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Why Did The Vietnamese Communist Party Suppress Anti-China Nationalism?



Photo credit: Vietnamnet (background photo), Reuters/Hoang Dinh Nam (photo in circle). Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine.

Since the beginning of its history, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has been portraying itself as a group of nationalists who liberated the country from foreign intervention. History textbooks, propaganda, and official VCP narratives were all dedicated to showing that the VCP is the true heir of Vietnam and that the path to socialism is the destined path of the country.

However, this nationalistic sentiment contrasts with the Party’s cherished Marxist-Leninist Communist ideology, which states that nationalism is a bourgeoise illusion[1] that distracts people from their struggle with the bourgeoisie and that only international class struggle matters.[2] Such an ideological paradox is even more puzzling as we examine the regime’s responses to the rise of contemporary anti-China nationalism in Vietnam. 

Anti-China nationalist sentiments have been rampant in Vietnam since the late 2000s, as expressed through various protests, demonstrations, and online debates. These sentiments are popular among the anti-communist Vietnamese diaspora and among the people residing in the country who were enraged by China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Since 1947, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has established an eleven-dash line map (now the nine-dash line map), claiming various islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly islands – or in Vietnamese, the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa islands.[3]

For years, the CCP has not relinquished claims to what Vietnamese nationalists insist are Vietnam’s rightful territories. Ten years ago, in 2011, anti-China nationalism manifested itself in the form of demonstrations, when hundreds of Vietnamese people protested in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi, demanding China stay out of the Paracel and Spratly islands.[4] However, these demonstrations were met with repression from the Vietnamese regime.[5] 

On the one hand, the VCP faces widespread nationalist criticism from its citizens for depending on China. Such criticism presented a considerable threat for the regime’s long-established narrative as nationalists fighting foreign influence and as the only legitimate ruler of the country. 

On the other hand, the VCP faces the CCP, whom they have relied on for ideological and policy guidance and economic and military aid during wartime. Distancing itself from the CCP would also betray Marxism-Leninism’s internationalist agenda.  

In a research essay, political scientist Tuong Vu, professor at the University of Oregon, examines contemporary anti-China nationalism in Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese regime’s responses. In a research essay titled “The Party v. the People: Anti-China Nationalism in Contemporary Vietnam,” Professor Vu argues that the suppression of anti-China nationalism is in line with the VCP’s international communist ideology, despite the Party’s nationalist image.[6] This article focuses on explaining the VCP’s repressive actions by analyzing their understanding of communism and nationalism. 

Tuong Vu is a professor and head of the Political Science department at the University of Oregon. His research focuses on state formation, nationalism, ideology, and revolutions in East Asia.  

The Construction of Communist Nationalism

In order to understand why the VCP suppressed anti-China nationalism, we must first grasp the VCP’s understanding of nationalism itself. The VCP sees nationalism as communism, with an emphasis on communist internationalism that promotes solidarity among socialist states. This suggests that opposition to other socialist states – in this case, China – is not seen as nationalism.

Since its foundation during the French colonial period, the VCP has always pursued two goals simultaneously: achieving national independence, which concerned the French and other foreign intervention, and carrying out a socialist revolution in the country. 

To achieve the former goal,  the VCP has always portrayed itself as a nationalist faction. Even foreign scholars seem to push the popular narrative that VCP leaders like Ho Chi Minh were nationalists first and communists second and that communism was a mere tool for them to achieve national liberation.[7] 

However, Tuong Vu disagrees with this narrative. He thinks that the VCP has always been devoted to communism, even when it pushes a nationalist propaganda. But how did the VCP reconcile being both nationalist and communist, since being the latter means condemning nationalism?

Tuong Vu offers a simple explanation. Communism has always been portrayed as the best path to achieve liberation as well as decolonization for Vietnam. It was not just regarded as a tool for nationalism, but instead both the means to achieve independence, as well as the end goal for building the nation. Therefore, anyone who does not support communism is deemed unpatriotic. 

In other words, the VCP ties nationalism or patriotism with being loyal to its own causes. This was demonstrated by the former Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who declared that “to be patriotic is to build socialism.”[8]

Communist leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan have also consistently tried to incorporate nationalism into communism by demonstrating that communist internationalism, solidarity with workers and communists worldwide, is a part of Vietnamese nationalism. [9]

As Le Hong Phong and Ha Huy Tap, leaders of the Indochinese Communist Party, the predecessor of the VCP, explained in 1936: “We believe in internationalism, not nationalism, but…we should raise the spirit for national liberation while tying it to the interests of the working masses….” 

So nationalism for the VCP is communism. The VCP’s nationalism is particularly tied to its belief in internationalism, which says that “socialist brothers” around the world should find solidarity together instead of fighting each other like capitalist countries.

