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How Covid-19 will and won’t change Vietnam

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Communist Party has transparently handled the virus crisis, a shift some hope will carry over into more open politics

Vietnam has emerged as a coronavirus crisis success story, thanks in large part to its competent and uncharacteristically transparent handling of the viral outbreak. Now, analysts wonder if the trend will hold as the Communist Party-led nation exits lockdown and looks towards a leadership transition.

When news of the coronavirus began leaking from China in January, the communist government reacted quickly, shutting down flights in and out of the country and preparing its hospitals for an emergency.

The government still claims there have been no Covid-19 deaths in the country, while ministers have been praised for speaking regularly and openly to the people.

The response, analysts note, stands in stark contrast to the Party’s recent past, including when the government tried to cover up a massive toxic spill into the sea in 2016, causing perhaps the country’s worst ever environmental disaster.

“The recipe of Vietnam’s handling of the Covid crisis has three major ingredients: competence, transparency, and authoritarianism,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The shutdown has been effective because of the Communist Party’s ability to cajole its citizens, while it has also cracked down on free speech often with the excuse of censoring “fake news” that could imperil the authorities handling of the crisis, he said. 

“Reformist technocrats will gain more power thanks to their handling of the crisis, but so will officials with autocratic tendency who are adept at mobilizing the authoritarian state,” Vuving added.

As such, the coronavirus crisis has likely emboldened the Party’s two main wings, one conservative and one reformist, ahead of next January’s quinquennial 13th National Congress, at which top government positions and directions will be decided.

The maneuevering will soon be underway considering what happens at the National Congress is decided well in advance and must conform to tradition, noted Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and renowned Vietnam expert.

But while the Communist Party, the only legal party in Vietnam, does not rule democratically, it is sensitive to public sentiment.

“Ninety-seven percent of the Vietnamese population will have no direct say in who their next leaders will be,” Thayer said. But to some extent, he added, “popular opinion will influence the other 3% of the population who are members of the Vietnam Communist Party.”

Since the 12th National Congress in 2016, when Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong saw off his main rival, then-prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the Party has embarked on widespread anti-corruption and morality campaigns designed to rid it of selfish, uncommitted and non-ideological officials.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has continued his predecessor’s policy of reforming the economy, limiting the power of state-run industries and moving Vietnam’s foreign policy closer to the United States.

These two Party wings are often referred to as the conservatives (or traditionalists) and the reformists, though in reality the split is not so easily detectable or straightforward. Some analysts even suggest treating these differences as policy viewpoints and not separate factions. 

Personal friendships and loyalties also confuse the situation, with some reform-minded officials forming closer bonds to the traditionalists and vice-versa. Indeed, an apparatchik can be anti-corruption and pro-reform.

“Whatever views the public holds about ‘reformist technocrats’, Vietnam’s prevailing norms mitigate against a lurch in one direction or another,” said Thayer.

Instead, what decisions are made next January will depend largely on how well current senior politicians can lobby, cajole and politick their colleagues this year, in order for them to get their own allies and protégés into positions of power at the next National Congress.

One major question is whether the party will return to its “four-pillar” separation of powers tradition next year. 

Since the late 1980s, the Communist Party had stuck to a tacit agreement that the four most powerful positions – Party General Secretary, Prime Minister, State President and chair of the National Assembly – are held by four different people.

But this custom ended in late 2018 when, after the death of State President Tran Dai Quang, Trong was elected the new president at the same time as serving as party General Secretary.

Much of the intrigue of what is likely to happen next January, at the 13th National Congress, depends greatly on whether things revert back to the “four-pillar” system.

As a two-term Party chief, and much older than the age-limit on senior political office, Trong is expected to step down in January, though he could try to remain as State President for another term. 

If so, he will want to press for his own protégé, thought to be Tran Quoc Vuong, the head of the Party’s Inspection Commission and standing member of its Secretariat, to replace him.

