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Everything You Need To Know About Vietnam’s 13th National Party Congress

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This article is mainly based on Tran Ha Linh’s “Mọi điều bạn cần biết về đại hội toàn quốc của Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam,” published in Luật Khoa Magazine, a sister publication of The Vietnamese, on January 15, 2021.

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Political party conventions are part of a country’s politics, but in Vietnam, it’s a special part. It’s not about the parties nominating candidates for public offices, but rather the only legally operated political party in the country deciding the government’s top seats and the country’s direction.

No one needs to call the party by its full name. Often, people call it “the Party”, or “Đảng”; sometimes “our Party”, or “Đảng ta”. The word “Đảng” (Party) is almost always written with a capital “Đ”. Thus, unlike how Americans call the Democratic Party’s conventions the “DNC” and the Republican Party’s conventions the “RNC”, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s conventions, or congresses, are often called “the Party Congress” (Đại hội Đảng). Say it to anyone in Vietnam and they know exactly what you mean.

Now, the next congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is approaching. Here is everything you need to know to understand the event.

What is “the Party Congress?”

The Party Congress, or its full name, the National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, is “the highest governing body” of the Party as stated in its charter. The Party Congress  makes the most important decisions relating to Party leadership and direction as follows:

  • It reviews the implementation of the Congress’ previous term’s resolutions;
  • It determines the next term’s direction and policies;
  • It determines whether or not to amend the Party’s two highest instruments: the Party Platform and Charter.
  • It decides the number of members of the Party Central Committee and elects the next term’s members.

How often does the Congress take place?

Every five years as you may have heard?

Not really. The party has only held 12 congresses throughout the 91 years of its existence. The approaching one is the 13th Party Congress. That means one congress every seven years on average.

CPV congresses have only taken place every five years since the 6th Party Congress in 1986, the one that shifted the country’s direction away from a centrally planned economy towards capitalism with a widely known grand policy called “Đổi Mới” (Renovation). The previous congresses were held inconsistently in 1935, 1951, 1960, 1976, and 1982, mainly due to armed conflicts and wars with the French, the Americans, and the Chinese.

How long is a Congress?

The 13th Party Congress will run for nine days, from January 25 to February 2, 2021, in Hanoi.

The previous congresses lasted four to nine days.

Who participates in the Congress?

A total of 1,587 delegates are coming to the capital to attend the 13th Party Congress, representing 5.1 million Party members, according to the CPV’s head of External Affairs.

They come from the Party’s committees in provinces, central government bodies, state-owned corporations, the military, the police, etc. Among the delegates, 194 are entitled to attend the Congress without having been elected, while another 15 delegates are appointed. The rest are elected.

Often, identities of delegates reflect one of the most popular concepts of the party’s governance: proportional representation, or cơ cấu. As a Communist party that claims to strongly uphold values such as equality for all, the proportional representation concept aims to make sure that delegates represent all groups within society, including from different classes, geographic regions, different genders, ethnicities, religions, occupations, branches of government, representatives from civil society – who are heavily controlled by the government, and the private sector. This broad membership makes the Party Congress look more representative and more legitimate on the surface while not actually having a more meaningful and substantial representation.

How does the Congress elect the Party leadership?

Do the Party’s congresses elect the top party leaders? It always looks like that, but it is not true, and many people have a misconception of how the Party leadership is elected.

One needs to take a look at the CPV’s Central Committee Decision No. 244 to understand how the party’s elections work. And it turns out that the congresses only elect members of the Central Committee. The Central Committee, in turn, elects members of the Politburo, the general secretary, and members of the Disciplinary Committee during the Congress .

The Congress will elect around 200 members of the Central Committee per the previous term’s Central Committee’s proposal, including some 20 alternate members who have the right to participate in the Committee’s conferences, but have no voting rights. The current Party leadership will introduce this proposal to the Congress, and the delegates will have to approve it before the Congress moves on to elect members of the Committee. The list of candidates consists of people nominated by the previous term’s Central Committee, people nominated by delegates at the Congress, and self-nominated candidates. 

