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High-Level Corruption is Being Severely Punished in Vietnam. What Happened?
It is common sense that governmental corruption is terrible and should be avoided at all costs. However, the punishment of several high-level individuals in the Vietnamese political system in recent weeks seems unusual.
Two deputy prime ministers, Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam, were dismissed from the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) Central Committee - the most powerful organ of the Party. Right before the Lunar New Year, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc later submitted his resignation, citing his political responsibility for the wrongdoings of officials under his supervision, right before Lunar New Year. The National Assembly approved his resignation.
This is the first time we see officials at the Party's highest level, including the President (among the “four pillars” of the Vietnamese government), severely affected by Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s anti-corruption campaign. Nikkei Asia quoted an anonymous diplomatic source saying that the dismissal was surprising because both Minh and Dam “had clean images within the party and were popular among the people.” Political scientist Hai Hong Nguyen wrote that the event marked “a new era of turbulence and uncertainty”.
As some commentators pointed out, the two very influential officials were dismissed, but the state-controlled press does not explicitly explain the cause for these removals. This is unlike what happened with Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, who state media explicitly called out his ministry’s complicit ties to the repatriation flight scandal.
Nonetheless, commentators have attributed the removals to corruption scandals related to COVID-19. As a deputy prime minister responsible for foreign relations, Minh saw himself tied to the repatriation flight scandal related to the foreign ministry. Similarly, as a deputy prime minister responsible for public health, Dam must have been blamed for failing to discipline his staff in the Viet A testing kit scandal. Dam’s assistant was recently arrested for this.
This article offers an explanation of why the two high-level government officials resigned and a broad explanation of why the Vietnamese government and the VCP seem to be heavy-handed in dealing with corruption. While the recent crackdown on high-level corruption could be a symptom of a power struggle inside the Party, it should instead be viewed primarily as the Party’s attempt at shoring up its authority to maintain its legitimacy as the sole leader of Vietnam. Performance-based legitimacy is a tactic that most modern authoritarian regimes rely on, and Vietnam is not an exception.
Inner power struggle?
Some have attributed the surge in high-level government officials being punished for corruption as a sign of inner-party competition. After all, the VCP seems to trust the conservatives in its party more than the Western-educated ones, especially when they consider who can climb the ladder to higher positions. Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong himself, for example, is a Marxist-Leninist theorist who received his doctorate in party-building from the Academy of Social Sciences in the Soviet Union.
It is pointed out that Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam were educated in the West - both men are reportedly fluent in English, with Dam being fluent in French after studying in Belgium. Minh earned his master’s degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University in the United States. Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, who was also disciplined and strongly criticized by the Politburo (but not removed from his post), earned his master's degree in international relations from Columbia University.
Compared to other senior leaders of the VCP, both men are still young and have the potential to advance in the system. Minh is also the son of former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. There was word on the street that the VCP banished Nguyen Co Thach from its Politburo - in the midst of complications with China - because he was considered “pro-Western.”
Therefore, it is understandable that their removal from office is seen as a part of the power struggle between the “conservative” and the “reformist” or the “pro-China” and the “pro-Western” factions within the VCP and the Vietnamese government in general. However, while inner-party competition might have contributed to the two deputy prime ministers being banished, Vietnam watchers and analysts have warned against viewing the situation as a power rivalry.
For example, leading Vietnam expert, Carlyle Thayer, pointed out that other members of the Politburo were also educated in the West. Instead, he emphasized that Vietnam's political system can still hold officials accountable.
But if a power struggle does not explain why high-level corruption is publicly and severely punished, what does? The answer lies in what scholars of authoritarian politics call “performance-based legitimacy”.
Governance-based on performance
Unlike democratic countries, authoritarian states like Vietnam cannot inherently ensure their rule is “legitimate” through institutional and procedural means.
In democratic countries, leaders know they have the right to govern because they are elected by the majority of the country’s citizens. If the country’s citizens are not happy with their current leaders, they can vote them out of office in the next election. As liberal democracies also ensure freedom of speech and the press, leaders have a constant feedback loop on what they are doing right or wrong.
However, in authoritarian countries, especially in one-party systems like Vietnam, there is no institutional way for the regime to ensure its legitimacy as the country's ruler. Because freedom of speech is restricted and the media is tightly controlled, it is tough to gauge public opinion. This is why authoritarian leaders are inherently “insecure.” They are always in a state of not know whether their legitimacy as the ruling party is strong enough.
Because of this, Vietnam, like many other authoritarian countries, relies heavily on two tools to maintain the one-party system: socioeconomic performance and nationalism.
Nationalism, however, is not a very reliable tool. During wartime, nationalism was the crux of legitimacy for the VCP as people felt the common purpose of defeating the French and American foreign invaders. The VCP argues that it is the legitimate leader of Vietnam because it led the country out of wars with very powerful Western enemies. In peacetime, Vietnam no longer has a common enemy except for China because of the dispute in the South China Sea.
As explained in another article, however, because China is still the VCP’s ideological ally, the VCP is very careful in mobilizing anti-China nationalism. International relations scholar Le Hong Hiep also points out that anti-China nationalism has led to mass protests in Vietnam in the past, which got out of the VCP’s control.
Because of this, the VCP has to primarily rely on delivering good socioeconomic policies and performance to justify its one-party system. It is why the VCP agreed to abandon Soviet-style central planning and embarked on Doi Moi (Renovation) in 1986 to revive the terrifying state of the economy. It might also explain why the VCP recently has been heavy-handed with the closure of multiple NGOs and the arrest of many prominent NGO leaders.
Vietnam’s economy has been steadily growing despite the pandemic, and the VCP must have felt secure enough in its authoritarian legitimacy to pull the trigger on the non-governmental sector.
Performance-based legitimacy is not just limited to socioeconomic policies: The management of governmental corruption is also significant. This is why Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong strongly emphasized his anti-corruption campaign, which is known as “furnace firing” (đốt lò). Due to their scale and widespread effects, the Viet A testing case and the repatriation flight scandals angered many Vietnamese citizens. Failing to punish high-level officials involved in the scandals would only damage the performance-based legitimacy that the VCP has enjoyed.
But as the Viet A testing case and the repatriation flight corruption scandals erupted, the VCP faced a dilemma ingrained in authoritarian politics.
In a book about Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia, political scientist Timothy Frye argues that Putin - like other authoritarian leaders - has to fight off the “dual threat” to his rule, which comes from both Russian citizens and the political elite. If he allows too much corruption among the elite, his people will be furious and revolt. However, if he cleans up corruption too much, the elite will also be very angry and plot a coup d’etat against him. Therefore, he still has to allow a certain degree of corruption that does not provoke his people too much while keeping his cronies happy.
Will Party Secretary Trong’s strong emphasis on anti-corruption clean up the problem? While Vietnam and Russia are very different, the lesson is similar. The reason why high-level officials were punished probably comes from the fact that Vietnamese citizens were outraged. Corruption will continue to persist, especially in cases that do not provoke strong enough reactions from the Vietnamese public. Hence, although Secretary Trong preaches about cleaning up corruption, he probably means that he will only act when the regime is threatened enough.
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