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September, School, And The Politics Of Memory

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Vietnamese students at their first day of school. Photo Source: Nguoi Lao Dong Newspaper.

September is when the school year starts in Vietnam. However, this academic cycle is like no other, as the country is struggling with a deadly virus that claimed more than 10,000 lives last month. [1] How will this pandemic be remembered by those who survive? How will it be taught in schools in the years to come? Who will remember the missteps of the government, and will they demand justice for those whose deaths should have been avoided? We must not forget that a large part of Vietnam’s political landscape is the politics of memory, because as George Orwell once said in 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past.’ My journey through schools, first in Vietnam and then overseas, illustrates why education and the politics of memory are intimately connected.

‘Under the roof of the socialist school’

I am a researcher, and most of the people I interview for my research are activists and supporters of various social and political movements in contemporary Vietnam. These people are also around my age and come from Vietnam’s post-war generation. Every time I ask about their school experience, they almost always jokingly start with “under the roof of the socialist school”; they then tell me about a time when they were completely unaware of, or even lied to, about many historical events, including the 1968 Hue massacre, the fall of Saigon, the existence of re-education camps, the boat people exodus, or the border war with China. If the truth of these events was widely known, it would raise serious questions about the crimes North Vietnam’s government committed against central and southern Vietnamese and the legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

For us who come from the post-war generation [2], our education has been entirely engineered by the government under the leadership of the VCP. Thus, there is little surprise that some people and events were glorified while others were vilified or completely erased from public consciousness [3]. After all, one cannot secure one’s rule without being seen as legitimate, and in the case of the VCP, the spectre of the past is a constant threat to its contested legitimacy. The singular narrative in which the VCP is portrayed as the brave and glorious liberator of the Vietnamese people was told and repeated throughout the 12 years of our education through textbooks, symbols, rituals, and an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to reinforce these ideas.  

Needless to say, I grew-up to become a VCP-nationalist – someone who equates loving Vietnam with believing blindly in the VCP. Likewise, I also ended up believing that modern-day Vietnam was the culmination of the VCP’s countless victories, especially during the ‘War Against America to Save the Country’ (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước); I was made to believe that the VCP was “on the right side of history.” This singular narrative is easy to digest for children and teenagers because of its simple dichotomy of hero and villain, supported by a complex system of other institutions – especially the media – that echoes the same story.

Looking back, I can still vividly recall how proud I was when I became a member of the Communist Youth League at the age of 15. I remember humming one of the Party’s hymns as I walked home after attending the membership ceremony. It was not easy for me to escape the preconceptions of my childhood and the sad reality is that many Vietnamese people cannot. 

Pedagogy of the oppressed [4]

When I left Vietnam to pursue my bachelor’s degree, my sociology and history classes challenged this singular narrative from my childhood and managed to deconstruct the VCP’s simplified and skewed perspective of the world. Yet, my most eye-opening experience did not happen in the classroom. 

I remember stumbling upon a stack of books in the university library. They were a collection of stories about the Vietnamese Boat People who survived their exodus. These pages held more than just tales of tragedy and of sinking ships. They held the sorrow of husbands and wives separated by circumstance with little to no hope of ever seeing each other again. They carried the rage and despair of fathers watching their daughters being raped and killed right in front of their eyes. They contained the hopelessness and ennui of throwing corpses into the sea and of the countless lives left broken even after rescue. These stories stood in stark contrast to the image of Vietnam peddled by the VCP. Yet, I could not deny them; the pain and suffering of my countrymen were too raw and too real. The Vietnam I once knew, a Vietnam built on a shoddy foundation of strategically crafted lies and upfront deception, slowly began to crumble. 

It was this evening in the library that changed me forever. Since then, I have become my own educator, gradually undoing what had been done to me “under the roof of the socialist school.” After getting my bachelor’s degree, I continued my education and had the opportunity to study the history of the Vietnam War (instead of the “War Against America”). I also write about contemporary events in Vietnam with the knowledge of how the past helps shape the present. This path I have chosen, albeit not easy, is nonetheless deeply rewarding. Its reward is both personal, as it gives me an avenue to re-build and express my authentic self and collective because I can speak for those whose stories have been erased from history.