Due to the Party’s principle of democratic centralism (nguyên tắc tập trung dân chủ) and the internal culture of making decisions collectively rather than individually, it’s rare to see delegates seeking candidacy themselves. Most candidates nominated at the Congress must be approved by their own delegations.

After being elected, members of the Central Committee will convene  its first conference, called hội nghị trung ương, to elect around 15 members of the Politburo (Bộ Chính trị) – a party body that is considered the most powerful group of Vietnamese politicians. Again, the electoral process is pretty much the same as is an election in the Central Committee.

The general secretary,  seen as the leader of the Party,  is the most powerful politician of the country, and is also elected by the Central Committee, chosen from among members of the Politburo. The seat has been held by Mr. Nguyễn Phú Trọng since 2011.

After finishing the election, members of the Central Committee return to the Congress to report the results in a plenary session. The new members of the Politburo will go to the stage amidst long applause, a lot of congratulations, and flowers being handed out. The newly-elected general secretary will make an inaugural speech, and later the closing remarks. A new five-year term begins.

By this time, the public knows who the members of “the gang of four” are, the top four Party members who share the four highest offices of the country: general secretary, president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly. The chief justice position, although the most powerful office of an entire branch of government, has never been important enough within Party ranks to be considered as a part of “the gang of four.” That says almost everything about how insignificant the judiciary is in Vietnam.

Does the Congress hold actual power as stated in the Party’s Charter?

Not really.

The agenda of the Congress is largely set by the previous term’s Central Committee. Delegates are elected or appointed under a process entirely controlled by the previous term’s Central Committee. The Committee also decides a set of qualifications for members of the next term’s Central Committee, Politburo, and even the general secretary position. Only those who meet the qualifications can be nominated to the Congress, and with a very high likelihood of being elected. The majority of candidates are nominated by the Committee.

For example, the 10th Party Congress in 2006 needed to elect 160 members for the Central Committee. There were 207 candidates approved by the Congress for the election, which included the majority of 174 candidates nominated solely by the previous term’s Central Committee. The other 31 out of 207 candidates were nominated by the Congress, and only 2 self-nominated candidates.

Often, the Central Committee holds conferences up until days just before the Congress to determine the proposal for the Congress agenda, including the lists of candidates for Party leadership. Take the 15th conference of the Central Committee as an example. This was the last conference of the current Committee, which took place on Jan 16-17, 2021, one week before the Congress and began to approve “special nominees” and other personnel issues. One of the “special nominees” is believed to be General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 67, because he does not meet the age requirement (that a candidate be no older than 65) to be elected as a member of the Politburo. Furthermore, he is not eligible to seek a third consecutive term under the Party Charter, unless the Congress amends the Charter.

Drafted resolutions and any amendments to the Party’s platform are also prepared by the Central Committee.

The Central Committee’s agenda, in turn, is largely determined by the Politburo. Therefore, the Central Committee and the Politburo, not the Congress, hold most of the Party’s actual power. The Congress has been seen mainly as a rubber stamp institution within the Party, formally approving almost everything the Central Committee proposes.

What happens after the Congress?

Shortly after the Congress ends, the Politburo will begin to hold meetings to assign roles to its members. At that time, it will announce members in charge of the party’s other committees (except the Disciplinary Committee), the Party committees of the capital – Hanoi City, the Party committee of the leading economic city, Ho Chi Minh City, and so on.

Almost four months after the Congress concludes, on May 23, the nation’s general election will take place, electing members of the National Assembly – the legislative body of the central government. When the National Assembly convenes for its first session in June or July, we will see most members of the Central Committee holding representative seats, and the National Assembly will elect the Communist Party’s leaders for the offices of president, vice president, prime minister, deputy prime ministers, ministers, chair of the National Assembly, chief justice, chief prosecutor, and so forth.

By then, the entire electoral process, started more than a year earlier at the grassroots level of the Communist Party, will be completed.

