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The Intertwining Of Science, Politics, And Ideology In Vietnam’s COVID-19 Crisis

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People line up to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in HCM City, June 24, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, a moment for science

The escalation of COVID-19 in Vietnam, especially in Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City), is sending millions of people into crisis. They have struggled on multiple fronts, from healthcare and making sense of varying isolation requirements to obtaining food and necessities amidst strict yet incoherent travel bans and supply shortages. 

The double target of trying to contain COVID-19 while simultaneously continuing economic activities that the government persistently defended and adhered to since the start of the pandemic has been abandoned. This is indicative of how serious the situation has become. Over the past few weeks, Saigonese have experienced life in a way they could never have imagined.

In this grim picture, Tuoi Tre Online reported on July 10, 2021, that Ho Chi Minh City’s Party Committee Secretary Nguyen Van Nen is now looking to scientists for advice.[1] The secretary’s words were quoted widely in the news: 

I feel that we need to consult the scientists…. At any time, I want specialists and scientists to see flaws in our strategy to fight the pandemic and contact me; I will consider their advice and respond timely. 

A Facebook influencer reacted to this news with a sense of irony and bitterness:[2]

So what expertise have you relied on to fight the pandemic? Anything but science? Have you been kidding your citizens all along? For one and a half years now, have you been playing with the life and death of millions of people? So, after all, is it true that the tools you have taken to fight a pandemic are simply government decrees and [the manpower of] the Communist Youth League? I feel so ashamed of being led by national leaders who are both blind and arrogant.  

It is rather apparent that in a pandemic, one had better look to the scientists. So, why is a government official only bringing them to the table now? The next question is, how critical can scientists be, with a government that does not like criticism? At the highest level, one must wonder where science and scientists are in the decision-making concerning public matters in non-democratic Vietnam? A look into the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) ideology that it has followed and its practices could explain this conundrum.

In ideology: the suppression of civil society and communicative rationality

In the United Kingdom, at the start of the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was activated. Since then, it has been working closely with the government as an external body to advise on making appropriate decisions regarding COVID-19 in the country. The importance and weight of scientific advice cannot be underestimated; UK scientists successfully convinced Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet to abandon their herd immunity strategy and adopt a nationwide lockdown in March 2020. 

Without this lockdown, the United Kingdom could have seen 80 percent of its people infected and 500,000 deaths.[3] On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the physician-scientist and immunologist Anthony Fauci, in his role as the chief medical advisor to the US president, has been a pillar in handling COVID-19 in the United States.

Liberal democracy entails the practice of taking advice from scientists and not restraining those who deliver honest yet uncomfortable truths to people in positions of power. The two hallmarks of liberal democracy that shape this practice are civil society and communicative rationality.[4] 

Civil society in a liberal democracy comprises actors and institutions that are supposed to be independent of the state and who act to balance state power. Therefore, universities and the myriad of civil associations in democratic countries are autonomous and can freely critique the conduct of the government or oppose laws and policies they view as problematic without fear of punishment. 

On the other hand, communicative rationality, an ideal of liberal democracy, means that people arrive at a collective agreement about something via genuine, intelligible conversations. Thus parliamentary debate and rebuttal in classroom discussions are part and parcel of a healthy democratic life and politics.  

Nowhere in the ideological textbook of the VCP can one find any sign of friendliness towards the idea of an autonomous, independent civil society, nor communicative rationality in the way the state relates to other estates in society. The Vietnamese government condemns independent civil society as a strategy of ‘hostile forces’ to undermine political stability.[5] Following the Marxist-Leninist ideology, the Communist leaders control civil society and use civil society organizations, such as the press, schools, and mass associations, to garner consent from the people for its rule.[6] Likewise, the Party believes in ‘self-criticism,’ rather than opposition or open, genuine debate in the National Assembly or in other venues where the state and citizens can talk to each other.[7]

In practice: the strategic mobilization of scientists while confining them within governable spaces

Since 1975, the Vietnamese State could be described as developmental. In the pursuit of economic growth and technological and social development, the state needs the expertise of scientists and intellectuals. This is evidenced by the existence of a wide range of research and scientific centers and institutions funded by the State that operate within the scope prescribed for them by the government. However, the system ensures that scientists and intellectuals employed in these research centres do not threaten the state.[8]

Despite these state-employed scientists and intellectuals, the Vietnamese government rarely describes its style of governance as “evidence/science-based.” This suggests that the VCP still aspires to be a good disciple of Marxism-Leninism when it comes to organizing the political system and governance. “The Party knows best” is apparently its motto. In other words, the Party sees itself as the supreme source of authority and expertise. This also makes Vietnam’s developmentalism different from, for example, Japan’s.  Japan’s developmentalism is based on rationality, whereas Vietnam’s is based on ideology.[9]

Speaking of rationality, communicative rationality still has no place in Vietnam’s politics nor in the civil sphere. The National Assembly has shown little sign of becoming a place for open, genuine debate about public matters. Critical thinking is still lacking in the way students are educated. The free press is still a wild dream for Vietnam. 

