ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL REFORMS IN VIETNAM IN THE 1980s, 90s AND 2000s

EARLY STEPS TOWARDS REFORMING COMMUNIST VIETNAM IN THE 1980S

In March 1982, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) convened its Fifth National Party Congress to assess its achievements since 1976 and to outline its major tasks for the 1980s. The congress was revealing if only because of its somber admission that revolutionary optimism was no substitute for common sense. Despite rigid social controls and mass mobilization, the party fell far short of its original expectations for socialist transition. According to the party's assessment, from 1976 through 1980 shortcomings and errors occurred in establishing transition goals and in implementing the party line. The congress, however, reaffirmed the correctness of the party line concerning socialist transition, and directed that it be implemented with due allowances for different regional circumstances. The task was admittedly formidable. In a realistic appraisal of the regime's difficulties, Nhan Dan, the party's daily organ, warned in June 1982 that the crux of the problem lay in the regime itself, the shortcomings of which included lack of party discipline and corruption of party and state functionaries. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Through the l980s and 1990s the goal of establishing a new society remained elusive, and Vietnam languished in the first stage of the party's planned period of transition to socialism. Mai Chi Tho, mayor of Ho Chi Minh City and deputy head of its party branch, had told visiting Western reporters as early as April 1985 that socialist transition, as officially envisioned, would probably continue until the year 2000.

In the estimation of the party, Vietnamese society had succumbed to a new form of sociopolitical elitism that was just as undesirable as the much-condemned elitism of the old society. Landlords and comprador capitalists may have disappeared but in their places were party cadres and state functionaries who were no less status-conscious and self-seeking. The Sixth National Party Congress in December 1986 found it necessary to issue a stern warning against opportunism, individualism, personal gain, corruption, and a desire for special prerogatives and privileges. A report to the congress urged the party to intensify class struggle in order to combat the corrupt practices engaged in by those who had "lost their class consciousness." Official efforts to purify the ranks of the working class, peasantry, and socialist intellectuals, however, failed to strike a responsive chord. In fact, the proceedings of the Sixth Congress left the inescapable impression that the regime was barely surviving the struggle between socialism and capitalism and that an early emergence of a communist class structure was unlikely. *

As ideally envisioned, the socialist sector was expected to provide 70 percent of household income and the "household economy," or the privately controlled resources of the home, was to make up the balance. In September 1986 cadres and workers were earning their living mainly through moonlighting and, according to a Vietnamese source, remained on "the state rolls only to preserve their political prestige and to receive some ration stamps and coupons." The source further disclosed that the society's lack of class consciousness was reflected in the party's membership, among whom only about 10 percent were identified as from the working class. *

Political Reforms in Vietnam

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in 1989- 1991 and the reforms that took place before it had a profound effect on Vietnam. The Glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) policies of President Mikhael Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, reverberated in Vietnam. In 1986, the reform-minded Nguyen Van Linh was chosen to lead the Vietnamese Communist Party. Doi moi (economic reform) was experimented with in Cambodia and introduced to Vietnam. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

In 1990, the government called for more openness and criticism, but cold feet and too much openness on too many things caused the Vietnamese government to step backward and be more selective about the issues that were allowed and weren’t allowed to be criticized. The dramatic changes that occurred after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 were not viewed favorably in Hanoi. The Vietnamese Communist Party denounced the participation of noncommunists in Eastern Bloc governments, calling the democratic revolutions "a counterattack from imperialist circles" against socialism.

On top of this the cash-strapped Russian government that materialized after the Soviet break up cut off funding to it former Soviet satellites and Vietnam was hit hard by the drying up funds from its former benefactor. In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia in part because it could no longer afford to stay there any more. Economic reforms were introduced out of necessity to survive. Politically the offshoot all this is that while Vietnam has forged ahead economically and embraced market reforms, politically it hasn’t reformed all that much and in many respects is behind China in terms of being politically in tune with the times and addressing the social and political needs of the Vietnamese people.

