legitimacy.
Eventually, the party cracked down on the protests. Party members could not tolerate any form of social mobilization that could potentially challenge their power.
However, the lamp of freedom had already been lit in the hearts of many Vietnamese. They realized that they must have the right to demonstrate, the right to speech, the right to participate in politics to protect their country, all of which are being suppressed by the Communist Party. For the first time in the country’s history since 1975, Vietnam saw a protest movement in 2011, which lasted for almost three months, from June to August.
In 2014, more anti-China protests flared up across the country, involving not only activists but also workers, farmers, and students, due to China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig to Vietnamese waters. A similar mass movement happened in June 2018 when the Parliament attempted to pass a special economic zones bill that were seen to open up three strategic areas in Vietnam for China.
It is significant to note that most of the mass protests in Vietnam for at least the last decade have been anti-China. All protests have been severely suppressed by the government.
The silver screen has also influenced Vietnam’s perspective on Hong Kong. Hong Kong films have been overwhelmingly popular in Vietnam for decades. These include “The Legend of Condor Heroes” (1994), “Detective Investigation” (1995), “Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” (1997), “Triumph in the Skies” (2003), among others. It’s not easy to find a Vietnamese over 30 years old that has never watched a Hong Kong film or is unfamiliar with Hong Kong film stars.
Until the late 1980s, Hong Kong played the role of a “port of first refuge” for Vietnamese people fleeing political persecutions and abject poverty in their country following the end of the Vietnam War. In 1989 alone, more than 300 Vietnamese boat people landed in Hong Kong daily. The peak of the migration wave was when Hong Kong became home to 200,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers.
Supporting the democratic movement in Hong Kong came naturally to these refugees, who feel forever indebted to the now beleaguered city.
There’s no doubt that Hong Kong pro-democracy movement fits perfectly into the Vietnamese people’s worldview, which has been shaped by the latter’s long and complicated history of dealing with China and communism, as well as nationalist and anti-government fervor.
Panorama of Flags, Panorama of Lies
The panorama of flags
Foreigners visiting Vietnam can hardly miss the abundance of flags, posters, statues, and slogans that remind them of who is leading Vietnam and of the Communists’ “glorious” struggle against the French, Americans, and the South Vietnam regime throughout the last century.
However, isn’t it a bit too archaic to still flash the symbol of the hammer and sickle these days, when the means of production and the economy no longer rely on these tools? Farmers and factory workers neither drive nor fuel modern-day politics as well. Likewise, what is the point of having the statues of Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Lenin in public parks and in the meeting rooms of schools, universities, and governmental departments? Do ordinary people who showcase the red and yellow flag in front of their houses every April 30 cherish the fact that the country was “reunited” in 1975? Do police officers–who check and remind households that fail to do so–love the flag so much and wholeheartedly believe in the cause? In essence, what is the significance of this panorama of symbols?
Vaclav Havel, the dissident intellectual of communist Czechoslovakia and later president of post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic, can point us to the answer.
The panorama of lies
Following the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communists. The iron fist of Communist rule drove dissidents out of the country and clamped down on those who remained. Other than the Prague Spring of 1968, an unsuccessful effort to steer Czechoslovakia back towards democracy, there was hardly any resistance.
However, communist Czechoslovakia was not just about who held the government; life itself had to adjust in a way that fit the current political climate. Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), who is arguably one of the most respected dissidents in the history of Czechoslovakia, lived most of his life under Communist rule. He grew up to become a playwright, and at the same time, he established himself as a prominent and well-loved politician. A high point of Havel’s dissident writing, The Power of the Powerless,  does not concern itself with formal politics; rather, it deals with the “hearts and minds” of the people.
A significant character in The Power of the Powerless is the greengrocer who puts the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” in his front window every day, along with his vegetables. He is neither passionate nor concerned about whether or not the workers of the world unite, but he does this anyway. This irony reminds me of my family who obediently and diligently displays the Vietnamese flag at times in the year when they should, but remains so apathetic that they do not even care if the flag is hanging upside down. There also seems to be other households quite similar to my own which led to the government’s legal guidelines (3420/HD-BVHTTDL) that specifically address this violation.
The greengrocer’s act is the observable tip of the iceberg of how the hearts and minds of the people work in communist Czechoslovakia; they want to avoid trouble with those who have power. By displaying the slogan, the greengrocer implies:
I, greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.(Havel, 1978, p. 6)
I am once again reminded of my family. I recall that every time my father was late in hanging the flag, my mother would berate him. She would constantly tell him to do it now because she didn’t want the hassle of dealing with the police. When I asked my parents about this, they said that they just wanted to be “left in peace” (yên thân). Likewise, if you ask teachers, students, or employees of governmental departments about the statues of Ho Chi Minh and Karl Marx in their buildings, they would probably tell you something similar.
