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Explaining public trust in Vietnam

The regime’s ability to deal effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic would not have been possible without the people’s trust

That Vietnam has been one of the best country in the world at handling the Covid-19 pandemic is not an exaggeration. In late July when the second wave of the disease hit Vietnam, many held their breath waiting to see how the country would handle the return of the virus. Within three months, Vietnam has again successfully flattened the curve of Covid-19 infections.

At the time of writing, no new infections have been found in the country for one month. A country of 100 million people, Vietnam has reported a total of only 35 deaths. While many countries are still struggling to control the rise of cases, Vietnam has been able to bounce back from the crisis

Vietnam’s success story has been attributed to effective closures and lockdowns, high levels of masking, aggressive contact tracing and clear risk communication to the public. These measures have been made possible because of high public trust in the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).

The public still trusts the CPV to take care of its citizens and to lead the country out of crises when they occur. Asian Barometer survey data collected prior to the Covid-19 outbreak suggest that Vietnamese citizens, on average, trust a wide range of formal institutions such as the party, the national government, the military, the president, parliament and the police.

High public trust in the regime, no doubt, has presented a favorable environment for the CPV to handle Covid-19. Social compliance, especially when it comes to coping with economic losses, social distancing, masking and sheltering, has been highly maintained in the war against the virus. 

This raises an important question: Why does the public trust the CPV, despite claims that the regime is repressive and corrupt? For example, Freedom House has consistently rated Vietnam as “not free,” where political rights and civil liberties are severely restricted.

One answer might be the public’s vivid memories about how the CPV led the country out of poverty, and the perception that the party has made enormous attempts to resolve the country’s problems. 

First, it is undeniable that the CPV has earned public trust from consistently high economic growth over the last decades. However, what matters to the public is not only impressive numbers, but also the fact that Vietnam has emerged from being one of the poorest countries in the world to becoming an attractive investment destination in the global economy.

Lifting the country out of poverty proved the CPV’s capacity to lead its citizens out of crises, especially among the generations that lived through the transition process. In my interviews with older generations, respondents repeatedly expressed their gratitude for the CPV because it had successfully led the country through the “poverty crisis.” 

What about younger generations? While it is true that those born during economic prosperity are more critical of the regime, we should not forget that they are often reminded of the “bad old days.”

Stories about poverty and hardships before the 1990s are still told in many family gatherings. Memories linger in the older generation’s minds so strongly that comparisons between the two eras are often made.

In my conversations with family and relatives, I am often told that young people do not realize how lucky they are. Things are much better nowadays than under the subsidy era. The CPV has done a good job, they say.

Many young people may actually feel lucky. Compared with their parents and grandparents, they have a wider range of employment opportunities as a result of the development of the private sector, making upward social mobility much more possible now than in previous generations.

State propaganda also plays an important role in emphasizing the role of the CPV in leading the country through the “poverty crisis.” Although it was the CPV’s policies that led the country into the poverty in the first place, its willingness to correct those wrongs may have built greater public trust.      

Furthermore, the CPV also did well in two other crises, namely the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, which further increased public trust in its capacity to lead in times of difficulty. 

Second, the public may perceive that the CPV does care about the well-being of its citizens. This point is illustrated by the fact that the party has attempted to solve problems that it publicly acknowledges.

Although the CPV is very secretive in areas that are sensitive to regime legitimacy, many domestic issues are open for public discussion. In many circumstances, state media are willing to report issues related to corruption, the environment, education, economics and foreign affairs. These issues are even open for televised public legislative debates. 

In addition to allowing public debate on certain issues, some may perceive that the CPV is attempting to resolve these problems. Take corruption as an example.

Since 2016, the CPV has implemented a large-scale anti-corruption campaign, which has disciplined, prosecuted or imprisoned many senior party members, police and military officers. In addition, it is evident that the party has made considerable efforts to improve governance and policy coordination between the central and local governments, which has led to steady improvements in many areas such as health care and tackling corruption. 

Of course, argument about the real motivations behind opening up information on certain issues and carrying out a widespread anti-corruption campaign is completely valid. By allowing parliament to conduct televised query sessions of government officials during its legislative sessions, the party may want to shift blame for poor performance to the government without criticizing the party itself.

Also, anti-corruption campaigns without meaningful institutional reforms clearly cannot solve the root causes of graft. Perhaps anti-corruption efforts are actually aimed at eliminating opponents and serving factional politics within the CPV.

However, we need to put ourselves in an ordinary apolitical citizen’s position. Such people may just see these efforts as the CPV’s attempts to resolve existing problems, which then increases their trust in the regime. 

In a nutshell, high public trust in the CPV prior to Covid-19 afforded it an opportunity to tackle the pandemic effectively. High trust may come from the public’s vivid memories of how the party lifted the country out of poverty and the perception that the CPV is attempting to resolve problems.

Protecting its political power is the ultimate goal of any authoritarian regime, but no dictators can rule without popular trust and support. 

By Mai Truong – Asia Times – October 7, 2020

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