Rescue Flights Trial Exposes Hidden Systemic Flaws in Vietnam’s Political Framework

Rescue Flights Trial Exposes Hidden Systemic Flaws in Vietnam’s Political Framework

Dozens of Vietnamese government officials and tourism agency directors accused of cheating overseas Vietnamese residents with overpriced homebound air tickets during the COVID-19 pandemic have been convicted after more than two weeks of trial. The court announced life sentences for four officials at the ministries of foreign affairs, health, and public security. Others received punishment ranging from suspended sentences to 16 years in prison.

Generally, people in Vietnam supported the imposed sentences. The corruption trial is seen as an appeasement for both Vietnamese nationals living overseas and the domestic public, who, for years, have grown weary of the practice of handshaking between state officials and private businesses in mutually benefiting themselves. It is also considered part of the “blazing furnace” campaign (chiến dịch đốt lò), an anti-graft drive spearheaded by Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) chief Nguyen Phu Trong.

But at the same time, the “rescue flight” trial poses enduring questions and challenges for the future of Trong’s promise to tackle corruption since it does not effectively solve the root causes of this problem in Vietnam: a vast bureaucratic system and the lack of efficient anti-corruption mechanisms.

The Systemic Issue

Most Vietnam experts and commentators believe the “rescue flight” scandal was only the tip of a gigantic hidden iceberg.

David Hutt, a journalist focused on Indo-Pacific affairs, told [1] BBC News Vietnamese the bribery trial demonstrates that “after four years of the ‘blazing furnace’ campaign, senior officials still think they can get away with such blatant corruption.”

“This shows that any anti-corruption campaign led by the VCP will fail while failing to address the real problem, in which in a one-party state, government officials are only punished by their superiors,” said Hutt. “Only a change in the political system can effectively tackle corruption.”

Meanwhile, others believe that Vietnam’s cumbersome bureaucratic system indirectly contributes to the country’s endemic corruption problem.

Since the Communist regime in Vietnam is not elected to power through fair and free elections, it seeks to gain support and approval from different segments of society through political patronage with a diverse network of state-funded bureaucrats working in the state sector.

Meanwhile, such a considerable bureaucracy also burdens the national budget; the Vietnamese state, as a result, can only sustain itself by limiting the salaries of these appointed cadres to a minimum. Low wages in the state sector and the lack of an effective anti-corruption instrument nurture a fertile environment for corruption to thrive.

Corruption in Vietnam is commonly perceived as a systemic problem, where bribes are regarded as essential grease to keep the whole bureaucracy running. Although the regime is aware of these institutional shortcomings, it looks the other way and lets its civil bureaucrats take advantage of the flawed system to benefit themselves financially.

When asked whether the VCP will slim down the cumbersome political structure to dedicate its national budget to raise state sector wages, Nguyen Anh Tuan, a Vietnamese human rights activist, told The Vietnamese Magazine that he believes “this is not feasible, especially in the short term, because the party prioritizes the preservation of its power stability [rather than combating corruption.]” Tuan now lives in Canada. He has a master’s in public policy and focuses on administrative issues in Vietnam.

Tuan added that although the regime realizes the consequences of an overly cumbersome political system and seeks to minimize its size, it is “merely patching up the system” instead of devising a new approach to build a better public administration model, which may require fundamental political reforms.

The activist further said that the party implemented several programs to downsize the bureaucracy. However, these had disproportionately targeted the workforce of essential units such as public school teachers and hospital staff. Other state departments that consume enormous state budgets, including the police apparatus and a vast network of mass organizations at all administrative levels, are immune to the reduction policy. This baffling resolution has counterintuitively led to a shortage of competitive civil servants in crucial state sectors while failing to reduce the redundancy of Vietnam’s political system.

A “Softer” Graft-Busting Approach

The “rescue flights” case is inherently understood to validate the VCP’s commitment to the battle against corruption in Vietnam. The goal of this drive, as Nguyen Phu Trong once said, is to “regain the people’s trust in the Party.”

Previously, Trong also proclaimed that there would be no “no-go zone” when it comes to the prosecution of corrupt politicians. However, the recent bribery trial questions the legitimacy of this “blazing furnace” campaign as some senior politicians have remained untouched while many others in their ministries have been punished.

For instance, Vietnam’s rubber-stamp legislature in January this year approved [2] the resignation of former State President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, one of the four political “pillars” in the country, following widespread speculation that Phuc and his wife orchestrated the purchase and distribution of Viet A COVID-19 kit tests, [3] another pandemic-related corruption scandal.

Similarly, Vietnam dismissed former Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh earlier this year as the country intensified the probe into organizing rescue flights. Notably, Minh, an ex-member of the powerful Politburo, has not been arrested or indicted for corruption even though many others in the government were later implicated in the bribery trial. The disciplinary committee did not disclose the reason for his removal.

Regarding this issue, Vietnamese activist Nguyen Anh Tuan said that the handling of Pham Binh Minh “reflects Trong’s softer approach” when certain members of the Politburo are entangled in corruption scandals. “That means that instead of making them assume legal responsibility and subject to arrests, [Trong] makes them bear political responsibility by dismissing them.”

Tuan believes there were two reasons behind such an approach. First, the need to prove that the anti-corruption campaign has no “no-go zones” was no longer a priority after Dinh La Thang, another Politburo member, was arrested in 2017 on corruption charges. [4] Second, the Vietnamese activist said Trong is aware that his time as the VCP chief is limited and that he doesn’t want to cause too much trouble at the top, which can lead to unforeseen instability for the Party and himself.

“Therefore, in the later stage of the “blazing furnace” campaign, we will hear more about the policy of ‘mercy and humanity’ [in dealing with corruption cases],” he said.

The Flaws in the Anti-Corruption Mechanism

There is a probability that the current practice of arrests and prosecutions won’t solve the problem of endemic corruption in Vietnam since it’s a systemic issue. Many Vietnamese social critics believe that to effectively combat bribery and the prevalent exercise of palm-greasing, Vietnamese officials, including Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, must publicly disclose their personal assets. [5]

But in reality, the current laws on the assets and income management of Vietnamese cadres and civil servants “is intended to be shoddy,” said Nguyen Anh Tuan. He pointed out three shortcomings in Vietnam’s current legal system in managing the assets of state bureaucrats and how this could hamper the country’s fight against corruption.

First, Tuan said that although Vietnamese government officials must declare their assets, such information is not revealed to the public.

Second, there is a lack of thorough verification of these financial declarations and legal punishment against those who defied the process.

And third, according to the Tuan, it’s technically impossible to verify millions of financial declarations annually, as the Hanoi regime currently attempts to do.

“Other countries customarily require only a few high-ranking politicians in the government to provide financial declarations rather than conduct a mass verification like Vietnam,” he said. “This tactic is deployed to distract the public with the claim that the legal regulations requiring financial declarations do exist, while in reality, the regime uses technical excuses to hamstring the process.”


[1] BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2023, July 23). Đại án ‘Chuyến bay giải cứu’ mới chỉ xử lý phần nổi của tảng băng chìm? BBC News Tiếng Việt.

[2] Reuters. (2023, January 18). Vietnam legislature approves president’s resignation amid graft crackdown. Reuters.

[3] Nguyen, J. (2022). Vietnam’s COVID-19 Prevention Policy: A Tale Of Two Corruption Scandals. The Vietnamese Magazine.

[4] Reuters staff (2017, December 9). Vietnam orders prosecution of two more ex oil executives.

[5] Long, T. H. (2018). To Tell or Not To Tell Them About My Personal Assets: A General Secretary’s Dilemma. The Vietnamese Magazine.

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