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Vietnam’s leadership upheaval signals regime’s security focus

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Unity, whether real or projected, is almost always desirable for an authoritarian regime. In recent months, however, the Vietnamese Communist Party has been airing its dirty laundry in public, or to use the Vietnamese idiom, vach ao cho nguoi xem lung — pulling up one’s shirt to show one’s back.

A full third of the 18 party officials who were Politburo members at the time of the party’s 2021 congress have since been purged in this spectacular crusade. The toll has included two state presidents, a deputy prime minister, a legislative chairman and a permanent member of the party secretariat committee. Many more have been removed from the party’s Central Committee and other posts.

This spectacle seemingly reached its climax last week with the crowning of Public Security Minister To Lam as state president and Tran Thanh Man’s elevation to National Assembly chairman from his previous role as deputy speaker. With the appointment of four new members, half of the Politburo is now made up of members from the police or armed forces.

The prospect of either To Lam or Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh taking over the party leadership as general secretary in 2026, when incumbent Nguyen Phu Trong, 80, completes his third term, is raising alarm about the outlook for the country effectively becoming a police state.

How strongly securitized is the Vietnamese communist party-state? What implications does this have for Vietnamese civil society?

Under the watch of General Secretary Trong, the infrastructural reach of the Ministry of Public Security into party and state affairs has deepened significantly. As Trong’s anti-corruption campaign has gained traction, so has the prominence of the executioners who are carrying it out.

The political landscape that civil society groups must navigate in Vietnam has concurrently become more treacherous. This has tempered civil activism and forced civic groups to seek alternative paths to pursue their aims.

While Vietnam has witnessed previous drives to root out corruption, Trong’s “blazing furnace” campaign has been executed with remarkable furor.

Structural reforms have invigorated party functions and fused party institutions with the state security apparatus. In 2013, Trong formed the Politburo Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption to fire the starting gun on his campaign. Three years later, To Lam became chief of the Central Public Security Party Committee and the Ministry of Public Security, effectively merging the party and state agencies.

Further reforms in 2018 systematically restructured the Ministry of Public Security into “a focused and lean machine for effective work.” Over 1,500 provincial subdivisions were cut, and departments with overlapping functions were consolidated to effectively centralize authority under the police.

Last year’s Law on Participation in Security and Order Protection Forces at the Grassroots Level fulfilled To Lam’s wish to “build all grassroots communes and wards into fortresses for security and order.”

The Ministry of Public Security, General Secretary Trong has asserted, is the “sword and shield” of the Communist Party. To sustain its growing reach, the ministry’s estimated annual budget has ballooned from 96.1 trillion dong ($3.77 billion) as of 2021 to 114 trillion dong this year.

The reverberations from the ministry’s execution of Trong’s agenda have not only been felt by cadres who have fallen from the party’s grace, but also directly by Vietnamese society.

Incidents such as the 2013 Petition 72 call by intellectuals for multiparty elections and a separation of powers, the deadly 2020 clash between security officers and Dong Tam villagers resisting seizure of their land, and the violent attacks last year on government offices in the highland province of Dak Lak are worrisome for the single-party regime’s authoritarian persistence.

Hardline communist leaders have pointed to such upheavals to justify the need for institutionalized police control and coercion, employing party tropes about the paramount importance of security. This discourse directly ties the fate of the communist party and its longevity to people’s aspirations for and pursuit of economic development.

“If instability occurs, then we cannot even talk about economic development or projects,” To Lam said last year.

Referring to a 2016 incident during which a unit of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group discharged toxic chemicals into the sea off Ha Tinh province, affecting thousands of fishing families, the minister said: “A whole year was spent on resolving lawsuits and conflicts. How can there be time left to discuss socioeconomic development?”

As a consequence of this kind of mindset, party rules and state regulations have painted an increasingly hostile picture of civil society.

A 2016 party resolution identified civil society as a potential threat to the regime’s survival. Another a year later explicitly prohibited cadres from engaging with or supporting civil society.

A 2018 resolution established “the protection of the party’s ideological foundation, combating and refuting erroneous and hostile viewpoints” as renewed imperatives. A 2020 decree tightened regulations on foreign financial support for nonprofit civil society groups. The legal space for nongovernmental organizations has contracted even further since.

Not all spheres of civil activism, however, have been affected equally.

Some foreign and domestic groups have continued their activities by adapting and adjusting to the new rules. This has required them to work with public security handlers and to regularly report their activities to the Ministry of Public Security.

At the same time, the regime has an interest in facilitating some cooperation between the state and certain civil society sectors in areas such as poverty eradication and higher education even as it institutionalizes control.

With To Lam as state president, pressure on Vietnamese civil society is unlikely to ease. There is also no sign that Trong’s anti-corruption campaign is fizzling out. A party resolution last year mapped out plans for the crusade against corruption to carry on through at least 2030.

The presidency might possibly remain a revolving door and the question of who the next general secretary will be remains significant.

But even more important are the institutional changes being made. The strengthened institutionalization of the security apparatus since the start of the anti-corruption campaign has deeply entrenched its role and will be critical to the Vietnamese party-state’s political trajectory.

By Nhu Truong – Nikkei Asia – May 28, 2024 

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