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Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh Elected To The VCP’s Politburo. What Does This Mean?

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Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh during a National Assembly's session. Photo credit: VietNamNet.
Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh during a National Assembly's session. Photo credit: VietNamNet.

First, it means that the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, Nguyen Hoa Binh, has been officially promoted. He was elected to the Politburo for the first time on January 31, 2021, at the first meeting of the VCP 13th Central Committee.

Nguyen Hoa Binh is the second chief justice in the history of Vietnam’s Supreme People’s Court to be elected to the Politburo. The Politburo is the agency that chooses the most powerful politicians in the Party. 

The other chief justice on the Politburo was also named Hoa Binh, but had the surname Truong; he was elected to the Politburo in January 2016 at the 12th Party Congress. However, Truong Hoa Binh was moved into an executive position as the deputy prime minister almost immediately thereafter, when Vietnam’s National Assembly met in a special session during April of that same year. During that time, it was Nguyen Hoa Binh who replaced Truong Hoa Binh as the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court and he held this position since.

If Nguyen Hoa Binh can continue to be the chief justice for the next five years, it will be the very first time that the Supreme People’s Court has had someone with real power in the Politburo.

A chief justice in the past was not a very meaningful position in the Party. Up to now, there have been only a few chief justices that were included as members of the Central Committee.

In addition to the two “Hoa Binhs” mentioned above, there were only two others, Pham Hung and Nguyen Van Hien. The other three chief justices – Pham Van Bach, Tran Cong Tuong, and Trinh Hong Duong – were not even selected as members of the Central Committee. The absence of the chief justices in the Central Committee glaringly emboldened the Party in how it dealt with  the judicial branch in Vietnam’s political system. That is, the Party did not see the judiciary as a body with significant power.

One would think that judges and justices should not be members of the only political party in the country so that they can be neutral and independent. One would hope that the judicial branch would remain neutral so that we can have fair trials in the country. However, in reality, this is not the case in Vietnam.

Vietnam does not have an independent judicial branch and the above standard cannot be applied in this country. One’s position within the Party determines the actual political power of a party member, and not any state position one may also hold. The Politburo is the agency that Vo Van Kiet – at one time – had considered to be “superior” to the Central Committee, and gaining a position on the Politburo was the ultimate political goal for the most ambitious and successful Party members in Vietnam.

Phiên tòa giám đốc thẩm vụ án Hồ Duy Hải ngày 6/5/2020. Ảnh: TTXVN.
Chief Justice Binh (standing) in the cassation hearing of the Ho Duy Hai case on May 6, 2020. Photo courtesy: VNA.

Being in the Politburo is a reward that the Communist Party gave Nguyen Hoa Binh. We do not know enough to say what he did to receive such an honor. But what he has done in the past five years may possibly offer us some clues.

His appointment is most likely a reward for his role in directing the courts to hear a series of prominent cases related to the “anti-graft” campaign that General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong started. For the first time in Vietnam’s contemporary history, many high-ranking party members were tried and convicted with extremely heavy sentences: Dinh La Thang, Nguyen Bac Son, Truong Minh Tuan, Trinh Xuan Thanh, and others.

Other prominent cases may also include the cassation trial of the death row inmate Ho Duy Hai and the Dong Tam trial in 2020.

Also, there were many political cases in the past five years which the Party deemed to be closely related to the security of the regime. These include cases related to the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (2020), the Brotherhood of Democracy (2016), Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (blogger Mother Mushroom, 2017), etc. From 2016 to date, the number of dissidents who have been tried has increased much higher than in the past, to the point that the opposition has almost been wiped out in Vietnam.

If the VCP rewarded Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh for the way he handled the cases mentioned above, then we can see that it only encouraged the judicial branch to be more of a supportive team player within the authoritarian regime the Party has created, and that trials cannot be considered independent or the place to resolve injustices in society.