I interviewed the head of Luat Khoa Tap Chi not long ago. He described the prominent culture in Vietnam as a “culture of obedience and singular thinking” rather than critical thinking and genuine, intelligible debate. Last but not least, we shall not forget that in 2007, when the Institute of Development Studies was established by renowned intellectuals and scientists of the country to speak truth to power, it went into so much trouble with the government and was eventually disbanded.[10] 

Prospects of the VCP democratizing itself?

Not so much. In Saigon, what the Party Committee Secretary Nguyen Van Nen said about consulting scientists is most likely just a moment of him forgetting the Party’s line he should be toeing. Indeed, just a week after his statement, a Facebook influencer reposted on his Facebook page a VNExpress interview with Vu Thanh Tu Anh of Fulbright University Vietnam, which reportedly was removed from VNExpress’s website immediately after it was posted.[11] In this interview, Tu Anh discusses some failures in the government’s strategy to contain COVID-19.[12]

In conclusion, for scientists to speak truth to power, or at least to save Vietnam from this deadly pandemic, they require a change in both ideology and politics, which the VCP seems to be neither willing nor ready to take.  

Bibliography:

  1. Bí thư Thành ủy TP.HCM gặp gỡ các chuyên gia, nhà khoa học cùng bàn cách chống dịch COVID-19, 10 July 2021. Tuổi Trẻ Online. Available at: https://tuoitre.vn/bi-thu-thanh-uy-tp-hcm-gap-go-cac-chuyen-gia-nha-khoa-hoc-cung-ban-cach-chong-dich-covid-19-20210710120636333.htm
  2. Thai Hao’s Facebook page, 10 July 2021. The full post is available at: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1029231357886052&id=100023975920044
  3. Grey, Stephen & MacAskill, Andrew, 7 April 2020. Special Report: Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-britain-path-speci-idUSKBN21P1VF
  4. The background of my understanding of liberal democracy in this paragraph comes from Alexis de Tocqueville (on civil society) and Jurgen Habermas (on communicative rationality).
  5. See, for example, an article in Cong an Nhan dan, available at: http://cand.com.vn/Chong-dien-bien-hoa-binh/Canh-giac-thu-doan-loi-dung-xa-hoi-dan-su-de-chong-pha-che-do-581991/; another one in Nhan dan, available at: https://nhandan.vn/tin-tuc-su-kien/xa-hoi-dan-su-mot-thu-doan-cua-dien-bien-hoa-binh-392081/
  6. The reality of ‘state-led civil society’ in Vietnam, most prominent before the late 1980s, is discussed widely in the academic literature. For example, I suggest Landau, I. (2008). Law and civil society in Cambodia and Vietnam: A Gramscian perspective. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38(2), 244–258; and Salemink, O. (2006). Translating, interpreting, and practicing civil society in Vietnam: A tale of calculated misunderstanding. In D. Lewis & D. Mosse (Eds.), Development Brokers and Translators: The Ethnography of Aid and Agencies (pp. 101–126). Kumarian Press.
  7. See, for example, a discussion session organized by a mass organization, in Tortosa, A. (2012). Grassroots democracy in rural Vietnam: A Gramscian analysis. Socialism and Democracy, 26(1), 103–126. https://doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2011.645661
  8. See Morris-Jung, J. (2017). Reflections on governable spaces of activism and expertise in Vietnam. Critical Asian Studies, 49(3), 441–443. https://doi.org/10.1080/14672715.2017.1339448
  9.  For more on developmentalism and plan-rationality versus plan-ideology, see Johnson, C. (1993). The Japanese miracle. In MITI and the Japanese miracle: The growth of industrial policy, 1925-1975 (pp. 1–34). Stanford University Press; and Woo-Cumings, M. (Ed.). (1999). Introduction: Chalmers Johnson and the politics of nationalism and development. In The developmental state (pp. 1–31). Cornell University Press.
  10. Morris-Jung, J. (2015). The Vietnamese bauxite controversy: Towards a more oppositional politics. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 10(1), 63–109.
  11. Thanh Nguyen’s Facebook post, 17 July 2021. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/paulothanhnguyen/posts/4395856270458582
  12. On 20 July 2021, another scientist, Vu Hong Nguyen, also shared on his Facebook page that his contribution to a TV program in Vietnam about COVID-19 vaccines was abruptly removed. He explains that his skeptical view of the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm, which he planned to talk about in the TV program, was not welcome. He titles this post on his Facebook page as ‘Do not let politics interfere with science’. Nguyen’s Facebook post is available at: https://www.facebook.com/vu.nguyen.758/posts/4726456800701987  

