Why Does Vietnam Punish Civil Society With Tax Evasion Charges?

Why Does Vietnam Punish Civil Society With Tax Evasion Charges?

Tax evasion charges against prominent civil society leaders have been at the forefront of Vietnam’s human rights discourse for the last few years as the government moved to close down many registered, non-governmental organizations. Last month, the authorities arrested Hoang Thi Minh Hong, an Obama Foundation scholar and the founder of the environment-focused organization CHANGE.

The charge against the environmental activist is notable because it departs from the usual tactics used against those deemed to be political dissidents by the government.

Political dissidents, who are either journalists, bloggers, or activists, are usually prosecuted on the count of “spreading propaganda against the state” under Article 117 of the Penal Code. The country is also charged with “abusing democratic freedoms” under Article 331, which has been used to silence those who criticize the Communist Party and its officials.

But why does the country bother to mask its crackdown on the non-governmental sector in legal proceedings? If the state had used either Article 117 or Article 331, it would have been obvious that the regime views environmental activism as threatening to the state. Regardless, the most recent report by The 88 Project has severely questioned the legitimacy of these tax evasion charges, as they clearly appear to be politically motivated.

The obvious answer is that the environmental activists did not conduct any explicitly anti-state activities. It would have been one thing if they held protest signs denouncing the Communist Party. Still, these activists all worked in climate and environmental advocacy - activities that do not seem to indicate a desire for regime change. They all founded or worked for registered non-governmental organizations, meaning the regime tolerated them for a long time.

So, what changed?

Repressing civil society in Vietnam through tax evasion charges is eerily similar to the tactic of “autocratic legalism” used by modern authoritarian leaders.

According to Princeton University legal sociologist Kim Lane Scheppele, autocratic legalism is the phenomenon “when electoral mandates plus constitutional and legal change are used in the service of an illiberal agenda.”

For example, the Hungarian dictator Prime Minister Viktor Orban is well known for abusing Hungary’s democratic mechanisms to consolidate his rule. After being democratically elected in 2010 with 68 percent of the seats in Parliament, Orban rewrote the 1989-1990 Constitution and countless new laws attacking the independence of the judiciary, the media, and the election commission, among many others. He filled these institutions with his loyalists and removed opposition figures, all through legal means.

The use of autocratic legalism did not just occur in Hungary, however, as similar abuse of legal mechanisms has been used in many other countries such as Russia, Turkey, Poland, and Venezuela. The similarity between these cases is the abuse of well-intentioned legal procedures to serve authoritarian goals.

Post-1975, Vietnam never strived to have democratic mechanisms - it is quite the opposite. In fact, the Communist Party insists on its monopoly of power in the Constitution. The political system there differs from the definition of autocratic legalism as it did not become authoritarian by abusing the legal framework. It is not a hybrid regime (a mix of democratic and authoritarian regimes), but rather simply an authoritarian system.

Instead, the similarity here lies in the fact that the authoritarian leaders of Vietnam are learning to speak the language of legalism, just like their autocratic peers in other dictatorships. They despise being called names by foreign actors and aspire to have the “dignity” of oppressing without being called out by every country of the Western world. Even more so, they despise the prospect of their people believing in the condemnation of various international watchers.

As a result, using the sham of legalism helps the regime evoke the “non-interference” argument, i.e., foreign countries and actors should not try to change Vietnam’s domestic law and politics, a sentiment that Vietnamese leaders have repeatedly echoed. This narrative has ground to blossom in a country that is hyper-sensitive to foreign influence. Obviously, such an argument does not work with foreign observers, but it does appeal to the average Vietnamese citizen.

In other words, authoritarians are learning to appear more “civilized,” more “official” with their oppression. Many would think that long gone are the Cold War days when the secret police would sneak up on dissidents who were exiled abroad and kidnap them. Except that still happens for Vietnamese bloggers and human rights defenders.

Most recently, there was the alleged abduction this summer of Duong Van Thai, a Vietnamese blogger and YouTuber who the United Nations in Thailand granted refugee status. So the Vietnamese authorities are not exactly trying to do things in the most legitimate way possible. Still, it is clear that they are heading in the direction of autocratic legalism, or at least are trying to.

A recent article in The Vietnamese Magazine argued that the LGBTQ+ movement in Vietnam has seen many successes over the years. That is a correct assessment, as LGBTQ+ activists are left to their own devices for now, mainly because this area of activism does not clash with the regime’s interest in self-preservation. In the eyes of the regime, LGBTQ+ activism is not a challenge to the party’s monopoly of power.

Nevertheless, the present circumstances raise an intriguing question: Can this state of affairs endure? Just a few years ago, the notion that environmental activism could be viewed as a threat to the state would have been considered absurd. The manner in which the regime chooses to interact with Civil Society within the nation appears to be contingent upon its prevailing disposition. It might either stem from a sense of paranoia or an intensified aspiration for totalitarian control aimed at eradicating any semblance of potential threat.

Perhaps it is not far-fetched to suggest that no one is safe - the regime could tolerate you today but not tomorrow.


  1. Nguyen, Son. “Assessing the Significance of Communist Ideology Within the Vietnamese Communist Party: Present-day Perspectives.” The Vietnamese Magazine, June 2023, www.thevietnamese.org/2023/06/assessing-the-significance-of-communist-ideology-within-the-vietnamese-communist-party-present-day-perspectives.
  2. “Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh's Full Speech at CSIS.” Socialist Republic of Vietnam - Government News, 16 May 2022, en.baochinhphu.vn/prime-minister-pham-minh-chinhs-full-speech-at-csis-111220516063545637.htm.
  3. Reed, Aerolyne. “Selective Justice and the Government’s Maltreatment of the ‘Vietnam Four.’” The Vietnamese Magazine, 8 June 2023, www.thevietnamese.org/2023/06/selective-justice-and-the-governments-maltreatment-of-the-vietnam-four.
  4. ---. “The Highs and Lows of the LGBTIQ Struggle in Vietnam.” The Vietnamese Magazine, June 2023, www.thevietnamese.org/2023/06/the-highs-and-lows-of-the-lgbtiq-struggle-in-vietnam.
  5. Scheppele, Kim Lane. “Autocratic Legalism.” The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 85, Mar. 2018, pp. 545–80, www.jstor.org/stable/26455917.
  6. The Vietnamese Magazine. “Former Police Captain Receives 3 Years in Prison Under Article 331.” The Vietnamese Magazine, 23 June 2022, www.thevietnamese.org/2022/06/former-police-captain-receives-3-years-in-prison-under-article-331.
  7. ---. “Vietnam Arrests Another Environmental Activist on ‘Tax Evasion’ Charges.” The Vietnamese Magazine, 5 June 2023, www.thevietnamese.org/2023/06/vietnam-arrests-another-environmental-activist-on-tax-evasion-charges.
  8. ---. “Vietnam’s Security Agents Allegedly Abduct Political Blogger Duong Van Thai.” The Vietnamese Magazine, 23 Apr. 2023, www.thevietnamese.org/2023/04/vietnams-security-agents-allegedly-abduct-political-blogger-duong-van-thai.
  9. “Vietnam: Human Rights Council Membership and Dialogues Fail to Stem Repression Against Activists - Civicus Monitor.” Civicus Monitor, monitor.civicus.org/explore/vietnam-human-rights-council-membership-and-dialogues-fail-to-stem-repression-against-activists.

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