This means that people, such as wrongful death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai, a peasant who was tried and convicted for fighting for his land as was Le Dinh Chuc of Dong Tam Village, or those political dissidents like Pham Chi Dung and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who have almost no chance to plead for justice.

Nguyen Hoa Binh was directly involved in the cassation trial of Ho Duy Hai in May 2020, and he was the person who continuously insisted that Ho Duy Hai was guilty, despite all the evidence that Hai’s attorney presented in court. Nguyen Hoa Binh was the center of widespread public criticism during the cassation trial, but he was still promoted by the VCP. 

The rise of Chief Justice Binh only proves that the Party is willing to disregard public opinion in order to keep its political power. Now, with his promotion, activists who are involved with the democracy movement in Vietnam may suffer more consequences. With this new position that makes him more powerful than before, Binh may begin to punish those who once made him lose face by criticizing him in public.

It is true that the fact that Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh was elevated to the Politburo may slightly enhance the status of the judicial branch in Vietnam’s political system. However, that doesn’t mean that the courts in Vietnam will be fairer and more independent. If Nguyen Hoa Binh’s promotion means anything, it is that the courts will act more like the powerful tools of the VCP so that the Party can continue to strengthen its one-party political power in the country.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 2, 2021. The translation was done by Jade NG.

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Vietnam’s 13th Party Congress: Women Have No Place In Politics

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The 13th Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee. Photo courtesy: Zing.vn.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 3, 2021. The translation was done by Ha Thanh.

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Only 9.5 percent of the members of the Central Committee of theVietnamese Communist Party (VCP) are women, or just 19 out of 200 members. Of these, 18 women are official members and one is an alternate member.

What do these numbers tell us?

Let’s take a look at some other numbers first. 

In the Politburo (the Party’s most powerful body), only one member out of 18 is a woman, Truong Thi Mai. Mai is currently the head of the Central Mass Mobilization Department of the Central Committee, a not-so-important organ of the Party. Also, it is expected that Mai probably will not hold any important position in the next five years.

Among the new five members of the Secretariat – the body assisting the Politburo – one is a woman. Her name is Bui Thi Minh Hoai. Yes, while it is true that the Politburo could send more members to this body in the future, even if it does, it can only add one more woman, which would be its only female member, Truong Thi Mai.

Compared to the 12th Party Congress, the number of female members in the Party’s Central Committee has fallen by one person, and the number of female Politburo members has decreased by two.

None of the female Central Committee members of the 13th session may possibly hold key positions in the Party or the State. In the previous session, five years ago, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan became the chairwoman of Vietnam’s 12th National Assembly. Now, the “gang of four” or the “four pillars,” will just be made up of males.

However, if we look at the (arguably) equivalent of the VCP’s Central Committee, which is the National Assembly, we see a different picture.

The percentage of women in the National Assembly over the past 10 years has often been around 25 percent. Now, it is close to 27 percent, which is a lot higher if we compare it to the number of females in the Central Committee. Furthermore, this gender ratio is expected to remain unchanged in the National Assembly election in May 2021.

In 2018, Vietnam was among the top three countries in Southeast Asia with the highest proportion of women in its Congress, along with Laos (28 percent) and the Philippines (28 percent).

In the world, the percentage of female delegates in Vietnam’s Congress is even higher than the United States (23 percent), the Czech Republic (23 percent), South Korea (19 percent), Hungary (12 percent), Japan (10 percent), and even exceeds the global average of 25 percent.

Isn’t that great news? Unfortunately, the answer is No. 

It is because the National Assembly is of little significance in Vietnam. Every Vietnamese citizen acknowledges the fact that our Congress has no real authority. It is nothing more than the place that rubber stamps the Politburo’s and the Party Central Committee’s decisions.

In Vietnamese, people usually call the National Assembly the agency of “puppets” where its delegates just nod and approve Party decisions.

Real political power only rests in the VCP and its committees.