Economic Reforms in Vietnam

In 1986 Vietnam launched free-market economic reforms similar to those launched in China under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. The reforms were called doi moi (economic rejuvenation) and seemed to have been enacted out of desperation. Some scholars described the reforms as an abrupt transition from Stalinism to capitalism. Some historians refer to this period as "southernization." Others have called it "Cowboy capitalism" One Harvard economist described it as a "twilight zone" between Stalinism and Capitalism.

In 1986 Nguyen Van Linh, who was elevated to VCP general secretary the following year, launched Doi Moi campaign for political and economic renewal. His policies were characterized by political and economic experimentation. Reflecting the spirit of political compromise, Vietnam phased out its reeducation effort. The government also stopped promoting agricultural and industrial cooperatives. Farmers were permitted to till private plots alongside state-owned land, and in 1990 the government passed a law encouraging the establishment of private businesses.

Doi moi (literally translated as ‘to make a change’) was introduced by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) at its Sixth National Party Congress in December 1986, about the same time as the Soviet Union began perestroika. The party leadership regarded it as a new policy, essential not only for the nation’s economic survival, but also for the necessary political and social renewal in order to meet the country’s development needs in the future. Leadership changes undertaken at the Sixth Party Congress marked the beginning of the end of an era dominated by revolutionaries who emphasized security at the expense of social welfare and modernization.

One official told Smithsonian, "the inspiration for this came from China. Our leaders saw that what was happening there was good for China and decided it would be good for us."When asked by Stanley Karnow in 1995 what happened to Marxism, Giap replied, "Marx was a great analyst, but he never gave us a formula for running a country...socialism is whatever bring happiness to the people."

See Separate Article Under Economic History

Vietnamese Foreign Relations In the 1990s and 2000s

Relations with the U.S. have improved in recent years. In early 1994 the U.S. finally lifted its economic embargo, which had been in place since the 1960s. Full diplomatic relations with the U.S. have been restored and Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit northern Vietnam in 2000. George W Bush followed suit in 2006, as Vietnam was welcomed into the World Trade Organization (WTO). [Source: Lonely Planet =]

According to Lonely Planet: "Relations have also improved with the historic enemy China. Vietnam is still overshadowed by its northern neighbour and China still secretly thinks of Vietnam as a renegade province. But Vietnam’s economic boom has caught Beijing’s attention and it sees northern Vietnam as the fastest route from Yunnan and Sichuan to the South China Sea. Cooperation towards the future is more important than the conflict of the past. =

"Vietnam is an active member of ASEAN, an organization originally established as a bulwark against communism, and this is all adding up to a rosy economic picture. Vietnam’s economy is growing at more than 8 percent a year and tourists just can’t get enough of the place. The future is bright, but ultimate success depends on how well the Vietnamese can follow the Chinese road to development: economic liberalisation without political liberalisation. With only two million paid-up members of the Communist Party and 80 million Vietnamese, it is a road they must tread carefully. =

Elections in Vietnam in 2007

May 2007, AFP reported: "Vietnamese citizens have voted for a new national assembly in a five-yearly election that will bring new faces to the legislature while maintaining the Communist Party's grip on power. More than 50 million eligible voters out of Vietnam's 84 million people were due to elect 500 new deputies from a field of 875 hopefuls – including 150 who are not members of the ruling party and 30 self-nominated candidates. Vietnam has said it wants to broaden public participation in the assembly, but ultimately about 90 percent of seats are guaranteed to go to the party, whose affiliate the Fatherland Front also screened all other candidates. Final results are expected within seven to 10 days after voting. [Source: Agence France Presse, May 21, 2007 <<>>]

"Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh was among the first to cast his ballot, in Hanoi's government district of Ba Dinh, as propaganda messages starting at 6:00 am urged people to come out quickly and vote as required by law. "Go to the polls and express the will and the aspirations of the people," said a typical loudspeaker message echoing through the streets of the capital. "Electing a new and good national assembly serves our cause of industrialisation and modernisation of the country because deputies will be the bridge between the national assembly and the people." <<>>

