Interview with Professor Tuong Vu on the Vietnamese Communist Party: War Legacies and Future Prospects

Interview with Professor Tuong Vu on the Vietnamese Communist Party: War Legacies and Future Prospects
Photo: Trinh Huu Long/Luat Khoa Magazine.

Ninety-four years ago, on Feb. 3, 1930, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) was founded. The party took Vietnam into three major wars with France, the U.S., and Cambodia-China, succeeded in imposing Communist rule over Vietnam, and has monopolized power since 1975. 

The Vietnamese Magazine recently interviewed Professor Tuong Vu, asking for his opinions on the historical foundations of the party and its future leadership in Vietnam. Professor Vu is a political scientist and director of the U.S.-Vietnam Research Center at the University of Oregon. His research concerns the comparative politics of state formation, development, nationalism, and revolutions, focusing on East Asia.

Dear Professor Tuong Vu, thank you for accepting our interview request. Why are the legacies left behind by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) so controversial? Some prominent scholars believe that VCP leaders were mere patriots, not Communists. How much do you agree with this popular belief?

Thank you for the question. The legacies are controversial because there were a lot of failures besides the successes. The failures existed in part because the VCP asked for so much sacrifice from the people. The wars led to the deaths of millions of Vietnamese people and caused suffering for everyone. What people got after the war was simply a Communist dictatorship that failed to develop the country. 

After the first 10 years following the end of the civil war between North and South Vietnam, the Communist Party embarked on economic reforms to make up for its mistakes in the past. That reform has improved the lives of most Vietnamese people, but Vietnam has still not caught up with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. That is a big disappointment after so much sacrifice.

The second part of your question asks about the viewpoints of some foreign scholars who claim that Vietnamese leaders of the first generation were simply patriots and not Communists. I think that view is not true and totally naive because, in part, these scholars don't read Vietnamese and don’t understand the Vietnamese Communist movement that well.

I believe the Vietnamese Communists began as patriots, but once they joined the Communist movement, they adopted the worldview of that movement, which was very radical at the time. And they truly believed in the mission to create communism in Vietnam in the model of the Soviet Union that many of them observed firsthand. So, I think they were true Communists.

As you mentioned above, the Vietnamese leaders were Communists rather than patriots. But why did foreign scholars still buy into their propaganda?

Most foreign scholars, like I said, don’t read Vietnamese. They only read what the Vietnamese Communist leaders wanted them to believe. If they could read internal communication within the leadership, they would know that Vietnamese leaders were genuinely dedicated to a communist vision. Moreover, these scholars were against the US intervention during the war. They argued that since the Vietnamese leaders were true patriots and not Communists, the U.S. government had no reason to fear that Vietnam would become a Communist country, and the U.S. should not have intervened in the war. They wanted the United States to withdraw from Vietnam and support North Vietnam because of that reason.

To what extent does Marxist-Leninist ideology play a role in Vietnam nowadays in the wake of the adoption of significant economic reforms and Vietnam’s elevation of diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other democratic countries?

Marxist-Leninism plays a minor role in Vietnam today, and few, if any, Vietnamese leaders still believe in it. They only want to maintain the party’s image partly because Ho Chi Minh, the party's founder of the Communist Party, remains popular in Vietnam. The VCP’s history also was so tied to the Communist mission, and current leaders do not have the ability or vision to imagine any other mission. This is why the party still teaches Marxist-Leninist Thought in Vietnamese schools and makes it a compulsory subject, even though most students don’t really care about it.

In January, Vietnam’s social media was abuzz following rumors regarding the problematic health condition of Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong. Since Trong is a hardline Marxist-Leninist who strongly opposes the so-called “peaceful revolution” and who suppresses human rights, what changes could we expect in a post-Trong period in Vietnam if he is not healthy enough to lead the party?

Trong is probably the only leader in Vietnam who still believes in Marxism-Leninism in some measure. His successors will unlikely believe in that, so ideological maintenance would not be continued as rigorously as under Trong. If ideological loyalty and rigidity contribute to Trong’s repressive policies toward civil society and human rights, Vietnam may become less repressive under new leaders in the post-Trong period. This is going to be the most important change.

Is it likely that Trong’s successor would continue his ‘blazing furnace’ anti-graft campaign, which gained popularity among the Vietnamese?

Trong is relatively clean, but his successors are likely not. His successors might already resent his anti-corruption campaign, and they might feel that, at some point, the campaign would reach them. I believe that these successors would not continue Trong’s campaign. The likely successors may try to pretend that they will continue with this, but they would not really do much to deal with corrupt leaders or try to investigate corruption. However, if the competition to succeed Trong becomes fierce, the victor(s) would use the campaign to purge the losers to grab their power and seize their assets.

Since you mentioned earlier that the VCP doesn’t have any clear mission, Trong has utilized his anti-corruption campaign to shore up the declining legitimacy of the Communist Party. Suppose the anti-corruption campaign is discontinued in the post-Trong era. Could his successors initiate other major institutional reforms in Vietnam, such as allowing civil society to thrive or even political pluralism?

I don’t think they’re going to open up society to a lot of political changes. None of the likely successors seem to have any interest in doing that nor do they have any background suggesting that they would do that. They probably will just continue Trong’s policy. But like I said, they likely would be less repressive than Trong.

Our final question is, who would be the most likely person to replace Trong as the general secretary of the VCP?

The general secretary is the top position in the Communist Party, and many individuals want to get it. So, there will be very intense competition for that position.

Currently, there are two likely candidates: one is Vo Van Thuong, now Vietnam’s state president, and the other one is Vuong Dinh Hue, chairman of the National Assembly. Hue seems to have a better chance of getting the job because he is more powerful and has broader support, especially that of the Nghe An faction. He is also better educated and seems to be the right-hand man Trong trusted. Perhaps Trong has made preparations to ensure Hue will step up to replace him instead of Thuong.

Thank you so much, Professor Vu.

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