The Politburo is a gathering of about 20 of the most powerful Party members. However, the Central Committee is also becoming increasingly powerful, and we could say it has become the main power center within the Party. Obtaining a position within the Central Committee is one of the key goals of any serious and ambitious Vietnamese Communist politician. Failure to enter the “Central” (the word commonly used to refer to the Central Committee) is often regarded as the end of a Party member’s political life because he or she would be one of the voices that carries no authority.

The fact that women only make up less than 10 percent of the Central Committee, therefore, can be considered as a reflection of their actual position in Vietnam’s politics.

Of course, the proportion of female politicians in the localities may be higher. However, for an authoritarian regime with only one political party like Vietnam, where the central government dominates almost every aspect of society, being a part of the Central Committee gives its members actual political authority.

Why is the proportion of women in politics in Vietnam so low?

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National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan presents flowers to the Standing Committee of the Central Presidium of the Vietnam Women’s Union. Photo courtesy: Ministry of Home Affairs.

Gender stereotypes are considered to be a major barrier to climbing the political ladder in Vietnam. Research by Oxfam shows that all genders in Vietnam prefer male leaders. To them, men are viewed as more suited for leadership roles, and also have the masculine qualities that are also believed  to be the necessary qualities of a good leader.

In spite of all the good rhetoric about fairness and gender equality promoted by the VCP propaganda machine, and despite its putting on a seemingly pretty face on the proportion of women in politics, Vietnam, in fact, is still almost exclusively dominated by men.

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Is The VCP “More Democratic” Than The CCP?

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Photo courtesy: AFP/ Luật Khoa Magazine

This article was written in Vietnamese by Bui Cong Truc and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on January 20, 2021. The translation was done by Luu Ly.

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How is the VCP “more democratic” than the CCP?

Most of the active communist parties today are more or less based on the Soviet Communist Party model.

The system originated with the majority power of the Party National Congress. This congress elects a minority group called the Communist Party Central Executive Committee (the Central Committee, for short).

Theoretically, the Central Committee is the governing body that decides most of the important issues in terms of policies and personnel in the Communist Party organization. However, the organs elected by this body have certain privileges, and can completely surpass the power of the Central Committee itself, depending on the time period.

These agencies include the Political Bureau (aka the Politburo), the Secretariats, or a typical body of the Soviet Union Communist Party, the Organizational Bureau.

So are the power structures of both Communist parties similar? How has the individual history of each party, the Chinese Communist Party of China (CCP) and the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), affected each country’s economic and social development? This article will  provide readers with more information about the fundamental differences between these two Communist brothers.

Two leaders of the two Communist parties, Xi Jinping and Nguyen Phu Trong. Photo taken during Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to China in 2017. Photo: Xinhua News Agency.

Conflicts between the Central Committee and the Politburo

Many people accept, as common sense, that the Politburo is the central power for both the VCP and the CCP. However, the party rules of these two brothers have many differences.

The first notable point is that the Central Committee of the CCP has only been  required to meet once a year since Deng Xiaoping reformed and re-institutionalized the political apparatus. Many Chinese observers assert that this was an intentional effort to limit the frequency of the CCP Central Committee’s meetings so that the authority of the body would be reduced as much as possible.

The pressure to democratize within this Party is not insignificant and not recent, but for many reasons, these proposals have been unsuccessful. Arguably, the CCP’s Central Committee only plays a behind-the-scenes role, compared to the main playerr, the Politburo.

Regulations in Vietnam are different. According to Article 16 of the VCP Charter, the Central Committee of the Party must meet at least twice a year.

The fact that the Central Committee of the VCP meets more than once a year does not seem to say much about the different power structures of the two parties. However, in reality, the most important issues require a decision of this body. If we compare the total number of meetings and resolutions of the Party’s central organs in the two countries, especially since Deng Xiaoping’s faction took power, the VCP’s Central Committee has twice as many meetings as its Chinese counterpart.