Having said all this, education is not confined within formal institutions; I just happen to follow an academic path. Most of my research interviewees have learned through their own means. While I found my first moment of truth in the library, they may have found theirs as they participated in the street protests of the early 2010s in Vietnam, read blogs and websites that have become widely accessible thanks to the rise of the internet in the country, talked to their church members, or met with people of the Vietnamese diaspora. Regardless of the different routes we took, what we share in common is the self-awareness we gain as members of disenfranchised groups: Catholics, “the losing side,” southern Vietnamese, northerners who did not side with the victors, or protesters who were beaten up simply because they peacefully exercised their rights. We also share our role as keepers of the stories the powerful would rather erase.

Free schools and revolutionary journalism

I do not foresee the education system in Vietnam undergoing any radical change. I anticipate that the pictures of the long line of vans waiting in front of the crematorium in Saigon, the thousands of faces behind the death statistics, the grief of their loved ones, the indignation of those who have been pushed further into poverty because of the collapsed welfare system, and countless others whose lives have been overturned in the past weeks with endless confusing and incoherent decisions made by the government, will once again be at risk of being written off of history. It is likely that students will not be told about the year 2021 the way it has happened. Thus, no difficult questions will be raised about the (lack of) competency, accountability, and morality of those in power [5].

However, if history – the history of the oppressed – has anything to teach us, it is the power of Free Schools and revolutionary journalism. We must not forget that Phan Chu Trinh established Free Schools across Vietnam to teach what the French did not allow us – their subjugated people – to learn. We must not also forget that Phan Boi Chau spent his entire life conducting revolutionary journalism, not only to educate and inform but also to cultivate a sense of authentic identity for the Vietnamese people, without which we would not have had the basis to organize ourselves and achieve national independence [6]. I trust that if we could revive the spirit and practices of the days of the two Phans, with Free Schools and revolutionary journalism being once again a vibrant part of civic life in Vietnam, we will not only do justice to the past and to those whose stories would otherwise not be told, but also to our future generations and to the prospects of a better Vietnam we all deserve. 

References:          

  1. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. “New deaths” for August was 10,067. Available at: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/region/vietnam. Retrieved on 3 September 2021.
  2. Vietnam’s post-war generation is defined as people born between the end of Vietnam War in 1975 and the years of Đổi Mới 1986-1989.
  3. See Vu, T. (2014). Triumphs or tragedies: A new perspective on the Vietnamese revolution. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 45(2), pp 236–257. Reviewing the contents of textbooks used in the cultural revolution led by the VCP, Vu concludes that such education “sought to indoctrinate people, not to enlighten them in the normal sense of the word”, and one of the consequences could be “enslav[ing] people by limiting their information to one particular way of thinking in order to create obedient subjects of the state” (p. 252).
  4. We borrow the name of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first written in 1968, for this section.
  5. We suggest readers to also read Bia Dua’s article Chúng ta còn lại gì nếu ngày mai hết dịch?, published on Luat Khoa on 1 September 2021, to get a more detailed picture of the devastation in Vietnam, and the author’s thoughts and sentiments as a resident of Saigon in these sad and difficult days. Available at: https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/09/chung-ta-con-lai-gi-neu-ngay-mai-het-dich/?fbclid=IwAR1FtFrxrw3aHp_Pii1D3S2mOMh2muTbjThwIZ4VeLLDGi_JOZcEJN_-Zdk
  6. See Duiker, W. (1976). The rise of nationalism in Vietnam, 1900-1941. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press. An elaborate discussion of Phan Chu Trinh’s Free Schools, Phan Boi Chau’s journalism, and the significance of these works in creating the identity of the Vietnamese people, can be found in Part 1 Scholar-Patriots (pp. 21-101) of the book.

Human Rights

Journalist Pham Doan Trang Can Still Be Freed In Vietnam. And The US Could Help Win Her Release.

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Pham Doan Trang at her home. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

While in Vietnam, Vice President Kamala Harris has significant leverage to make a change: free one of the most prominent journalists and democracy activists in the country.

For the Vietnamese Communist Party, political prisoners are bargaining chips in international negotiations. They sell their own citizens to gain a trade deal or a more favorable security treaty. That’s because they know human rights are the soft spot of major powers, such as the United States and the European Union. 

Thus, they release political prisoners in exchange for economic and political gains. The problem is the prisoners are released conditionally: they are expelled from the country. Most of them settle in the United States.

But journalist Pham Doan Trang, one of Vietnam’s most respected journalists, is a different case. Unlike other political prisoners, she has not been indicted or convicted yet; she is a detainee under investigation and still has a chance to be released in Vietnam.

Once the police have determined that an accused person did commit a crime, there is absolutely no way that person can avoid conviction and sentencing. The only option left is to negotiate a settlement in another country, as had happened with some other political prisoners.

