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Vietnam’s Communist Party congress meets behind closed doors to map out the next five years post-COVID

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Vietnam’s Communist Party congress has gathered this week to select new leaders and outline policies for the next five years.

But leaked documents indicate the current Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, will remain in the top job.

After being praised for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnam is expected to prioritise economic growth through technological revolution, while tense relations with China are expected to loom large.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, have slammed Vietnam’s record on jailing activists — including an Australian citizen.

Bon Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, said some in the diaspora expect little change in the homeland many of them fled in the 70s and 80s.

“We normally have a saying, that in order for us to predict what will happen in the future, we just have to [look at] what happened in the past,” he said.

Leadership speculation over ‘four pillars’

More than 1,500 delegates have converged for a nine-day congress behind closed doors in Hanoi to vote on a Central Committee of about 200 people, who will select the Politburo of about 19 members.

Four key leadership positions, known as the four pillars, will be selected — the Communist Party general secretary, the state president, the prime minister and the national assembly chair.

It’s been heralded as the most significant congress since 1986, when economic reforms led to Vietnam opening up.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at UNSW Canberra, said the event was a highly-orchestrated affair, with the party’s policies already decided and the leadership roles widely known in Hanoi’s political circles.

Though Mr Trong is tipped to stay on as General Secretary, current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will reportedly become President, while senior party figures Pham Minh Chinh and Vuong Dinh Hue are speculated to fill the roles of Prime Minister and National Assembly Chairperson respectively.

Mr Trong, 76, who is also the President, has already served the maximum two five-year terms and is well past the mandated age limit of 65, though he received exemptions in the past.

Professor Thayer said there had been a logjam in Vietnam’s political machinery, where Mr Trong, who was reported to have suffered a stroke in recent years, tried but failed to anoint his successor.

“In terms of Vietnamese politics, what’s about to happen is unprecedented,” he said.

“That’s because they can’t reach a consensus on who’s going to replace him.”

The four pillars have not been confirmed, however, and may not be known until the final day of the congress, on February 2.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been approached for comment.

Dr Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Vietnam’s Communist Party would ensure a level of continuity, regardless of who held the key positions.

She said Mr Trong made efforts to ensure his legacy — especially his anti-corruption campaign — will continue, even if he doesn’t get another term.

“But if he does — it would be quite a deviation from the norm and would indicate his strong control,” she said.

Mr Nguyen said although Vietnam was a one-party state, there were many factions.

“They are desperate to hold onto the old system, and they don’t want to change that,” he said.

“However, the world is changing, and if Vietnam wants to be part of it, it also needs to change as well.”

Technology revolution in the post-COVID economy

Vietnam’s draft socio-economic development plan sets a very high aspiration for economic growth, according to Dr Hoa Thi Minh Nguyen, a senior lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

The country has been praised for its pandemic response, recording just over 1,500 COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths.

Their economy grew by almost 3 per cent last year despite the pandemic, which “lent an enormous credence to the Communist Party and the Government of Vietnam,” Dr Nguyen said.

“I think that they are in very good shape in order to achieve very high economic growth.”

But she added Vietnam’s GDP would need to grow by an “unprecedented high growth rate” of 11 per cent, not 7 per cent as stated in their draft plan, if it were to achieve its economic goals by 2025.

She said the country was primarily focusing on attracting foreign investment, the technological revolution and the digital economy, which included developing high-tech Silicon Valley-like areas near Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam’s population is expected to reach 100 million by 2025, and its middle class is projected to grow from 13 per cent to 25 per cent by 2035, which could increase its potential as a market for Australian goods.

“Vietnam has been and will be a big customer [for Australia] because of the consumer economy and urbanisation,” she said.

Vietnam has also benefitted from the US-China trade war — Dr Nguyen said when the Trump administration put higher tax rates on Chinese products, many manufacturers moved their factories out of China to Vietnam.

The China relationship is due to shape the next five years for Vietnam in other ways too, Dr Le Thu said.

“Vietnam-China relations in the context of the South China Sea is currently most tense, compared with other claimant states,” she said, adding that will have implications for the entire region, including Australia.

“This is a very critical time. Vietnam has thus far responded to the COVID-19 exceptionally well and is on a fast recovery trajectory,” Dr Le Thu said.

“But this is not going to be easy. There are also plenty of other challenges ahead, including the dynamics of US-China relations, [the] future of global trade and the overall global recovery.”

Vietnam slammed for ‘draconian’ rights record

According to Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra, Vietnam’s assault on human rights and freedom of expression has intensified in recent years.

In the past five years since the last congress, the number of “prisoners of conscience” has more than doubled, from 84 in 2016 to 170 today.

One of those prisoners is an Australian citizen, Kham Van Chau, who was arrested two years ago and was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

“As Vietnam increasingly opens to global trade, its prison gates are slamming shut on an ever-rising number of peaceful individuals,” Ms Mishra said.

“The Vietnamese authorities’ intolerance of peaceful dissent has peaked under the outgoing leadership. The nomination of new national leaders provides an invaluable opportunity for Vietnam to change course on human rights.”

Human Rights Watch also criticised a crackdown on journalists and bloggers this month, in the lead up to the congress, saying the party was “sending people to prison for posting their views and opinions on Facebook”.

Bon Nguyen from the Vietnamese Community in Australia said if Vietnam were to change its approach to silencing dissent, the party feared it would appear “weak” to the Vietnamese diaspora.

He said the Vietnamese regime would deal with cases in “draconian ways” to send a warning shot to other activists or dissidents.

“I don’t think that’s going to change, unfortunately,” he said.

By Erin Handley – Australian Broadcasting Corporation News – January 26, 2021

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