For example, only in 2016 did the VCP Central Committee convene the conference four times, with important contents including redefining the working regulations of the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Secretariats; the working regulations of the Central Inspection Committee; regulations on the implementation of the Party Charter; and the regulations on the inspection, supervision and discipline of the Party. These were all important meetings to help Nguyen Phu Trong’s political coalition gain the upper hand. Once he was the leader of the control group within the VCP, his famous “anti-corruption” campaign followed and it has been the most controversial issue in Vietnam in  recent years.

Another feature that is also noticed by many international commentators when comparing the two parties is the number of times that resolutions of a party’s central body are referred to in official legal documents.

According to statistics cited by three experts, Regina Abrami (Harvard), Edmund Malesky (Chicago), and Yu Zheng (Connecticut), the percentage of legal normative documents promulgated by competent state agencies that cited Central Committee resolutions by the VCP Central Committee was quite high, averaging 23 percent. Meanwhile, this rate in China was only 5.5 percent.

This statistic shows the direct influence of the VCP’s Central Committee on the policy making process. The difference of more than 17 percentage points is also an indication that the VCP’s Central Committee plays a greater role than its Chinese counterpart, at least on a legislative basis.

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This table compares the powers of the CCP and VCP Central Committees through two criteria: the number of meetings and the proportion of legal documents that quote the agency’s resolutions (Abrami, Malesky, & Zheng, 2008).

The differences in the real power of the Central Committee of the CCP and the VCP are not limited to the numbers. In some specific political events, the power of the VCP’s Central Committee is also more clearly shown.

For example, in 1997, when General Secretary Do Muoi decided to retire before the end of his term, his replacement Le Kha Phieu, was selected after an unusual meeting of the entire Central Committee.

This approach is in stark contrast to the cases of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang in China. Finding replacements for these two to take the seat of general secretary was a private matter decided in Politburo secret meetings. In these meetings, there were also many retired “revolutionary elders” who did not have a role in deciding the next generation of leaders, according to the Party Charter.

Not only that, in 2001, the Central Committee of the VCP even vetoed the Politburo’s request to allow Le Kha Phieu to continue holding the position of general secretary. Instead, the Central Committee elected Nong Duc Manh, who was the president of Vietnamese National Assembly at that time, to fill the most powerful seat.

In 2006, former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet also wrote an open letter to the Politburo requesting it to respect collective intelligence and the democratic decision of the Party’s Central Committee, and not make the Politburo the “superior” body.

On the Chinese side, there has never been any case where the Central Committee directly and flatly opposed a proposal by the Politburo.

So far, many people have questioned whether the VCP’s Central Committee still has real power over the Politburo, as well as if it has followed in the footsteps of it’s elder brother in the north.

There is still reason to believe that the traditional competition between the 176 members representing various factions and schools within the Central Committee of the Communist Party still exists.

The historical path of the two political parties

So what is the reason for the difference between the VCP and the CCP? Many scholars often point to the history of the two political parties.

For China, although Mao Zedong was seen as the CCP’s supreme leader for a long time, the power rivalry between factions within the party remained fierce, until Deng Xiaoping restored order according to his wishes.

First, the policies of political and economic reform after the dire consequences left behind by Mao were enacted from the top down, and specifically from the Politburo. In a time when the Party’s political bodies were mostly ragged and lost across China, the top-down orientation seemed to make things easier to manage. This increased the legitimacy of a few powerful individuals in the Politburo.

Not only that, but the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 created more controversy between the groups of “hard players” and “soft players” towards the protesters. The controversy further fueled the desire of Deng Xiaoping and the elites to concentrate more power, and to limit the mass discussions, of the Central Committee – which they saw as an impediment to the process of fast decision making and effective policy enforcement.

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Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in 1959. Photo: Kyodo News/ Associated Press.

With Deng Xiaoping officially succeeding in selecting the general secretary without the consent of the Party’s Central Committee (a serious violation of the Party’s Charter), the few minorities in China gradually took control of political power.

Since 1989, the three positions of the troika in the power structure of the socialist state of China have been the general secretary of the Communist Party, president of the State, and chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, all traditionally held by one person, which have been Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now Xi Jinping respectively.