But, why do the authorities punish such a trivial thing? Whether or not the greengrocer displays the slogan would certainly have little to no effect on the workers’ movement, nor does it pose any tangible threat to the existence of a government that possesses the hard power of the courts, the military, and the police. The greengrocer does not even replace the slogan with another one that is critical about the regime.
To address this question, Havel points out that, in fact, people would ignore the greengrocer’s slogan, but they do so precisely because such sayings are everywhere – in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletins, and buildings. The key here is that while they ignore individual slogans, the people are well aware of the panorama of these slogans as a whole. The existence of this panorama tells people that dishonesty goes hand-in-hand with obedience here; this is normal, everyone does it, and so must you. In the same vein, transgressions must be punished because “anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself” (Havel, 1978, p. 8).
Therefore, if a Vietnamese policeman, school administrator, or government official reproaches someone who questions the phrase: “Live, fight, work, and study like our great Uncle Ho” (Sống, chiến đấu, lao động, và học tập theo gương bác Hồ vĩ đại), it is extremely likely that this policeman/school administrator/government official himself has also questioned, albeit in private, the very same slogan! Yet, they also believe that nobody should disrupt the rules of the game and that everyone should blindly follow what the system demands.
My next question is, how do people live with themselves when their existence is surrounded by so many lies, ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies, including those of their own making? Would they feel embarrassed and ashamed of themselves for being so afraid and thus becoming unquestionably obedient? These questions, Havel argues, boil down to man’s dignity and authentic identity. To be able to live in lies, the greengrocer deludes himself into believing that there is nothing wrong with the workers of the world unite; he separates the part of himself that questions the slogan from the other half that accepts the excuse. Living in a world of lies and deceit for so long warps our perspective and this bastardized reality becomes our “new normal;” the greengrocer becomes accustomed to the state of his compromised dignity and comes to accept the deception and inauthenticity of the system as part and parcel of life. In effect, he loses his authentic self.
On the question of dignity and identity, it is interesting that the slogan “Sacrifice for the country and serve the people” (Vì nước quên thân, vì dân phục vụ) is hung in every police station, in a country where police, alongside tax officials, are seen as the most corrupt group (Towards Transparency and Transparency International, 2017). A few years ago, when I passed by one of Vietnam’s border checkpoints, I was baffled by the contradiction between the arrogance of the border control officer and the fact that he was sitting right under a “serve the people” banner. My subsequent conversations with poor Vietnamese migrants who often cross the border for work revealed that this was how they were always treated; they often bribed these arrogant officers and kept their heads down to avoid trouble.
As I listened to these migrants and recalled my own experience, I wondered how these officers could look at themselves in the mirror. They see the “serve the people” banner in their office every day but shamelessly extend their hand through the small window of the checkpoint to receive bribes from the people they look at with disdain – the “lowly” people they are supposed to serve. On the other hand, the migrants are left with little choice but to comply and are forced to accept being treated with less than half the dignity they should be afforded by the simple virtue of being alive.
Furthermore, Havel argues that the panorama of lies is internally solid, for there is a “metaphysical order binding all its components together,” thus “guarantee[ing] the inner coherence of the totalitarian power structure” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). Through all the examples I have provided, isn’t there a sense of such order emanating from Vietnam’s panorama of (pseudo) symbols? The checkpoint officers and those who bribe them, my parents’ disinterested flag-hanging, the equally disinterested policeman who checks the flags, and the people who put the statues of Ho and Marx in their meeting rooms are all parts of a system that everyone who lives or has lived in Vietnam knows all too well; it is a system where “the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, [where] the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation, […] [and where] the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code” (Havel, 1978, p. 10).
In fact, one of my interviewees  told me that before he left Vietnam and started to look at the country from a distance, life there was quite “smooth” for him, because “things hung together…everything I heard in school, in the newspaper, in the street etc. was in harmony with each other…I didn’t feel the urge to question things.” This “harmony” is the glue that holds the panorama of lies together. Secondly, as my interviewee’s response also points out, this panorama is solid because those who lack the individual will and instead excel in the use of empty phrases are the ones who thrive (Havel, 1978, p. 13).
Havel thus concludes that “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 9). This conclusion runs contrary to what many intellectuals and laymen alike often think about authoritarianism as entailing an evil ruler and people who are controlled against their will, or a class that oppresses all other classes, and where the line of struggle is between the oppressor and the oppressed. The concept of “the panorama of lies” goes beyond such binary definitions and shows that the line of struggle “runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 16-17).