Additionally, the VCP also distinguished communist-nationalist movements from the other nationalist movements that it deemed to be bourgeoisie, and as a result it prioritized the former. 

For instance, the VCP endorsed China in the Sino-Indian border war in 1962, even though the Communist Party of India criticized China and supported the Indian government. The VCP saw the Communist Party of India as having “sunken deeply in the bourgeois nationalist mud by colluding with the Indian bourgeoisie to slander a brother communist party,” based on archival materials collected by Tuong Vu.  

This is important because it marks the VCP’s tactic when confronted with a reality that does not fit into their view of communist internationalism. 

The VCP’s actions of justifying reality by creating more theoretical arguments to support its action do not stop there, as its idea of nationalism based on communist internationalism was further challenged by the fact of infighting among communist states the Sino-Soviet split (1956-1966), in which China was at odds with the Soviet Union, and the Sino-Vietnamese border war in 1979, in which China assaulted Vietnam’s border after Vietnam attacked the China-backed Khmer Rouge regime.

Justifying Reality

Accommodating reality, the VCP shifted its own narrative on nationalism by focusing more on domestic communist propaganda. Nevertheless, this new narrative still links Vietnamese nationalism with communism and internationalism. This shows that even when Vietnam was threatened by China, the VCP was still following communist internationalism instead of endorsing a more nationalist approach. 

This is evident in the way the VCP has never acknowledged the Sino-Vietnamese border war as a war between socialist brothers. Just as when it justified endorsing China over India in 1962, the VCP argues that the border war was not about communist infighting. The conflict, argues the VCP, was “a fierce struggle between national independence and socialism on the one hand and aggression, expansionism, and chauvinism on the other, between Marxism-Leninism on the one hand and Maoism on the other.” This denial of reality demonstrates a deeply rooted ideological loyalty to Marxism-Leninism. 

In order to demonstrate how the VCP justified the Sino-Soviet split, Tuong Vu looked into the VCP’s construction of historical narratives through the most basic and widespread document: the First-Grade Reader (Tập Đọc Lớp Một), a textbook used to teach first-grade children to read. He compared the two editions of the textbook, the one published in 1956, which was before the Sino-Soviet split, with the one published in 1972, after the split. 

Data by Tuong Vu. Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine. 

Firstly, there was significantly more content on communist heroes and less content on other socialist countries in the latter edition. This was due to the prolonged war, which produced more “heroes”, and because the VCP seemed to focus more on glorifying internal communist mobilization after the Sino-Soviet split. Additionally, these communist heroes were portrayed as both nationalist and communist – their struggle was seen as both contributing to the country and the international construction of communism worldwide. 

Secondly, the content on non-communist heroes and patriotism not linked to the VCP was consistently low in both editions, and particularly low compared to the amount of content on communist heroes. 

This reaffirms that the VCP constructed nationalism not based on ethnic lines but rather on political ideology, which suggests that the Party is more likely to align with a foreign communist force than to align with Vietnamese nationalists who reject communism.

Protests and Deconstruction of Communist Nationalism 

The VCP’s loyalty to communist internationalism as a part of its nationalism was fiercely challenged by the wave of anti-China nationalism in 21st Century Vietnam due to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

Anti-China opposition in Vietnam is expressed through two main channels: protests and debates on alternative understandings of nationalism. Both of these channels pose significant threats to the VCP’s legitimacy. 

Ten years ago, in 2011, massive anti-China protests broke out on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, especially in the areas where the Chinese embassy and consulate were located, to protest China’s harassment of Vietnamese fishermen in the Spratly and Paracel islands.[10] 

The protests did not happen just once, but rather multiple times throughout the summer of 2011 for almost three consecutive months. While these protests were significant, they were not the first. In 2008, many democracy activists and bloggers were also arrested or detained for protesting China’s claims in the South China Sea.[11]

Alongside the protests, many Vietnamese intellectuals started to question the legitimacy of the VCP as Vietnam’s only ruling party and its construction of communist nationalism. Many retired, high-ranking government officials joined in these debates. 

For example, Tong Van Cong, former editor of the state-controlled newspaper Lao Dong, argued that the true wish of the late Ho Chi Minh was to establish democracy for Vietnam rather than achieving socialism at any cost, thus questioning the Party’s nationalism based on ideology, as well as its refusal to institutionalize democracy.[12] 

The late Le Hieu Dang, former vice-president of the Vietnam Fatherland Front in Ho Chi Minh City, a strong umbrella association of communist organizations, also expressed his dissatisfaction with the VCP’s ideological relationship with China.[13]

While he joined the communist movement during wartime due to his love for his country, Dang argued that the VCP had failed to pay back the debt it owed the Vietnamese people after they fought for and supported the Party. This debt was piled on to the Party’s failed policies based on China’s policy advice, resulting in misery for many Vietnamese people. In contrast, he argued that the VCP owes China nothing. This argument contradicted the Party’s narrative that the country owed China for its generous support for Vietnam in wartime. 