"The legislature has changed in recent years from being a purely rubber-stamp body into a debating forum that has occasionally grilled top officials in sessions broadcast on national television. Deputies have complained loudly of corruption and passed laws that bring the country in line with the rules of the World Trade Organization which Vietnam, a low-income but rapidly growing economy, joined early this year. Mr Manh said the 12th assembly's task would be to push forward reforms with the aim of "bringing Vietnam out of the list of less developed countries by 2010 and becoming a modern industrialised country by 2020." Vietnam's leaders have made clear that they will tolerate no open challenge to the sole rule of the party which has dominated public life in unified Vietnam since the end of the "American War" in 1975. <<>>

"In recent months, Vietnam has tried and jailed several political dissidents who had urged an election boycott or called for a multi-party political system, triggering protests from the United States and European Union. In Sunday's election, no controversial candidates were likely to be elected as all of them had to gain the support of their workplaces and neighbourhoods, which have their own party cells, as well as the Fatherland Front. Meanwhile, women, ethnic minorities and key institutions such as the police, army and farmers' unions are all guaranteed blocks of seats in advance. <<>>

"Vietnam expert Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said that although more non-party members and self-nominated candidates were running than in the past, the elections "remain a highly contrived affair." "Central authorities determine in advance the ideal structure and composition of the National Assembly," he said. In the run-up to the poll, the leadership urged citizens to hoist the national flag. On Sunday public loud-speakers started playing patriotic songs at dawn, also hailing late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Official turnout was expected to top 90 percent, as in the 2002 vote. <<>>

In an election where there is no doubt about which party will win, the contest is often between wards who compete to be first to finish voting. At the polling stations, heads of families often cast proxy votes for their relatives, typically with a choice to elect three deputies from five candidates, whose pictures and brief CVs were provided at polling booths. "I saw that most people casting their ballots are older people," complained one 78-year-old retiree in Hanoi. "They vote for the whole family. It seems that the young voters are lazy."

Vietnamese Elections in 2011

In May 2011, Reuters reported: "Vietnam held parliamentary elections in a vote designed to maintain the Communist Party’s grip on power but unlikely to roll back the National Assembly’s more active role in shaping policy. Hanoians trickled into polling stations across a sunny city festooned in red banners imploring citizens to do their patriotic duty and vote. Billboards depicted proud workers casting ballots and propaganda loudspeakers on telephone polls blared syrupy patriotic music. [Source: Reuters, May 23, 2011 ^^]

"Voters will pick up to 500 delegates from 827 candidates nationwide in the election which is normally held every five years. About 90 percent of delegates are expected to be Communist Party members and the rest are independents. The results are expected within about a week. The party touts the election as a display of democracy, but gerrymandering and careful candidate vetting ensure there are few surprises. ^^

"The parliament is expected to meet in July to pick a new government, although Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is widely expected to retain his post. ‘I hope the newly elected representatives will bring new reforms and changes, with fresh ideas to make our society a better one,’ said Hanoi University student Nguyen Xuan Dung. ^^

10th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2006

The 10th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam was held in Ba Ðình Hall, Hanoi from 18 to 25 April 2006. The congress occurs every five years. 1,176 delegates represented the party's 3 million members. At the 13th plenum of the Central Committee, held before the congress, it was decided that eight members of the Communist Party's 9th Politburo had to retire. While certain segments within and outside the Politburo were skeptical, the decision was implemented. Because of party rules, the congress was not empowered to elect the general secretary, and it held a survey on whom the delegates wanted to be appointed General Secretary. The first plenum of the Central Committee, held in the immediate aftermath of the congress, re-elected Nong Duc Manh as general secretary. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The congress was noteworthy because of the extent of democratization which took place within the party. The role of the Central Committee in decision-making was strengthened, and the role of the Politburo as a supreme organ was weakened. Inner-party accountability was strengthened. The Eighth Five-Year Plan of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was approved at the congress, renewed its Marxist–Leninist credentials and emphasized the need to continue to improve the socialist-oriented market economy. +

