Vietnam: Citizens Must Pay Trillions Of Dong For The Party Congress, Regardless Of Party Membership

Will Nguyen
Will Nguyen

By the most conservative estimates, the amount of money citizens pay to fund Party congresses at just the local level is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate running for more than 25 years.

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Local party committees throughout the country have begun organizing party congresses to elect “elite” representatives to attend the 13th National Party Congress, an event which occurs every five years. They will elect members to the Party’s Central Committee, from which the Secretariat and the Politburo will be drawn, as well as those positions seen as stepping stones to Vietnam’s top leadership posts.

However, these strictly party affairs actually draw from the government’s budget, tapping into taxpayer money that could be used for state administration or policies supporting people’s livelihoods.

This article will summarize a number of counter-intuitive but actual political realities that Vietnamese citizens have faced for decades and will most certainly continue to face if fundamental changes do not occur.

Total expenditures undisclosed, possibly quite large

Before diving deep into legal issues, we’ll provide a general overview on how budgets are used for Party congresses. Currently, costs associated with organizing Party congresses remain ambiguous.

The general scope of regulations in the Law on Access to Information excludes transparency regarding the operational finances of political and socio-political groups.

On the other hand, the State Budget Law contains Article 15, which stipulates responsibility for publicizing the state budget.  However, the law only regulates this responsibility in regards to governmental bodies rather than political organizations.

Finding information on the costs of organizing the Party Congress specifically, and the costs of running party organizations more generally, forced me to try my luck with reports from the Ministry of Finance, the state management body directly responsible for the budget and national expense.

Accordingly, we found that the Ministry of Finance established a separate website that was quite easy to navigate and use. However, the detailed budget information provided was not helpful for readers, regardless of what they were looking for.

Take this example from April 15, 2020:  the Ministry of Finance issued an estimated implementation of the 2020 Quarter I budget, that is, the time period during which finance plans and preparation costs for Party congresses are laid out beginning in May.

However, the roster of expenditures only lists three accounts: normal costs (the highest, at 343 trillion dong, or US$14.7 billion), interest and debt costs, and salary reform costs. The estimate clearly is of no use to citizens who want to inspect and oversee financial transparency.

Because of this opacity, I’m forced to look for sources of information at lower levels and with broader scope. Such a manner of research will reduce the ability to generalize regarding the financial “voraciousness” of Party congresses. However, this seems to be the only way to actually get an understanding of such expenditures.

For example, this past April, official correspondence from the Lang Son Province People’s Committee sent to the Ministry of Finance asked for financial support in organizing the province’s Party congresses for the 2020-2025 term. The amount requested ran upwards of 85 billion dong for these fleeting party events.

More specifically, the provincial People’s Committee requested nearly 10 billion dong for the provincial Party Congress and 66 billion dong for district-level congresses. There were even expenditures totaling more than 10 billion dong to “renovate and repair service projects for the Party Congress at all levels” (these fixed expenses should have been calculated separately according to the law; it is unknown how this is permissible).

More importantly, it must be remembered that Lang Son is a mountainous and sparsely populated province, with few party members and a cost of living that ranks among the lowest in the country.

In another document that I found from the Quang Tri Township People’s Committee (a district-level body), promulgated on February 28, 2020, the amount of money this committee requested that the provincial Finance Office send to the Central government in Hanoi for approval for its locale reached 5.7 billion dong.

According to the document, money spent to cover the expenses of representatives and guests for the two-day Party Congress at the commune-level alone would amount to almost 800 million dong, propaganda work in service of the congress would be 150 million dong, and money “for direct supplement payment” would be nearly 300 million dong.

Another district, Huong Hoa, requested 2.5 billion dong in funds for district-level Party congresses and 5.1 billion dong for commune-level ones, totaling approximately 7.6 billion dong.

Quang Tri Province has 10 district-level administrative units, Lang Son has 11. The population of Quang Tri is about 600,000 and Lang Son about 800,000; both provinces have among the smallest populations in the country, and both economies perform below the national average.