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow on Southeast Asia for the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that the protests did not merely demonstrate anti-China sentiments, but also showed the protesters’ frustration with the government’s repressive actions towards dissents over the years, and the government’s failure to deliver democracy.[14] 

This further explains why the VCP oppressed anti-China protests and saw the protesters as a threat. These protests were seen as opposing a foreign regime and opposing the VCP, the only “legitimate” ruling body in Vietnam. 

Further Problems for the VCP

Currently, the VCP’s policies towards China are once again being challenged, this time by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to vaccines. After resisting China’s vaccine diplomacy for a while, the government has recently approved the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, and it was met with opposition and hesitation from a lot of Vietnamese people.[15] The VCP’s late approval was either because of its distrust of China’s vaccine diplomacy, or because the public opinion in Vietnam has been strongly anti-China. 

In a survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in 2021, individuals from Vietnam are the most disapproving of China’s leadership in the pandemic among 10 ASEAN countries, significantly more disapproving than others.[16] In contrast, Vietnam is the most approving of US leadership in the pandemic among these countries, much more so than the average ASEAN country. 

Vietnam is the most disapproving of China among the 10 nations. Data by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine.
Vietnam is the most approving of the US among the 10 nations. Data by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine. 

When it comes to the South China Sea, Vietnam also shows the most concern with China’s actions – its encroachment and military activities – rather than the US military presence or an escalation of the situation between the US and China. 

Once again, this is a rather ironic situation, as the ideological doctrine of the VCP has been consistently promoting solidarity with other socialist countries while condemning capitalist and imperialist states such as the United States. 

Data by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Graphic by Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese. 

This shows that the VCP’s communist internationalism is not working. Arguably, it is even backfiring because Vietnamese public opinion is shifting towards supporting the United States – a capitalist and imperialist superpower according to Vietnam’s propaganda – instead of supporting China – a socialist brother. 


On the surface, increasing anti-China sentiments among the Vietnamese people seem to be in the VCP’s favor, as it hopes to reclaim the Paracel and Spratly islands. 

However, this anti-China nationalism also presents a great threat to the VCP establishment that is loyal to communist ideology which promotes solidarity among socialist states. It also presents a deeper ideological threat to the VCP, as Vietnamese nationalists begin to question the VCP’s version of nationalism that correlates being a patriot to being a communist. 

The anti-China protests and data on popular opinions suggest that despite the VCP’s efforts, the Vietnamese people are feeling more and more detached from the socialist solidarity with China that the VCP has consistently promoted. 

If the VCP continues to refuse to change its ideological approach to China, and if it continues to repress anti-China nationalism, it runs a grave risk of getting its own Marxist-Leninist legitimacy further questioned and challenged.


[1] Crawford, T. (1923, August 15). Bourgeois Nationalism. Marxists Internet Archive.

[2] McLellan, D. T. (1998, July 20). Marxism – Class Struggle. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[3] Xu, B. (2020, July 15). China’s Maritime Disputes. Council on Foreign Relations.

[4] Ide, B. B., & Orendain, B. S. (2011, June 4). Hundreds of Vietnamese Stage Anti-China Protest. Voice of America.

[5] Vietnam breaks up anti-China protests. (2012, December 9). The Guardian.

[6] Vu, T. (2014). The Party v. the People: Anti-China Nationalism in Contemporary Vietnam. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 9(4), 33–66.

[7] Buttinger, J. (1977). The Journal of Developing Areas, 11(3), 423-425. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from

[8] Le, H. N. (2016, February 29). Phạm Văn Đồng – Nhà Chính trị, Nhà Văn hóa lớn của Đảng và Dân tộc. Báo Nhân Dân.

[9] Nguyen, C. T. (2018, July 31). Tư tưởng Hồ Chí Minh Về Tinh Thần Yêu Nước. Tạp Chí Quốc Phòng Toàn Dân.

[10] Vandenbrink, R., & Nguyen, A. (2011, June 5). Anti-China Protests in Vietnam. Radio Free Asia.

[11] Human Rights Watch. (2020, October 28). Vietnam: New Round of Arrests Target Democracy Activists.

[12] Tong, V. C. (n.d.). Nhân Ngày sinh lần thứ 120 Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh: Vì Sao Hồ Chí Minh Đặt Dân Chủ Trước Giàu Mạnh? Bauxite Vietnam. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from

[13] Le, H. D. (n.d.). Suy Nghĩ Trong Những Ngày Nằm Bịnh. . .. Bauxite Vietnam. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from

[14] Kurlantzick, J. (2014, May 16). Vietnam Protests: More Than Just Anti-China Sentiment. Council on Foreign Relations.