Associated Press reported: "Vietnam's ruling Communist Party opened its congress Tuesday with a focus on tackling the deep-seated corruption that threatens economic growth as the country reaffirms its commitment to market reforms. Held once every five years,the meeting allows the ruling party to chart the country's economic strategy. But a looming government corruption scandal has forced party leaders to turn their attention inward. "Intensifying the fight and control of corruption and wastefulness is a pressing requirement by the society and is the political determination of our party, with the aim of building a clean, strong leadership and management apparatus,'' Manh said in his opening address. By doing that, Vietnam can "overcome one of the major dangers that threaten the survival of our regime,'' he said. [Source: Associated Press, April 18, 2006 ==]

"The delegates elected a new Central Committee of 160 members, which in turn will choose the Politburo, the party's innermost circle of leaders. For the first time ever, delegates will be allowed to nominate candidates for general secretary. Manh emphasized that Vietnam will continue the economic reforms, initially launched two decades ago under the doi moi, or renovation, policy, that have turned the country into Southeast Asia's fastest-growing nation. ==

"The party affirms the continuation to comprehensively accelerate the renewal process, a policy that has won support from the people and highly appreciated by international opinion,'' Manh said. Though Vietnam has done well, Manh noted that its growth is still "not on par with its capacity,'' and the country must work harder to ensure it does not fall behind its neighbors economically. He set a target of maintaining 7.5 percent to 8 percent annual growth over the next five years, cutting urban unemployment below 5 percent and creating 8 million new jobs. ==

"Dealing with widespread corruption in the political system may prove to be Hanoi's biggest challenge now that its major ideological battles over the country's economic direction have been fought. A widening scandal at the Transport Ministry allegedly involved millions in funds earmarked for infrastructure projects being siphoned off to pay for luxury cars and gambling on European soccer matches. The case has become an international embarrassment for Vietnam because much of the money was apparently development assistance given by the World Bank and Japan, among others. ==

11th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2011

The 11th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam occurred between 12–19 January 2011, at the My Dinh National Convention Center, Hanoi. Associated Press reported: "Vietnam's grand meeting to pick its top Communist leaders wrapped up with the reshuffling of many familiar high-ranking party members, as the government clung to its one-party system while boasting of true democracy. As widely expected, Nguyen Phu Trong, 66, was officially proclaimed the new party boss, along with 14 new members of the all-powerful Politburo, including Trong. As the party's former chief Marxist theorist, he leaves his position as head of the lawmaking National Assembly. The new leaders were picked behind closed doors by the Communist elite without any public elections, but Trong nonetheless praised the Congress as a great example of "straightforwardness and true democracy.""It's not a kind of face democracy, just for display," Trong told reporters. [Source: Margie Mason, Associated Press, January 19, 2011 *\*]

Trong replaces retiring party chief Nong Duc Manh, 70, who departed taking responsibility for many flaws during a tenure that ended with a litany of economic woes. "I, myself, to some extent, haven't met the expectations of the people and the Communist members," Manh told delegates in his closing remarks. "And I honor the reports that you heard over the days that pointed out our shortcomings in the leadership, for the party's central committee, and I also take my responsibility." The session ended with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, 61, picked to retain his job and rival Truong Tan Sang, also 61 and the party's No. 2, tapped as the new president. Dung and Sang, who replaced retiring President Nguyen Minh Triet, was officially confirmed by the parliament later in the year. *\*

During his opening statement, outgoing Communist Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh praised Vietnam's economic development over the past five years, but warned that its high growth rate of an average 7.2 percent during the last decade remains unsustainable. "The quality, efficiency and competitiveness remains low," he said. "Bureaucracy, corruption, wastefulness, social vices, moral and lifestyle degradation have not been prevented." [Source: Associated Press, January 12, 2011 |+|]