I work with and observe a wide range of activists who work tirelessly and voice their opinions hoping to one day make Vietnam a liveable country for ALL and not just for those with unearned privileges and unchecked power. They pursue different paths of change; some try to run for seats in the National Assembly, others focus on analysing the actions of the government, and there are those who try to nurture a different kind of Vietnamese. For them, a different kind of Vietnamese means Vietnamese citizens who feel anger when their own dignity, or the dignity of others,’ is negated; they are those who strive for “what should be,” instead of settling for “what is.” They are those who are honest with themselves about right versus wrong, instead of surrendering their own judgement, mindlessly obeying the state and condemning those who do not conform.
Vaclav Havel and his people saw the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, but the democratic miracle did not immediately follow. Havel, then in the position of president, argued that democratic politics and the market economy, both carrying the promise of a good life, cannot happen in the face of “post-communist morass” (Havel, 1997). The ghost that kept haunting post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic was called out in Havel’s speech before Parliament in 1997:
Many people believe that democracy or no democracy, the people in power are again people who cannot be trusted and who are more concerned about helping themselves than about the greater good….The prevalent opinion is that it pays off in this country to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties – though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words – are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.(Havel, 1997)
I understand that the different paths of change I mentioned above ultimately feed into each other. However, with the lesson from Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic and Havel’s thoughts, I cannot help but wonder how best to prioritise these tasks and decide when to pursue which.
I would also like to believe that Havel’s thoughts give Vietnamese activists hope, especially during the present time when a relentless crackdown makes revolutionary change seem like an utterly unreachable dream. After reading Havel’s work, I see the sparks of our own “Vietnam Spring” starting not in the places representing the power of the system – the National Assembly, the election, state-owned media, or the police – but in the very hearts and minds of ordinary Vietnamese people. The revolutionary Vietnamese of the present day are those who dare to live in truth.
- On April 30, 1975, North Vietnam forces entered Saigon and officially ended the existence of the Republic of Vietnam as a nation. North Vietnam and South Vietnam were then joined and ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), and Hanoi became the capital of the whole of Vietnam. In the narrative of the VCP, April 30 is called reunification day and a cause to celebrate, whereas people who sided with South Vietnam call it ‘Black April,’ amongst other names that convey pain and sadness for the loss of their country.
- Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992-1993. Vaclav Havel’s presidency was from 1989 to 2003, with some intervals in between.
- To be fair to this great work of Havel, I should be clear that the panorama of lies is only a small part of it. I focus particularly on this concept in order to unpack the omnipresence of (pseudo-) symbols in Vietnam.
- I am not saying that all Vietnamese display the red and yellow flag in the same disinterested way as Havel’s greengrocer. We will not know unless we ask every single Vietnamese. However, we can always make an educated guess. In Vietnam, there are pockets of the population who resent or distrust the regime for many good reasons, from the historic 1975 event and family members lost at sea during the Boat People exodus to forced evictions and rampant corruption. Growing inequality and poverty drive young people from rural areas to cities or overseas, and also expose even more the lies about the socialist utopia which the VCP claims it pursues and which it trumpets with slogans and posters in public places.
- This interview is part of my PhD research on activism under authoritarian rule in the 2010-2019 period in Vietnam.
Havel, V. (1979). The Power of the Powerless. Available at: https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/resource/the-power-of-the-powerless/
Havel, V. (1997). Address to the Czech Parliament. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/1087560.html
Towards Transparency & Transparency International (2017). 2017 Global Corruption Barometer: Vietnam. Hong Duc Publishing House.
Vietnam: How Powerful Is The Prime Minister?
Among the “four pillars,” the position of prime minister possesses both power and prestige.
In the spring of 2021, Vietnam has a new leader: Pham Minh Chinh, a former police intelligence officer and former head of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Organization Commission. On July 26, 2021, Pham Minh Chinh, once again, takes his oath to be the prime minister of Vietnam for the next 5 years.
One amongst “four pillars of the imperial court”
In the article “A few things you should know about Vietnam’s National Assembly chairmanship,” we wrote about the formation of the institutional division of power known as the “four pillars,” which includes the general secretary, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairman of the National Assembly.
If the state president and the chairman of the National Assembly, two among four of the most powerful positions in the Vietnamese Communist Party hierarchy, serve as primarily ceremonial positions, then the prime minister has both pomp and power, possessing broad authority in the governing system.
The prime ministership was once a position without any notable power. Before Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s term (1991-1997), previous prime ministers left a very little mark, except for Ho Chi Minh – who served as both state president and prime minister from 1946-1955.
