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Vietnam’s COVID-19 success is a double-edged sword for the Communist Party

The success of its COVID-19 strategy has, so far, increased trust in the Vietnamese government, but it could create demand for transparency in other political issues in the future.

Vietnam’s COVID-19 achievements have been truly impressive. At the time of this article, Vietnam has 747 reported cases with only 10 deaths, which is relatively low compared to other countries in the region. A new wave of COVID-19 arrived in the country in late July, but Vietnam’s previous experiences and current high public trust create a favorable environment for the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to combat the virus this time, too. The public generally values the government’s aggressive response to the new wave.

It is widely acknowledged that Vietnam’s success lies in its aggressive contact tracing, mandatory quarantine, massive campaigns to raise awareness, public compliance, and local and national lockdowns when judged necessary. Interestingly, all these measures have been made possible because of the transparency of information and close horizontal and vertical coordination among different levels of government.

Yet, the effectiveness of transparency and government coordination will likely place the CPV in a dilemma after COVID-19. This article argues that Vietnam’s accomplishments with regards to containing COVID-19 will likely create a further public desire for transparency and make it challenging for the party to use its traditional blame-avoidance strategy to protect its legitimacy in the face of policy failures. The success of COVID-19 is a double-edged sword, which the party should use carefully to enhance its legitimacy.

Transparency of Information

With the glaring exception of COVID-19, Vietnam is notorious for being secretive with many political issues. For example, more than six months after a bloody clash between the police and villagers over a long-standing land dispute in Dong Tam commune in suburban Hanoi, the actual events of that conflict have not been disclosed to the public.

One possible effect of the success of COVID-19 is that those who used to be ignorant of politics might suddenly think that transparency can be a solution to other problems. It will likely raise the expectation that the public has the right to demand transparency and that the party is capable of releasing information. This should not come as a surprise, considering that transparency is possible in the battle against COVID-19 because the party wants it to be.

The CPV may have already felt this pressure. In May 2020, dissatisfied with the Supreme Court’s decision to reaffirm a death sentence by a lower court in a decade-old murder case, the public used social media channels to show their anger and demand more information about the case. On Facebook, a popular social media platform in Vietnam, many netizens expressed their expectations for the party to be as transparent as it had been in the fight against COVID-19.

The party has so far handled this case relatively well. In the face of increasing demand, media started to provide more in-depth information about the murder case, much of which was completely new to the public. Soon after, the judicial committee of Vietnam’s National Assembly agreed to review the decision made by the Supreme Court.

Yet increasing demands for information from the public will likely place the party in a dilemma, especially when it comes to sensitive political areas. Providing too much information on delicate issues would risk dramatic political reforms or exposing dark sides that the party wishes to hide. But restoring more secretive politics would no doubt raise the question of why the party opts to be transparent in certain issues but not others. An apolitical individual could suddenly begin to wonder about the motives and intentions behind the CPV’s decisions to share or hide information.

Coordination Among Government Authorities

Close coordination and effective communication among different levels of government proved effective in the battle against COVID-19. However, it will likely make it challenging for the CPV to use its favorite strategy to protect its legitimacy in the face of policy failures: blame-avoidance. In the face of policy failures, the party typically shifts the blame for poor performance to lower authorities, especially local governments. For example, the party often attributes land disputes to the mis-implementation of land policy by local authorities rather than the Land Law itself.

By shifting blame to lower authorities, the party wishes to send the message that while central policies are sound, local authorities sometimes distort policy implementation for their own interests and refuse to coordinate with the center, a situation that is beyond the party’s control. Yet Vietnam’s success with COVID-19 containment proves that the party is highly competent in acquiring information and coordinating with local authorities. Again, an apolitical individual, when seeing the lack of coordination between central and local governments in other issues, will likely wonder, “Why cannot close coordination be enforced this time?” More troublesome is if an apolitical individual starts to think that blaming local authorities is just a strategy employed to avoid making dramatic changes to central policies, which may negatively affect the interest of the party.

Looking to the Future

Vietnam’s COVID-19 success has been possible because of the full transparency of information and close coordination among government authorities. However, the accomplishment means the country may face increasing expectations and demands. The success of its COVID-19 strategy has, so far, increased trust in the CPV in the short run, but it will likely create demand for transparency in other political issues and make it harder for the party to use the blame-avoidance strategy in the face of potential future policy failures. The success of COVID-19 is a double-edged sword that, if not handled very well, will likely haunt the party in the long run. If increasing expectations are not handled skillfully, the trust that the party has gained from its COVID-19 achievements may evaporate.

By Mai Truong – The Diplomat – August 6, 2020

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