Therefore, if I use the figure for Lang Son (85 billion dong) as the average for each province, then I can extrapolate that the total costs for organizing Party congresses in all 64 cities and provinces is nearly 5.5 trillion dong, not including the central Party organizations and the National Party Congress. And this is a conservative estimate.

According to the data Luat Khoa Magazine has gathered in previously articles, this amount is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate and the Government’s Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs operating for more than 25 years, with enough left over to fund the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development—one of Vietnam’s pivotal ministries—for up to a year (the 2020 estimate is 5.3 trillion dong.

Laws about the Party’s funding are regulated by the Party’s Central Office.

This is not some kind of sensational headline to attract readers; it’s the truth.

In the State Budget Law mentioned above, Articles 36 and 38 tell us that both local and central budgets are also responsible for funding the activities of political organizations (i.e. the Communist Party of Vietnam).

In Items 7 and 8 of Article 8, which covers the state budget’s principles of operation, the operational expenses of sociopolitical-industrial organizations, social organizations, and socio-industrial organizations are handled according to principles of self-sufficiency; the state budget only covers tasks the government assigns. The state budget was created to help political and socio-political organizations balance their operational books.

That’s the extent of what the State Budget Law says about the Communist Party of Vietnam’s coffers.

Government Decree 163/2016 provides a bit more detail to the State Budget Law, stating in Article 9 that the government “entrusts the Ministry of Finance to lay out specifics in the management and use of the state budget for Vietnamese Communist Party bodies.”

The Ministry of Finance’s Circular 40/2017 has regulations on business expenses and conference organizing fees which give us a bit of hope in understanding how the budget is used for Party activities more generally and Party congresses at all levels more specifically, by providing us a legal basis on paper.

But right in the circular, the Ministry of Finance affirms that the use of the budget for “the National Party Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Party congresses at all levels up to the national level, conferences of all bodies under the Vietnamese Communist Party” will be implemented separately according to levels of jurisdiction, but it does not specify which levels.

So  we’re left to ask, which level or levels of jurisdiction ultimately decide the budget for the Party congresses?

I gradually realized that it was difficult to find any kind of legal basis managing how the budget is used for Vietnamese Communist Party activities.

The “legal” basis often cited in related documents mostly stems from Decision #99-QĐ/TW, issued May 30, 2012 by the Party Central Secretariat, promulgating regulations on Party business expenses, of Party organizations at the fundamental level and those directly above (“Decision 99”).

Expenses of all Party congresses up to the 13th National Party Congress this year are regulated by Decision 3989-QĐ/VPTW, issued August 16, 2019 by the Central Party Office.

As of now, I haven’t been able to find the entire text of Decision 3989, possibly because it was only circulated internally. But this, perhaps, demonstrates best the contradictory manner in which the Vietnamese Communist Party handles budget transparency.

Particularly with Secretariat’s Decision 99, we can see that this document contains regulations that seem to carry more force than even legal documents issued by the National Assembly.

In essence, Party organizations have jurisdiction over establishing and assigning expense estimates, as well as allocating funds and also regulations for balancing the books – all while using the state budget; this decision also regulates tasks by the people’s committees at all levels, as well as other government bodies responsible for ensuring funding for Party activities.

A concrete example in Item 1, Article 5 of Decision 99, states:

“Based on approved estimates, people’s committees in communes, wards, and townships are responsible for guaranteeing operating expenses at the committee level, must balance the books according to regulations in the State Budget Law, and must report to their committee level and the committee level directly above.”

As such, when speaking of jurisdiction and general scope, documents issued by Party organizations are no less valid than laws passed by the National Assembly or decrees issued by the government.

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The problems that I’ve expounded on above are not new. They’ve existed in this political system over the whole of Vietnam for more than 40 years. However, when trillions of dong are spent simply for the Communist Party to pick its own board of leaders, then taxpayers all over the country should accelerate discussions on why this phenomenon keeps occurring.

One budget nurturing two states—how can this be seen as the only way to manage Vietnam’s public finances?

The original Vietnamese version of this article was written by Bui Cong Truc and published on Luat Khoa Tap chi. Translated by Will Nguyen.

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