Prior to the 7th Party Congress in 1991, it can be said that the troika model in Vietnam was not much different from the Soviet Union. The general secretary had a central position in the Party with an important influence on its political policy and direction, while the chairperson of the Council of Ministers was the head of the executive branch with the obligation to enforce and guarantee the Party’s orientation. And finally, there was the president of the State, but that position often just has a symbolic meaning.

However, the three titles of general secretary, prime minister, and president are the real “three-pillars” of power in the contemporary Vietnamese political apparatus.

What happened?

Some researchers point out that after the period of bad experiments with macroeconomic and microeconomic policies, chaos emerged in Vietnam’s society. Some senior leaders within the Party, such as Nguyen Van Linh and Vo Van Kiet, wished to promote more key reforms to revitalize Vietnam. One of the first things they did was to diversify and turn the Central Committee into a more authoritative institution, which they hoped in the future would be the point of consensus for the new reforms they proposed.

Their first success was the  increase in the number of members of this body. Starting in 1986, during the 6th National Congress, leaders in the Party’s provincial committees began to be elected to the Central Committee, thereby displaying a large force supporting economic and political reforms.

By the 7th Congress, Vo Van Kiet successfully persuaded the Party to allow local representatives to get nominated and elected as official members of the Central Committee. With that change, the voting power of local leaders was strengthened, making them  a majority group within the Party. 

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Vo Van Kiet, who was the advocate of empowering the Party’s Central Committee. Photo courtesy: VNA.

Obviously, the reformists’ wishes could only be fulfilled quite smoothly after the remaining four symbols of the Communist Party’s anti-colonial era, including Le Duan, Le Duc Tho, Pham Hung, and Truong Chinh, had passed away. After their deaths, the Party was left with a power vacuum, which created opportunities for the resurgence of the reform faction.

According to many studies, before the 7th Congress of the VCP, two factions arose and became rival forces in the Party.

The first group was made up of  former central leaders, or the Marx theorists, who had found a common voice under the leadership of general secretary Do Muoi.

The second group, as previously mentioned, was the technocratic leaders, who tended to modernize and came from the grassroots level, such as Vo Van Kiet and his ally in the south, Phan Van Khai.

By 1990, another group wanted to participate in defining the power model, and it was led by Le Duc Anh. Le Duc Anh was the commander-in-chief of the Vietnamese armed forces on the Cambodian battlefield, and he had just returned home. He wanted to strengthen the military’s role in governance, and he favored economic reform, but he also wanted to control its pace.

During the 7th Congress, after these three groups compromised with one another, the VCP’s new tradition of power was formed. All three factions would have power and this was codified in the 1992 Constitution – which could be the most important outcome of the compromise. Do Muoi continued to hold the post of general secretary, Vo Van Kiet became prime minister and General Le Duc Anh succeeded to  the presidency.

* * *

In 1996, Le Kha Phieu was expecting to hold both the presidency and the position of general secretary, with a goal of unifying state power in a way that would be similar to China’s model. Nevertheless, this effort was unsuccessful. In 2018, when Nguyen Phu Trong concurrently held both of the aforementioned titles after President Tran Dai Quang died, people began to worry that a Chinese power structure model was being formed in Vietnam. That concern is not without foundation.

Besides, there is not enough information to significantly compare whether the Vietnamese “three-pillars” model or the Chinese “monopoly” model is better. Some scholars argued that decision-making through a majority of a large body – such as the Party’s Central Committee – would reduce extremization and give highly compromising decisions. However, some other experts would argue that these compromising decisions only showed the lack of a definite direction from the Party’s central authority. It could deem that the Party only served a few politicians’ self-interests, considering the one-party and authoritarian political environment in Vietnam.

When we examine whether the VCP or CCP can be deemed more “democratic,” it must be pointed out that neither system includes “the people” in their decision-making process. The members in both of these parties are still more concerned with their own power within their respective parties. 

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