Of course, the investigators have now gathered more than enough evidence to make a case against Trang and put her away for up to 20 years. Chances are, the Communist Party has not decided yet on how to move forward with her case to maximize its own interests. All options are still on the table. 

Doan Trang has insisted that she doesn’t want to leave the country until it becomes a democracy. As a close friend and colleague of hers for over a decade, I know how painful it is for her to be forced out of her only home, her beloved Vietnam.

As one of the most prominent and talented journalists and democracy activists in Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, she has always aimed at breaking down the censorship curtain that puts the country at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Her writings and activism include various samizdat political books, two independent magazines (Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese), many protest movements, and international advocacy campaigns.

As a result, she was awarded the Homo Homini Prize from People in Need (Czech Republic) in 2017 and the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Without Borders (France) in 2019. But more importantly, Doan Trang’s way of working and living inspires other Vietnamese to stand up for their rights and a better, kinder country.

No authoritarian regime would tolerate her. After years of cat-and-mouse games with the authorities, and many physical assaults, the police have detained Doan Trang since October 7, 2020, charging her with spreading propaganda against the state. The criminal provision has been widely condemned by human rights groups as a way the government silences critics – a clear violation of free speech protected by the Constitution and legally binding international treaties.

Doan Trang was on her way to meet then-president Barack Obama in May 2016 in Hanoi before the police kidnapped her and detained her for the rest of the day. Vice President Harris may not be able to meet Trang in the detention center, but she can surely do a lot to free her in Vietnam.

The trade relations, especially the semiconductor supply chain and strategic partnership are believed to be the reasons Vice President Harris is paying a visit to Vietnam.

In such circumstances, I believe that the United States, and Vice President Harris, in particular, have an excellent chance to push for Doan Trang’s release right in Vietnam while the case is still undecided. And there is a precedent for that.

In June 2007, Vietnam released attorney and democracy advocate Le Quoc Quan after three months of temporary detention and two days before Chairman Nguyen Minh Triet visited the United States. Attorney Le Quoc Quan had not been indicted yet, and a major reason he was freed was a mountain of pressure from the United States government and civil society, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, where Quan did a fellowship before his return to Vietnam.

It is now urgent to push for Doan Trang’s release, before it’s too late.

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Panorama of Flags, Panorama of Lies

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A street in Vietnam. Photo: Asia Democracy Chronicles

The panorama of flags

Foreigners visiting Vietnam can hardly miss the abundance of flags, posters, statues, and slogans that remind them of who is leading Vietnam and of the Communists’ “glorious” struggle against the French, Americans, and the South Vietnam regime throughout the last century. 

However, isn’t it a bit too archaic to still flash the symbol of the hammer and sickle these days, when the means of production and the economy no longer rely on these tools? Farmers and factory workers neither drive nor fuel modern-day politics as well. Likewise, what is the point of having the statues of Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Lenin in public parks and in the meeting rooms of schools, universities, and governmental departments? Do ordinary people who showcase the red and yellow flag in front of their houses every April 30 cherish the fact that the country was “reunited” in 1975?[1] Do police officers–who check and remind households that fail to do so–love the flag so much and wholeheartedly believe in the cause? In essence, what is the significance of this panorama of symbols? 

Vaclav Havel, the dissident intellectual of communist Czechoslovakia and later president of post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic,[2] can point us to the answer.

The panorama of lies

Following the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communists. The iron fist of Communist rule drove dissidents out of the country and clamped down on those who remained. Other than the Prague Spring of 1968, an unsuccessful effort to steer Czechoslovakia back towards democracy, there was hardly any resistance. 

However, communist Czechoslovakia was not just about who held the government; life itself had to adjust in a way that fit the current political climate. Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), who is arguably one of the most respected dissidents in the history of Czechoslovakia, lived most of his life under Communist rule. He grew up to become a playwright, and at the same time, he established himself as a prominent and well-loved politician. A high point of Havel’s dissident writing, The Power of the Powerless, [3] does not concern itself with formal politics; rather, it deals with the “hearts and minds” of the people.

