Book Review: Cultural Stagnation bred by Vietnamese censorship

Can a nation develop commerce but not its culture? Thomas Bass’ new book Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World takes a deep dive into the perilous world of Vietnamese expression. It is a country with some of the world’s least penetrable politics.

A culture of silence dominates the ruling Communist Party, with vital policy discussions among politicians shrouded in secrecy. The few foreign correspondents in the country are mostly kept out of the political loop, left largely with unverifiable rumors as to where power lies in the country.

Vietnamese citizens have even less information. The details of the party’s business generally are is presumed to be the party’s business alone, with information kept under state control. Save for dissident bloggers on social media, the state effectively silences independent voices through its grip on media.

But most Vietnamese, says Bass, a professor of English at the University at Albany, State University of New York, are comfortable with the arrangement.

“Anyone who thinks that opposition to censorship is a universal value, ardently supported by everyone in the world, should rethink this position,” Bass writes. “Censorship is incorporated into the [Vietnamese] culture. It helps avoid conflict and, most insidiously, is incorporated into the watching agent of self-censorship that is implanted deep within everyone’s mind.”

Bass’ new book sheds a rare light on Vietnam’s blockade of information in a narrative that is part reportage and part memoir. Through interviews with Vietnamese literary giants and dissidents, accompanied by his own experiences publishing in Vietnam, Bass paints an intimate portrait of modern Vietnam’s political and cultural authoritarianism.

The author is no stranger to Vietnam, having first arrived in 1992 attached to a medical mission while secretly conducting research on wartime refugees at their source. It was there that he secretly met with Pham Xuan An, the former Time correspondent who moonlighted as a communist spy during the Vietnam War. What began as a meeting ballooned into the 2009 biography The Spy Who Loved Us.

The meat of Censorship in Vietnam concerns the arduous process he encountered while producing a Vietnamese language edition of the book by a Hanoi publishing house. The process of censoring the book, despite its relatively conventional approach to a national hero who Bass wrote admirably of, took half a decade.

The book details the sparring between Bass, who had ensured in his contract that he would be informed of every change, and his local publishers, who Bass explained had never faced such a difficult job converting a foreign book into a party-friendly format.

He would frequently find footnotes underneath seemingly innocuous passages declaring that the “author is wrong” despite providing ample evidence.

Bass ends the book on a pessimistic book, concluding that the Communist Party has effectively stopped cultural growth in Vietnam. He says that poets do not write poetry and novelists do not write novels, with the omnipresent censorship preventing ideas from blossoming.

However, I have observed a thriving Vietnamese culture throughout my past two years reporting in Vietnam, albeit through unofficial channels. With social media existing beyond state control, Vietnamese millennials, who came of age in a rapidly growing economy and an era of stability not seen in decades, are fluent in the languages of Facebook and YouTube. The result is a saturation of ideas, art and a dab of rebellion that the security forces are unable to reign in.

The censorship mentality, however, still predominates. A 21-year-old middle class Vietnamese student told me once that he envied American democracy. He bemoaned single party rule and expressed his wish that Vietnam would one day hold free elections.

But when I asked him about the activists, who are branded reactionaries by the state, he grew angry.

“I hate those guys,” he said, seemingly unaware that malcontents and contrarians are a fundamental component of a free society.

“They are so negative,” he added.