Prime ministers after him, such as Pham Van Dong (1955-1987), Pham Hung (1987-1988), and Do Muoi (1988-1991), all served during periods where the government functioned according to the direction and management of the Party, rather than with tools of the executive branch. The same could be said during periods where Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan had overwhelming individual influence over the Party, causing other institutions and positions, including the prime ministership, to be subservient.
In the 1980 Constitution, the government was called the Council of Ministers, with the prime minister position changed to the chairman of the Council of Ministers. This was an institution of collective leadership, with the powers of the chairman being minimal. With the 1992 Constitution, Vietnam reverted to the government mechanism in which the prime minister was head, concentrating greater power in his hands rather than practicing collective decision-making as in the past. Vo Van Kiet was the first prime minister to enjoy the new system under the 1992 Constitution.
With the depth and broadness of economic reform, the government’s role in managing national affairs grew by the day to more quickly, effectively, and dynamically respond to domestic and international developments. This increase in authority also served to more adequately address the increasing importance of foreign affairs in the age of globalization. The position of prime minister, thus, became extremely powerful. Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016) is seen as the most powerful prime minister ever and once competed fiercely for the position of general secretary.
Who elects the prime minister?
Vietnam’s central government is modeled on the parliamentary system, with the central role (theoretically) held by the National Assembly. Constituents elect members of the National Assembly, and the National Assembly elects the government’s leadership figures, including the prime minister. (Obviously, everyone knows who actually “elects” the members of the National Assembly and the prime minister). The prime minister must be a member of the National Assembly.
Normally, electing the prime minister occurs during the first session of the new National Assembly term, after the general election, which occurs after the Party congress. In 2016, the procedure took an unusual turn: the National Assembly elected the new prime minister in the last meeting of its term in April, preceding the general election by more than a month. After the general election, the new National Assembly then repeated the election of the prime minister one more time. Nguyen Xuan Phuc was sworn into office twice in 2016. Pham Minh Chinh also had the same experience in 2021.
How powerful is the prime minister?
As head of state administration, this position has broad authority, from enforcing laws and organizing personnel to proposing and distributing the budget.
As a unitary state, the central government has overarching authority, with the prime minister’s power extending from the center all the way to the provinces and cities.
Outside his separate authority, the prime minister also has general authority over the collective decisions and resolutions of the cabinet.
For more details, please see the two documents described above. Here, we would like to list a few of the prime minister’s decision-making powers to demonstrate just how influential this position is in the economic sphere:
· Regarding land: has the power to establish a council to assess land usage programs and plans at the national level; approves changes in land usage purposes on rice cultivation fields 10 hectares and above, protected and special-use forest land 20 hectares and above; decides the policy framework for compensation, support, and resettlement in special cases; decides price tables for province-level land in many cases; decides on several cases in which the usage rights for land the state allocates or leases are not auctioned.
· Regarding investment: has the power to approve investment plans on the scale of airports, ports, oil and gas rigs, large urban areas, industrial zones, and export processing zones; approves investment plans overseas in banking, insurance, stocks, and telecommunications…from 400 billion dong and above, along with other projects involving capital of 800 billion dong and above.
Is prime minister the highest attainable position?
No. In the party power hierarchy, the general secretary remains at the top and is the most powerful position overall.
There has never been a prime minister who has risen to become general secretary, except for Do Muoi, who was the chairman of the Council of Ministers. Nearly all served only one or two terms before retiring, except Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who served as prime minister and then stepped down to become state president, a much less powerful position.
This article describes the power of the prime minister, but in actuality, we have only spoken of it in legal terms and in relation to the order of power in the party. The position’s power is also dependent on the individual’s level of influence within the party.
To put it another way, a leader’s power is the sum of his or her institutional power and individual sway. If the system bestows power but the individual leader doesn’t have the ability to wield it properly, then he does not have much power at all. Conversely, the system can bestow limited power, but an individual can exercise influence beyond his institutional limits.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 6, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.
Vietnam’s State President: The Captain But Not Really A Captain
In Vietnam, the position of state president is like that of a ship captain who completely got separated from the helm.
During his single term as the prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc became popular in the news for his words and promises to transform many provinces and cities in Vietnam into “captains,” from “economic captain” to “developmental captain.” Now, he himself has become the captain of Vietnam, as he accepted the position of state president – the legal head of state.
But like many other captains of years past, his position as the “captain” of Vietnam is not what it appears. Yes, he will work from No. 2 Hung Vuong Street in Hanoi’s old French palace that dates more than 100 years, where French governors-general and President Ho Chi Minh once sat, but he won’t have much real power.
