Vietnamese writers and journalists, like Pham Doan Trang, have always been portrayed by the Vietnamese state as being “phản động” (reactionary) and are accused of aiming to disrupt the government.
There is also an implication that advocating for freedom of speech and democracy is inherently at odds with the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and that these values do not align with the country’s brand of socialism.
At the forefront of the VCP’s propaganda is Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, who has always been used by the VCP to legitimize its rule and power over the country. Likewise, his ideology has also been used by the VCP to consolidate its monopoly of political power.
Yet, is what happening right now with independent journalists and bloggers in Vietnam really what Ho Chi Minh himself would have wanted for his people?
I believe that if the VCP's propaganda is right, then maybe Ho Chi Minh would somehow have been horrified by the current oppression of freedom of speech in Vietnam against writers like Pham Doan Trang.
I further think that to pretend that he would have supported the oppression of Vietnamese writers and journalists does not reflect a genuine understanding of his political thought.
Opposition To Power
As a young revolutionary in France, Ho was influenced by the likes of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx during his involvement with the French Communist Party. Even though there were differences between the way Ho and his Western comrades understood communism as a political theory, they agreed on one thing: advocating against those in power.
There are scholars who argue that Ho was more of a communist than a nationalist, but others, such as historian Bernard B. Fall, believed the contrary. They even proposed the question of whether Ho would have endorsed the French Communist Party if there had been another political party that advocated for colonial abolition. Political scientist Tuong Vu argued that Ho only became interested in the Russian Bolshevik revolution because of Lenin’s support for colonial independence.
Regardless of whether or not he was more of a communist or more of a nationalist, it is clear that he aimed to criticize those in power and to empower the powerless. Anti-colonialism, the center of Ho’s political thought, is in itself, a struggle against the status quo. Through his early writings, it is clear that he consistently advocated against French colonial rule, criticized the domination of the upper-class rulers in Vietnam, and informed people of the terrible conditions of marginalized groups. In other words, Ho used journalism to uplift the voices of the unheard.
For example, in a 1922 article titled “Annamese Women and French Domination”, Ho documented, in gruesome detail, the atrocities committed by the French against Vietnamese women. He was not only concerned with Vietnamese people but also with other groups of marginalized populations elsewhere. In articles such as “Lynching” and “The Ku Klux Klan” (1924), Ho condemned the violent oppression of African-Americans by white supremacists in the United States.
Pham Doan Trang, as well as Vietnamese journalists and bloggers such as the recently-arrested members of the Clean Newspaper (Bao Sach) group, were doing exactly what Ho and his comrades fought for: speaking truth against power.
Pham Doan Trang and Bao Sach were criminalized because they wrote for those whose voices were suppressed by those in power - from the Dong Tam farmers whose lands were taken away by the same regime that claimed to be representative of the peasants to the death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai, whose alibi and innocence was blatantly ignored by the Vietnamese judicial system.
Their charges clearly stem from their writings and non-violent activism. In retrospect, their actions are even more peaceful than the early deeds of the VCP; they neither incited violence nor called for a coup d'etat. All they did was write but the VCP clearly does not like it when their rule is threatened.
Freedom of Expression & Democracy
It is not a difficult task to point out Ho Chi Minh’s explicit advocacy for freedom of speech and freedom of the press as he was a prolific journalist with radical opinions himself.
In 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated in Paris, Ho Chi Minh, under the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), submitted to the conference an eight-point manifesto called “Revendications du Peuple Annamite” (Claims of the Annamite People) to demand better conditions for the Indochinese colony. Out of his eight demands, two involved freedom of opinion and of the press and of association - “liberté de presse et d’opinion” and “liberté d’association et de Réunion”.
His other demands are eerily reminiscent of the modern pro-democracy movement, including the demands for the release of political prisoners and judicial reforms, as well as popular representation of the Annamite people in the French Parliament. These are similar to Pham Doan Trang’s call for political reforms in a letter released shortly after she was arrested.
Although some historians argue that the eight-point demand may not have been written by Ho, evidence for his advocacy for freedom of expression and democracy did not stop in 1919.
A year later, in a 1920 speech at the National Congress of the French Communist Party, Ho continued lambasting the French colonial government by bringing up the argument that Vietnamese people “have neither freedom of press nor freedom of speech,” and that “even freedom of assembly and freedom of association do not exist.”
Ho also criticized the irony of France's mission of “civilization” and “democracy” in a 1922 open letter to the governor-general of Indochina Albert Sarraut as he mocked French colonial hypocrisy.
However, this does not mean that Ho was anti-democracy. Throughout his writings, he was clearly endorsing the idea of popular representation by criticizing Western democracy; he even called it “bourgeois democracy” which stands in opposition to “proletariat democracy.”
In other words, Ho Chi Minh was mocking the illusion of Western representative democracy in which the people are not properly represented and where only the interests of the elites are guaranteed.
Does this sound familiar?
Unfortunately, the current electoral system of the VCP is clearly rigged against marginalized groups and only favors those who already have political power. Activists and the “proletariat” are suppressed in favor of powerful elites. This is exactly what Ho Chi Minh was criticizing, despite the VCP still calling itself “communist” or “socialist.” The irony could not have been greater as To Lam, a highly-ranked officer and member of the VCP, was recently spotted eating gold-flaked steak at a luxurious restaurant in London.
It could be argued that Ho Chi Minh was not strictly an anti-power idealist but a pragmatic realist. Because of this, it could be further argued that he would have still supported the current VCP as they are eliminating anti-state factions, allegedly for stability.
Could there have been internal conflict in Ho’s political thought? Like every other political figure, it is unavoidable to contradict oneself in the course of one’s career. Is it possible that Ho, as a politician and not a leader or a theorist, would have supported the VCP’s oppression of freedom of speech for “the greater good”? It is very possible.
However, even if he would have done so, it would still be disingenuous to ignore such contradictions because Ho’s political thought is inherently an anti-power philosophy with multiple implications for improving freedom of expression for the Vietnamese people.
It is debatable whether the VCP’s actions against journalists and bloggers could be compared to the French colonial government’s treatment of anti-colonial activists. However, if speaking against power is considered “anti-state,” and if these activities are worthy of criminal charges, then Ho Chi Minh and his comrades should not be painted in a favorable light by the current regime. After all, they did challenge the French colonial government’s law and order.
If Ho was alive today with the same activism that he has upheld, it is very likely that he would not support the current regime’s suppression of free speech and free press.
- Minh, H. C., & Fall, B. B. (1967). Ho Chi Minh On Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920–66. Frederick A. Praeger.
- Nguyen, A. Q. (2012, September 26). Revendications du Peuple Annamite – Juin 1919. Mémoires d’Indochine. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://indomemoires.hypotheses.org/532
- Nguyen, J. (2021, November 12). The Official’s Gold-Flecked Steak And The Underlying Problems Of Vietnam. The Vietnamese Magazine. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/11/the-officials-gold-flecked-steak-and-the-underlying-problems-of-vietnam/
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- Pham, D. T. (2021, May 26). Đoan Trang’s letter: “Just in case I am imprisoned.” Đoan Trang | Facts, Biography, and Updates. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://doantrang.liv.ngo/doan-trang-letter/
- Reed, A. (2021, April 14). Vietnam: The True Victims Of Political Repression – The Vietnamese. The Vietnamese Magazine. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/04/vietnam-the-true-victims-of-political-repression/
- Vu, T. (2016). Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge Studies in US Foreign Relations). Cambridge University Press.