Nguyen Phu Trong's Anti-corruption Campaign: Arrests as an Insufficient Measure of Effectiveness

The power message prevails: anti-corruption takes a backseat.

Nguyen Phu Trong's Anti-corruption Campaign: Arrests as an Insufficient Measure of Effectiveness
Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

This article was written in Vietnamese and previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on February 2, 2023. Lee Nguyen and Karie Nguyen translated this into English.

Vietnam is currently witnessing the trial of one of its largest corruption cases, involving more than 50 government officials. The charges revolve around alleged bribery related to rescue flights during the Covid-19 pandemic. It would seem that the anti-corruption campaign led by Nguyen Phu Trong in 2022 and early 2023 demonstrated a remarkable outcome, which also included the successful removal of a high-ranking member from one of the "Four Pillars" positions within the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

This amazing feat was accompanied by a series of significant actions against other influential members of the Central Committee of the VCP who held key positions within the Vietnamese state. They faced forced resignations, disciplinary measures, or legal prosecution. Many of these people were ministers, chairmen of the People's Committee in Vietnam’s two biggest cities, deputy prime ministers, and even the president himself.

In terms of the number of affected individuals across various levels of positions, Vietnam's anti-corruption campaign can be considered a resounding success. In the nearly 50 years since the country’s official reunification, the VCP has accomplished what no previous generation of leaders was able to do. However, upon further reflection, many issues still exist within the Vietnamese government and state apparatus today.

It is important to remember that nearly all high-level leaders who were targeted in the past two years, including individuals such as Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Nguyen Thanh Long, Chu Ngoc Anh, Pham Binh Minh, and Vu Duc Dam, were among the core members of the 13th National Party Congress, which was held in early 2021.

Notably, Nguyen Xuan Phuc was a unique case; members of the VCP trusted and voted for him, despite him being older than the age limit set by regulations. [1]

Given this context, the anti-corruption campaign seems to be pointing fingers and passing blame. The Politburo and the party committees exclusively chose individuals based on internal standards of "talent and virtue.” However, when these people engage in misconduct or wrongdoing (despite decisions being largely collective), these violations are attributed solely to their individual responsibilities.

This phenomenon was examined in an article, “Vietnam's Institutional Corruption: Why Nguyen Phu Trong’s ‘Blazing Furnace’ Will Be Meaningless In The Long Term,” published in Luat Khoa Magazine and The Vietnamese Magazine. The article introduced the concepts of personal corruption and institutional [systemic] corruption. It reached the following conclusion:

“He [Nguyen Phu Trong] can remove one Politburo member or even five Politburo members.

He can arrest 100 or 200 Party's Central Executive Committee members.

He can cleanse all the party members of a province if the conditions permit.

However, the sicknesses of the state apparatus, the accountability of party members, the enormous power party members hold, and the weak, superficial tools equipped to the people will undoubtedly never be amended.”

However, not everyone agrees with this sentiment.

It is argued: "If even the president or deputy prime minister can be dismissed or removed from office, then why is there criticism surrounding the anti-corruption campaign, which seems to be working as intended?”

In response to this concern, the following questions need to be addressed:

1.) How should we evaluate the fight against corruption?

2.) What are the world's standards for considering an anti-corruption campaign successful?

3.) Is the number of corrupt individuals being purged just for show?

Lãnh đạo đảng, nhà nước bỏ phiếu miễn nhiệm ông Nguyễn Xuân Phúc vào chiều 18/1/2023. Nguồn: TTXVN.
Party and state leaders voted to dismiss Nguyen Xuan Phuc on the afternoon of January 18, 2023. Photo: Vietnam News Agency.

The Standards of Vietnam’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

Very few studies have been done to evaluate the effectiveness and success of anti-corruption campaigns, representing only a small fraction of the broader field of anti-corruption research. Consequently, larger-scale studies often allocate a relatively smaller portion of their overall focus to examining this specific aspect.

However, one valuable document focuses on evaluating anti-corruption standards: "Effectively evaluating anti-corruption interventions,” published by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre of the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway. [3]

This study enumerates the essential measures needed to form a policy system to prevent corruption, including:

1. Strengthening the capacity and legal authority of law enforcement agencies and judicial agencies;

2. Enhancing the capacity and operating space of investigative journalism;

3. Establishing, training, and providing resources for independent anti-corruption agencies; and

4.  Formulating public oversight mechanisms.

When comparing the anti-corruption model of Vietnam against these standards, it becomes clear that they do not apply to the country's ongoing anti-corruption campaign.

It is clear that these are not recommendations that governments like Vietnam are currently employing. By contrast, the Vietnamese government is implementing measures that counter these recommendations.

Independent media and opposition groups in Vietnam have been systematically silenced. This challenging environment also extends to investigative journalism as it faces significant hurdles to survive within the Vietnamese media landscape.

Even Nguyen Hoai Nam, one of Vietnam's best-known investigative journalists, who was previously praised by the Vietnamese government, was recently imprisoned for "abusing democratic freedoms.” [4]

The Vietnamese judiciary and the police system are virtually passive in the research, formulation, and implementation of anti-corruption measures. Their expertise on corruption depends entirely on the all-powerful authority of party agencies such as the Central Inspection Commission of the Central Committee of the VCP. [5]

Up to this point, there has been no sustainable progress regarding legal frameworks, institutional structures, and political space for anti-corruption mechanisms in Vietnam. Agencies, positions, and power are centralized within the Communist Party.

The issue of holding corrupt individuals criminally liable is also discussed in the study.

It argues that the success of filing a criminal case against an individual accused of corruption can only be achieved if the process and handling satisfy two conditions: sending a clear message and sending an accurate statement. Only then can the public trust in cleaner institutions and the rule of law be reinforced.