The Party Congress is the government's biggest blowout event, and its propaganda machine has been working overtime. The capital's chilly city streets were festooned with streaming red hammer-and-sickle banners sagging across busy streets with slogans proclaiming, "The Great President Ho Chi Minh Lives Forever In Our Cause!" But despite all of the grandstanding, many ordinary Vietnamese were too caught up in their daily lives to pay much attention to the event. "Whenever I surf the Internet there are many other interesting things that attract me rather than the Party Congress," said pharmacy student Vo Mai Phuong, 22. "I visit Facebook and chat rooms, and I watch South Korean and U.S. movies." *\*

Security was tight outside the meeting hall, with riot police strapped with guns standing guard in front.US-based Human Rights Watch says an intense period of crackdowns on political dissidents has occurred in the weeks leading up to the event, which is held every five years. Manh said the country has faced "acts of sabotage" and "violent instigation" that have threatened the regime. "Hostile forces continue to implement plots ... using democracy and human rights as a pretext for attempting to change the political regime in our country," he said. The criticism comes as Vietnam tightens controls on Internet websites, including the blockage of Facebook. Last week, Washington filed a strong protest to the Vietnamese government after a US Embassy political officer was roughed up by police in the central city of Hue while trying to visit one of Vietnam's most prominent pro-democracy dissidents, Catholic Priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly. |+|

Analysis of 11th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2011

Global Post reported: "Given the current economic woes — inflation, weakening currency and a serious trade deficit — and dramas at the state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin as well as the contentious bauxite mine project in the Central Highlands — some wondered whether heated debate would ensue. It did not. Officials opened the congress by apologizing for corruption and inefficiency. But aside from these notably open gestures (which were not unprecedented) there were overall few surprises. [Source: Helen Clark, Global Post, January 20, 2011 //\\]

"Despite recent criticism over his economic policies and the near collapse of Vinashin, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung retained his position at the helm. Though, like all the appointments, his position will have to be ratified in May by the National Assembly. Gen. Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and President Nguyen Trong Sang replaced former Secretary Nong Duc Manh and President Nguyen Minh Triet, respectively. Both Manh and Triet were over the age limit of 65, and retired. //\\

"Going forward, Sang, now in the largely ceremonial position of president, is expected to pander to world leaders before strong-arming his own men. Sang has also been a longtime rival of Prime Minister Dung, and there is likely to be more friction between the two. Trong, 66 (technically over the age limit) and former head of the National Assembly, has been described as "grandfatherly." There is some concern over whether Trong will be able to provide forceful leadership. The priority after elections will be management of the economy. Both Dung and Sang are market-oriented, and Trong publicly stated that tackling economic problems would be the first order of business. Inflation will be addressed, though a concrete plan of attack has yet to be announced. //\\

"Dung will be forced to reckon with an increasingly assertive Central Committee, according to Vietnam-expert Carl Thayer, a professor based in Australia. "The point to be made is that the Central Committee is likely to reflect current concerns [over] economic issues. Prime Minister Dung has his work cut out over the next several months before the Central Committee convenes," Thayer wrote. The congress confirmed the government's main agenda, said Martin Gainsborough of Bristol University, who recently wrote a book on Vietnam’s economy. "The government’s main goals can be encapsulated as securing growth with stability and maintaining social and political stability. ... Congresses only set out the broad parameters of policy direction. The devil’s in the details," Gainsborough told GlobalPost. //\\

"That said, over 10 percent of new electees to the Central Committee — the most powerful body in the government with close to 200 members — were from the army. Some have chalked this up to Sino-Vietnamese relations. Though Hanoi and Beijing aver friendship, Vietnam often views its larger neighbor with suspicion and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are an ongoing issue. //\\

"Maintaining the one-party status quo while pushing for more debate within the party — what could be called 'internal democracy' — was the theme of this congress. Discussion over key leadership positions and the direction the party should take in the coming months took precedence over outside challenges. Vietnam's ongoing integration into the wider world is believed by many to be a possible catalyst for dissent from authoritarian rule, and any challenge to one-party rule is traditionally squashed. International media chronicled repressive actions taken by the government over past year in the run-up to the congress. Bloggers and activists were locked up, visa restrictions on foreigners and the easy-to-circumvent Facebook block was stepped up around New Year’s. //\\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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