[15] Nguyen, S. (2021, June 7). Vietnam Briefing: Busy With The Pandemic, But The Government Still Cracks Down On Free Speech. The Vietnamese Magazine.

[16] Seah, S., Hoang, T. H., Martinus, M., & Pham, T. P. T. (2021, February). The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.


Vietnam: How Powerful Is The Prime Minister?



Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. Photo:

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?

The prime minister’s powers are stipulated in Article 98 of the Constitution and Article 28 of the Law on Government Organization (ratified in 2015 and amended in 2019).

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.

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Vietnam’s State President: The Captain But Not Really A Captain



State President of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

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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A Few Things You Should Know About Vietnam’s National Assembly Chairpersonship



Former National Assembly Chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, and Current Chairman, Vuong Dinh Hue. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine

Though it is one of the “four pillars” of the Vietnamese government, the National Assembly chairpersonship remains the weakest position.

Vietnam’s National Assembly has been preparing to change its window dressing in late March 2021. No need to wait until the general election wraps up in May 2021; the National Assembly chairmanship had a new occupant in the final days of March. To reaffirm that the election in May did not change Vietnam’s political situation, July 20, 2021 would mark Vuong Dinh Hue’s continuation to serve the same leadership position as the National Assembly chairman for the next 5 years when it re-elected him.

One amongst the “four pillars of the imperial court”

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Vietnamese politics slowly moved beyond the individual leadership model and the overpowering influence of Ho Chi Minh and his successor Le Duan. This, in combination with the economic reform process, led to the gradual development of a new institutional division of power. Over time, supreme power was divided among four positions: the general secretary, state president, prime minister, and chairperson of the National Assembly. 

Today, as war has receded into the distance and demands to join the international community grow, the political system functions have begun trending towards laws of the state rather than the directives of the Vietnamese Communist Party. As such, the National Assembly increasingly plays a larger and more dynamic role in the political system.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, when Nong Duc Manh was elected as National Assembly chairman, that a member of the Politburo occupied the position. Before that, Truong Chinh – a Politburo member – served as chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee from 1960 to 1981. Still, as stated above, the National Assembly did not play a large role during that time, though it’s hard to say that its role today is large either.

The National Assembly chairmen after Truong Chinh all worked their way up to become members of the Party Central Committee (such as Le Quang Dạo) or outside the Party Central Committee altogether (e.g., Nguyen Huu Tho).

All National Assembly chairmen from Nong Duc Manh onwards were members of the Politburo. Though its numbers are among the “four pillars,” the National Assembly chairmanship remains the weakest position and must abide by party decisions.

Launchpad to power

Of the five National Assembly chairmen since 1992, two have become general secretary of the VCP’s Central Committee – the highest position in the entire political system: Nong Duc Manh (2001 – 2011) and Nguyen Phu Trong (2011- present).

In stark contrast, the prime minister’s office has been unable to propel its occupant any further. One after the other, Vo Van Kiet, Phan Van Khai, and Nguyen Tan Dung became prime ministers and then retired, failing to make it to the general secretary. The exception is Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who, rather than retiring after serving as prime minister, is set to become state president; that is, he is taking one step down the ladder of party power.

Is the National Assembly chairman the “boss” of the National Assembly representatives? 


In principle, the National Assembly chairman is simply a member of the National Assembly, with all members being equal and everyone retaining one vote. No representative can force another representative to do his or her bidding. The National Assembly chairperson cannot issue any order to a representative, except for limited powers during work assignments with vice National Assembly chairpersons.

Then what does the National Assembly chairman do?

He or she mainly coordinates the activities of the National Assembly and the National Assembly’s Standing Committee, presiding over meetings and sessions and ratifying adopted constitutions, laws, resolutions, and ordinances.

For more details, please see Vietnam’s Constitution and the Law on National Assembly Organization.

The National Assembly chairman also usually acts as head of the National Electoral Council. This arrangement contains a conflict of interest when a representative (and often also a candidate) organizes elections. In democratic countries, the council must, in principle, be independent of the National Assembly.  

A position almost always reserved for men

Of the 11 National Assembly chairpersons in Vietnam’s modern history, the only woman to serve in this position was Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who held the position from 2016 to 2021. But truth be told, Ngan is the only woman to have ever served as one of the “four pillars.”

Her predicted successor, Vuong Dinh Hue, will carry on the near-exclusive tradition of men being at the helm of the National Assembly.

Hue has served as minister of finance (2011-2012), head of the Central Economic Committee (2012-2016), deputy prime minister (2016-2020), and secretary of the Hanoi party committee (2020-current). He has been a member of the Politburo since 2016.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on March 30, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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