A significant character in The Power of the Powerless is the greengrocer who puts the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” in his front window every day, along with his vegetables. He is neither passionate nor concerned about whether or not the workers of the world unite, but he does this anyway. This irony reminds me of my family who obediently and diligently displays the Vietnamese flag at times in the year when they should, but remains so apathetic that they do not even care if the flag is hanging upside down. There also seems to be other households quite similar to my own which led to the government’s legal guidelines (3420/HD-BVHTTDL) that specifically address this violation.[4]

The greengrocer’s act is the observable tip of the iceberg of how the hearts and minds of the people work in communist Czechoslovakia; they want to avoid trouble with those who have power. By displaying the slogan, the greengrocer implies: 

I, greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.  

(Havel, 1978, p. 6)

I am once again reminded of my family. I recall that every time my father was late in hanging the flag, my mother would berate him. She would constantly tell him to do it now because she didn’t want the hassle of dealing with the police. When I asked my parents about this, they said that they just wanted to be “left in peace” (yên thân). Likewise, if you ask teachers, students, or employees of governmental departments about the statues of Ho Chi Minh and Karl Marx in their buildings, they would probably tell you something similar.

But, why do the authorities punish such a trivial thing? Whether or not the greengrocer displays the slogan would certainly have little to no effect on the workers’ movement, nor does it pose any tangible threat to the existence of a government that possesses the hard power of the courts, the military, and the police. The greengrocer does not even replace the slogan with another one that is critical about the regime. 

To address this question, Havel points out that, in fact, people would ignore the greengrocer’s slogan, but they do so precisely because such sayings are everywhere – in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletins, and buildings. The key here is that while they ignore individual slogans, the people are well aware of the panorama of these slogans as a whole. The existence of this panorama tells people that dishonesty goes hand-in-hand with obedience here; this is normal, everyone does it, and so must you. In the same vein, transgressions must be punished because “anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself” (Havel, 1978, p. 8). 

Therefore, if a Vietnamese policeman, school administrator, or government official reproaches someone who questions the phrase: “Live, fight, work, and study like our great Uncle Ho” (Sống, chiến đấu, lao động, và học tập theo gương bác Hồ vĩ đại), it is extremely likely that this policeman/school administrator/government official himself has also questioned, albeit in private, the very same slogan! Yet, they also believe that nobody should disrupt the rules of the game and that everyone should blindly follow what the system demands.  

My next question is, how do people live with themselves when their existence is surrounded by so many lies, ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies, including those of their own making? Would they feel embarrassed and ashamed of themselves for being so afraid and thus becoming unquestionably obedient? These questions, Havel argues, boil down to man’s dignity and authentic identity. To be able to live in lies, the greengrocer deludes himself into believing that there is nothing wrong with the workers of the world unite; he separates the part of himself that questions the slogan from the other half that accepts the excuse. Living in a world of lies and deceit for so long warps our perspective and this bastardized reality becomes our “new normal;” the greengrocer becomes accustomed to the state of his compromised dignity and comes to accept the deception and inauthenticity of the system as part and parcel of life. In effect, he loses his authentic self. 

On the question of dignity and identity, it is interesting that the slogan “Sacrifice for the country and serve the people” (Vì nước quên thân, vì dân phục vụ) is hung in every police station, in a country where police, alongside tax officials, are seen as the most corrupt group (Towards Transparency and Transparency International, 2017). A few years ago, when I passed by one of Vietnam’s border checkpoints, I was baffled by the contradiction between the arrogance of the border control officer and the fact that he was sitting right under a “serve the people” banner. My subsequent conversations with poor Vietnamese migrants who often cross the border for work revealed that this was how they were always treated; they often bribed these arrogant officers and kept their heads down to avoid trouble. 

As I listened to these migrants and recalled my own experience, I wondered how these officers could look at themselves in the mirror. They see the “serve the people” banner in their office every day but shamelessly extend their hand through the small window of the checkpoint to receive bribes from the people they look at with disdain – the “lowly” people they are supposed to serve. On the other hand, the migrants are left with little choice but to comply and are forced to accept being treated with less than half the dignity they should be afforded by the simple virtue of being alive.

Furthermore, Havel argues that the panorama of lies is internally solid, for there is a “metaphysical order binding all its components together,” thus “guarantee[ing] the inner coherence of the totalitarian power structure” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). Through all the examples I have provided, isn’t there a sense of such order emanating from Vietnam’s panorama of (pseudo) symbols? The checkpoint officers and those who bribe them, my parents’ disinterested flag-hanging, the equally disinterested policeman who checks the flags, and the people who put the statues of Ho and Marx in their meeting rooms are all parts of a system that everyone who lives or has lived in Vietnam knows all too well; it is a system where “the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, [where] the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation, […] [and where] the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). 