Yet Vuong is reported to face stiff competition from Prime Minister Phuc, an economic-minded reformist who has won praise in recent years for his foreign policy capabilities, namely his wooing of US President Donald Trump, and for his leadership during the coronavirus crisis.

Another rumoured candidate for party General Secretary post is Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the current chairwoman of the National Assembly, though some commentators are unsure if the Party is ready to elect its first female chief.

Phuc could become the next Party chief, though he might also remain as prime minister for another five-year term or may be dropped from the leadership altogether, though that seems unlikely.

Party chief Trong has rarely been seen during this Covid-19 crisis, giving only one public message in late March. This may be because he tends to stay clear of economics and day-to-day governance. Or maybe it is because of concerns about his health, after he reportedly suffered a strike in April 2019.

But Trong has been busy behind-the-scenes preparing for the next Congress. In late April, he wrote that the Party, from the top to bottom, must get on with personnel preparation ahead of the next National Congress, regardless of the Covid-19 crisis. He also outlined the work of five subcommittees tasked with preparing reports and documents for the event.    

If there is to be any swing towards technocratic reformism, analysts say it should be seen over a longer-term timeframe. Aside from the top four positions, what matters most in terms of long term change is whether the new makeup of the Central Committee and Politburo reflects any tilt towards reformism.

For instance, Vu Duc Dam, a deputy prime minister and head of the National Steering Committee for Covid-19 Prevention, has reportedly won praise from the public and from other Party officials for his handling of the crisis.

But because he is not a Politburo member, he almost certainly won’t be appointed to one of the top four posts in January. Yet he could be appointed onto the Politburo next year, a potential stepping-stone to higher office at the following National Congress in 2026.

“The best hope for getting reformist technocrats into positions of power will lie with the next prime minister,” Thayer said, meaning that such a prime minister could create a reformist-minded Cabinet.   

One possible prime ministerial candidate, if Phuc vacates the post, is Deputy Prime Minister and Politburo member Vuong Dinh Hue, who rose quickly through the ranks in recent years and was chosen to become the new Hanoi party chief in February.

An economic-minded reformer – he holds a Ph.D in economics and is seen by some as an architect of Vietnam’s economic policy – Hue is also considered close to Trong and so is a possible preferred candidate for both camps.

In 2013, when Hue was head of the Party’s Commission of Economic Affairs, Trong endorsed him to become an additional member of the Politburo. But the Central Committee uncharacteristically and rather embarrassingly rejected Trong’s endorsement.

The coronavirus crisis might itself have added little to the sense that the Communist Party needs to introduce reform towards more transparent and technocratic governance, said Vuving, “but the chain reaction it triggers will add more to the pressure to reform Vietnam’s governance.”

By this Vuving meant the impact of the crisis on the Vietnamese economy, which is expected to suffer its worst growth rate this year for decades, as well as Vietnam’s strategic place as geopolitical tensions escalate between the US and China over the Covid-19 crisis.

The Communist Party’s legitimacy depends on maintaining fast economic growth, which has hovered around 7% for the last decade. But the World Bank predicts that growth will fall at least below 3% this year, though is likely to recover quicker than most other Southeast Asian economies.  

The US, Japan and several European states now all speak more forcefully about “de-coupling” their supply chains from China. Analysts believe Vietnam is likely to be the main beneficiary as they move manufacturing jobs out of China, as it was during the first phase of the Sino-US trade war.

While Vietnam has been liberalizing its economy since its Doi Moi reforms in 1986, marking a gradual shift from a socialist command economy to a free market one, there is a certain view that greater economic liberalization will require more political liberalization.

A free trade agreement signed with the European Union last year, for instance, requires Hanoi to allow independent trade unions to operate for the first time.

“All this will demand a new style of governance in Vietnam,” said Vuving. “This new style will not happen overnight but the long-term trend is that the Vietnamese government will have to be more competent and more transparent.”

By David Hutt – Asia Times – May 8, 2020

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