However, this standard has not been demonstrated in Vietnam’s recent cases.

For instance, although Nguyen Xuan Phuc relinquished the position of president, no official reason has been provided for his dismissal. The entire process was executed through the veil of national politics, with even provincial officials unclear about the truth.

Although some Vietnamese right-wing media sources acknowledge that Nguyen Xuan Phuc was responsible for the mistakes of "lower level subordinates,” social media continues to be full of rumors that his wife was involved in the Việt Á scandal.

Independent and overseas Vietnamese-language media outlets, such as Nguoi Viet and VOA, have also reported this information as a serious accusation against the former president. [6] [7]

This is concerning because the president is the head of state, representing the people and the country of Vietnam. He cannot be abruptly dismissed without any official explanation other than rumors and speculation.

If we take the approach of the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre's research, the corruption cases that have been and are currently being processed in Vietnam are neither transparent nor accurate.

However, according to the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, it is important to consider the specific context of each country, such as Vietnam in this case, when evaluating anti-corruption efforts. While the study does not discount the possibility of achievements, it suggests that success may be relative. For instance, if anti-corruption measures are implemented in a country where such efforts are consistently undermined or face significant challenges, even campaigns that merely restrict the "growth" of corruption or maintain the status quo can be deemed successful.

This shows that the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre is not too rigid in building its corruption assessment model; policies that produce results should be considered and supported.

As some studies by authors in Luat Khoa Magazine have shown, the "systemic corruption" and "developmental corruption model" famous in East Asia in general, and in China in particular, have to maintain some economic development while keeping corruption "stable" to protect the interests of those who participate in and defend the government. [8]

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Vietnam's current anti-corruption model is as effective or optimal as many argue.

“Measuring Smoke Rather than Seeing the Fire”

Another alternative perspective regarding anti-corruption measures comes from the efforts of member nations and experts within the United Nations themselves — specifically, the UN Convention against Corruption. [9]

Despite limited mention in state media, Vietnam is also a signatory and member of this convention.

Exploring the internal workings of the Convention Against Corruption will give insight into what this document aims to achieve and what is expected of its signatories.

In addition, the number of documents, reports, and information produced by the Convention and its specialized agencies is abundant, providing us with a further understanding of the problem of corruption. One such document on corruption prevention was published as far back as 2010. [10]

This document analyzes the issues of monitoring and evaluating a country's corruption situation enumerates the achievements of anti-corruption campaigns, and provides fundamental analyses to measure the level of corruption.

It also mentions three ways for evaluating corruption levels: the quantitative method, the indirect method, and the evidence-based method.

The document quotes an insightful comment from former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon:

“(…) One major handicap is that we don’t know how to measure corruption - a crucial need in our fight against an unseen foe. The best we can do right now is to gauge public perception of corruption. But gauging perception is like measuring smoke rather than seeing the fire.”

Ki-Moon’s words provide insight into one of the document’s main ideas: official sources of information on corruption provided by governments are always problematic.

Undoubtedly, synthesizing information from official government records will help researchers perceive some surprising trends in campaigns against corruption. However, the document warns that they will never see the whole picture if they only rely on these sources.

In addition, the document argues that the state of corruption or the achievements of anti-corruption campaigns must be subject to and verified by many survey and analysis measures: from household surveys to business surveys, surveys on civil servants, and so on.

Without proper documentation and space to transparently obtain the above information, corrupt officials will remain free, further reflecting the ongoing flaws of the system.


Some may dismiss these perspectives as mere "excuses" aimed at discrediting Nguyen Phu Trong's campaign. However, the evidence presented in this article shows the ongoing anti-corruption campaign in Vietnam, in its current form, is unlikely to achieve success.

Notably, key officials implicated in significant political scandals over the past year, including Việt Á and the Vietnam Airlines' rescue flight, are prominent members of the 13th Party Congress. This raises doubts about the effectiveness of the campaign.

Moreover, the erosion of press freedom and civil space persists, with numerous journalists and whistleblowers incarcerated. The lack of an independent judiciary further exacerbates the issue, as the judicial system remains subservient to Party directives. These ongoing circumstances do not align with the notion of successful reform or a triumphant anti-corruption campaign.


1. Viết Tuân - Sơn Hà. (2023, January 19). Ông Nguyễn Xuân Phúc rời ghế Chủ tịch nước. VnExpress.

2. Võ Văn Quản. (2022, September 8). Tham nhũng thể chế: Vì sao kỳ công “đốt lò” của ông Trọng là vô nghĩa trong dài hạn. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí.

3. Effectively evaluating anti-corruption interventions. (n.d.). U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre.

4. Tuyết Mai. (2022, February 18). Truy tố ông Nguyễn Hoài Nam về tội lợi dụng quyền tự do dân chủ. Tuổi Trẻ Online.

5. See:

6. Đài CNA của Singapore: ‘Nguyễn Xuân Phúc mất ghế vì để vợ dính vụ Việt Á.’ (2023, January 28). Nguoi Viet Online

7. Ông Phúc rớt đài là do vợ và người thân dính đến vụ Việt Á? (2023, January 23). VOA Tiếng Việt.

8. Nguyễn Văn Lung. (2022, June 17). Tìm lời giải cho hiện tượng Trung Quốc: Vì sao tham nhũng nặng nhưng phát triển thần kỳ? Luật Khoa Tạp Chí.

9. Ratification status. (n.d.). United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime.

10. Methodologies, including evidence-based approaches, for assessing areas of special vulnerability to corruption in the public and private sectors. (2010, December 13). Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.

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