“The four pillars” and the parliamentary system
The state president is normally drawn from the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party-normally, but not always. The exception is Ton Duc Thang, who succeeded Ho Chi Minh and served from 1969 to 1981. Ton Duc Thang was only a Party Central Committee member.
In history, the most powerful state president of Vietnam was undoubtedly Ho Chi Minh, who held the position for more than 23 years, from 1946 until he died in 1969. During his years of greatest power, Ho Chi Minh also held the highest leadership position in the Communist Party and the position of prime minister until 1955. Between 1955 and 1960, Ho resigned as prime minister but held onto two other positions within the Party: party chairman and general secretary.
From 1960 onwards, Ho remained the party chairman and state president, but with the rise of Le Duan and his ascension to power, Ho Chi Minh was no longer the center of Vietnam’s political life. From then onwards, the role of state president slowly became largely ceremonial.
Ton Duc Thang, who was not elected into the Politburo, of course, held the position of state president, but he did not have much influence. His successor, Vo Chi Cong, on the other hand, was a member of the Politburo. But at the time, people didn’t call the position “State President,” but rather, “State Council President,” the council being an institution of collective leadership similar to the collective leadership structure of the Council of Ministers; this structure was originally borrowed from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and was incorporated wholesale into Vietnam’s 1980 Constitution.
It was perhaps the next president, Le Duc Anh (1992-1997), who carved out a noteworthy role for the position of state president when he turned the role into an individual leadership position rather than a collective one. With his powerful influence derived from his time as defense minister, Le Duc Anh, along with General Secretary Do Muoi and Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, formed what journalist Huy Duc calls the “tripartite division of power.” At the time, the “four pillars” had yet to take shape clearly; it was not until the leadership transition in 1997 that this was established.
In actuality, the designation “four pillars” refers to the order of power within the Party. At the same time, the position of the state president in a parliamentary system such as Vietnam’s is a formality that only carries ceremonial value rather than any real power.
What does it mean to be ceremonial?
The parliamentary system is special in that the person who leads the state (head of state) is not the head of the cabinet. For example, in nearly all European countries, the head of the cabinet is the prime minister, who is simultaneously the majority leader in parliament; the head of state is either the president or the king/queen. We can see that Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and the United Kingdom all have prime ministers as their central political leaders rather than presidents or kings/queens.
Vietnam is similar. The state president is the head of state, which according to its Constitution is “the person who leads the state, who represents the Socialist Republic of Vietnam domestically and in foreign affairs.” However, the person who leads the state administration is the prime minister, who possesses far-reaching power, as we have analyzed in the article “Vietnam: How powerful is the prime minister?”
The Constitution grants the state president a number of limited powers that do not appear lacking, but in practice, are quite lacking. These powers include promulgating the Constitution, laws, and decrees, abilities that very much resemble veto power over decrees; numerous powers that relate to proposals to the National Assembly to elect or remove individuals from the highest positions in government; and above all, power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
“Commander-in-chief”sounds enormously powerful. But the command of Vietnam’s armed forces has never laid with the state president; it actually lies with the Politburo and the Central Military Commission (CMC). In recent times, the secretary of the Central Military Committee has always been the Party general secretary, while the deputy minister of the CMC has been the minister of defense. The state president is simply a standing member of the CMC. Nguyen Phu Trong has been the only individual to hold both Party general secretary and state president positions while concurrently serving as the secretary of the CMC.
Thus, the state president does not actually hold any guns. He doesn’t hold the purse strings either, because control of the treasury is held by the prime minister. The authority of the state president, then, lies in approving military promotions, bestowing awards and honors, and deciding on issues related to citizenship, reprieves, and diplomatic protocols, etc.
With limited powers, Vietnamese presidents after Ho Chi Minh have never fully exercised their powers on thorny issues, such as dismissing a number of high-ranking positions in the government and the military or vetoing an ordinance from the National Assembly’s Standing Committee.
Though it has transitioned from a collective leadership role (in the State Council) to an individualized one, the position of state president still represents the collective in announcing decisions and lacks the broad, active powers of the prime minister.
The real power of the state president perhaps lies in the fact that he has his feet in both the Politburo and the CMC. If it weren’t for this straddling, the state president would be merely a puppet. Thus, when examining the actual power of a Vietnamese political leader, it is not enough to look to the law; one must also look at his or her power within the Party and the individual influence he or she has.
Nguyen Xuan Phuc has bestowed the title of “captain” on many provinces and cities as his way to encourage them to develop and prosper, though perhaps these provincial and municipal leaders have yet to understand how they were called “captains.” Nguyen Xuan Phuc now has also assumed the position of head of the ship, but he is also no captain.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 7, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.
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