In fact, one of my interviewees [5] told me that before he left Vietnam and started to look at the country from a distance, life there was quite “smooth” for him, because “things hung together…everything I heard in school, in the newspaper, in the street etc. was in harmony with each other…I didn’t feel the urge to question things.” This “harmony” is the glue that holds the panorama of lies together. Secondly, as my interviewee’s response also points out, this panorama is solid because those who lack the individual will and instead excel in the use of empty phrases are the ones who thrive (Havel, 1978, p. 13). 

Havel thus concludes that “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 9). This conclusion runs contrary to what many intellectuals and laymen alike often think about authoritarianism as entailing an evil ruler and people who are controlled against their will, or a class that oppresses all other classes, and where the line of struggle is between the oppressor and the oppressed. The concept of “the panorama of lies” goes beyond such binary definitions and shows that the line of struggle “runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 16-17).      

Conclusion

I work with and observe a wide range of activists who work tirelessly and voice their opinions hoping to one day make Vietnam a liveable country for ALL and not just for those with unearned privileges and unchecked power. They pursue different paths of change; some try to run for seats in the National Assembly, others focus on analysing the actions of the government, and there are those who try to nurture a different kind of Vietnamese. For them, a different kind of Vietnamese means Vietnamese citizens who feel anger when their own dignity, or the dignity of others,’ is negated; they are those who strive for “what should be,” instead of settling for “what is.” They are those who are honest with themselves about right versus wrong, instead of surrendering their own judgement, mindlessly obeying the state and condemning those who do not conform. 

Vaclav Havel and his people saw the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, but the democratic miracle did not immediately follow. Havel, then in the position of president, argued that democratic politics and the market economy, both carrying the promise of a good life, cannot happen in the face of “post-communist morass” (Havel, 1997). The ghost that kept haunting post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic was called out in Havel’s speech before Parliament in 1997:

Many people believe that democracy or no democracy, the people in power are again people who cannot be trusted and who are more concerned about helping themselves than about the greater good….The prevalent opinion is that it pays off in this country to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties – though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words – are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.

(Havel, 1997)

I understand that the different paths of change I mentioned above ultimately feed into each other. However, with the lesson from Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic and Havel’s thoughts, I cannot help but wonder how best to prioritise these tasks and decide when to pursue which. 

I would also like to believe that Havel’s thoughts give Vietnamese activists hope, especially during the present time when a relentless crackdown makes revolutionary change seem like an utterly unreachable dream. After reading Havel’s work, I see the sparks of our own “Vietnam Spring” starting not in the places representing the power of the system – the National Assembly, the election, state-owned media, or the police – but in the very hearts and minds of ordinary Vietnamese people. The revolutionary Vietnamese of the present day are those who dare to live in truth.

Bibliography:

  1. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnam forces entered Saigon and officially ended the existence of the Republic of Vietnam as a nation. North Vietnam and South Vietnam were then joined and ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), and Hanoi became the capital of the whole of Vietnam. In the narrative of the VCP, April 30 is called reunification day and a cause to celebrate, whereas people who sided with South Vietnam call it ‘Black April,’ amongst other names that convey pain and sadness for the loss of their country.  
  2. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992-1993. Vaclav Havel’s presidency was from 1989 to 2003, with some intervals in between.
  3. To be fair to this great work of Havel, I should be clear that the panorama of lies is only a small part of it. I focus particularly on this concept in order to unpack the omnipresence of (pseudo-) symbols in Vietnam.
  4. I am not saying that all Vietnamese display the red and yellow flag in the same disinterested way as Havel’s greengrocer. We will not know unless we ask every single Vietnamese. However, we can always make an educated guess. In Vietnam, there are pockets of the population who resent or distrust the regime for many good reasons, from the historic 1975 event and family members lost at sea during the Boat People exodus to forced evictions and rampant corruption. Growing inequality and poverty drive young people from rural areas to cities or overseas, and also expose even more the lies about the socialist utopia which the VCP claims it pursues and which it trumpets with slogans and posters in public places.
  5. This interview is part of my PhD research on activism under authoritarian rule in the 2010-2019 period in Vietnam.

References

Havel, V. (1979). The Power of the Powerless. Available at: https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/resource/the-power-of-the-powerless/

Havel, V. (1997). Address to the Czech Parliament. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/1087560.html

Towards Transparency & Transparency International (2017). 2017 Global Corruption Barometer: Vietnam. Hong Duc Publishing House.

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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  

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