Opinion-Section

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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Opinion-Section

Pham Doan Trang Is A Journalist, Her Profession Is Not A Crime

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphic: Trinh Huu Long/The Vietnamese Magazine.

As I am writing this beginning line, my mind is flooded with memories of Pham Doan Trang. I also realize that it has been almost seven years since I said goodbye to her before she left the United States to return to Vietnam. We had become friends and spent seven months together in the United States, and I have not seen her since December 2014. I also have not been able to contact her or speak with her on the phone since October 6, 2020. Vietnamese police arrested her near midnight that day in Saigon. My last text message to her was “Trang, answer me,” which I sent the night she was detained.

Doan Trang can be classified as many things, depending on the person you speak with. She is a journalist, an activist, a teacher, a political person who opposes the Vietnamese Communist Party, a prominent figure of the democracy movement in Vietnam, and more. Yet, for me, Doan Trang is a friend, a very close friend, and that’s it. My only hope is to help set my friend free because she has not done anything wrong. She deserves to be free so that she can continue to write.

And yet, sadly, her writing is precisely the reason that has put her in prison in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, writing or producing verbal speech (YouTube, TikTok, etc.) can be a severe crime when you refuse to obey the government’s censorship system or self-censor on your own. If you look at the details of any political case in Vietnam, I guarantee that you will only find the alleged wrongdoings to be the uncensored writings and speeches produced by these defendants. It does not matter how the Vietnam government classifies their crimes as “abusing democratic rights” or “propagandizing against the state,” their crimes are always their writing and speech.

For Doan Trang, I can also think of another aspect in which she has irritated the Vietnamese authorities even more. She was not just a journalist; she was also trying to encourage more people to write and be more aware of politics in Vietnam. I was one of the people she inspired to take writing as a profession and focus more on Vietnam’s human rights and political affairs. 

In my writing career, I have two people to be grateful for: my two co-founders of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV), Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang. If I had not met them in life, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to write in either Vietnamese or English, especially as a journalist.

I left Vietnam and came to the United States when I was 12-years-old. I was not too young to think of myself as a native speaker in English, but I was not too old to be confident in my ability to write in Vietnamese either. However, after meeting Trinh Huu Long and Pham Doan Trang in 2014, they changed my life as I believed in their cause and decided to co-found LIV. Starting from that point, I began to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Vietnam through journalism. Trinh Huu Long may be the first teacher in journalism for me, but Doan Trang is the inspiration for my decision to change my career from law to journalism.

Many people have asked me why I decided to quit my legal profession and started working for a non-profit organization that focuses on Vietnam. Maybe this career change was not advantageous for them and could be stepping down in life. But Doan Trang’s last words before she left the United States stuck with me throughout these years: “Every country needs a generation of young people who will sacrifice their lives to build a better society for others. If our generation refuses to take up this job for Vietnam, then who else will? Do we wait for the next generation to sacrifice for our country and choose an easier life now?” 

Doan Trang chose to take up this task to promote human rights in Vietnam, and she left America to go back to Vietnam, knowing that she would be imprisoned in the future. Then, for me, the decision of giving up my life as a litigation lawyer to write about human rights and political issues in Vietnam seemed to be a much easier job when I compared myself with Doan Trang. 

She’s inspired me, and we both have the same goal: to put Vietnam on the map for international audiences and encourage more Vietnamese people to care about human rights and democracy. To write about these issues should not be a crime in any nation because we only want to educate the public. What did we do so wrong that my friend Pham Doan Trang has spent one year incommunicado in Vietnam?

The Vietnamese government cannot explain away Pham Doan Trang’s case or any political cases that have sent hundreds of dissidents to decades in jail. However, I hope the international community and foreign governments can speak up louder and be more explicit against this injustice. 

Journalism is not a crime; writing about politics and human rights is not a crime. Vietnam continues to suppress the free press and the freedom of speech much harder now, which is not an action the international community should condone. Please speak up for those imprisoned by the Vietnam government, such as Pham Doan Trang, because we are on the right side of history.

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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

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