Opinion: Civil Liberties in Vietnam: Half-Full Glass

Human Rights Watch is upset that Hanoi is revising "its already draconian criminal code." Parsing a recent report to Vietnam's National Assembly by the Minister of Public Security, the New York-based advocacy group discerned that "Vietnam will return to its policy of stamping out dissent now that the (Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact) is in place."

Actually, human rights-wise, it's been fairly quiet in Vietnam recently. Unimpressed, HRW insists that signatories to the TPP (the US, Japan, Australia, Canada, etc.) "must push Vietnam to halt [its pending] legislation."

I'm not sure which is more annoying: HRW's boldly simplistic narrative of the campaign for democratization, or the persistent obtuseness of the Hanoi regime's internal security agencies.

Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang's report illustrates both phenomena.

Question Time no picnic

At Vietnam's National Assembly sessions, ministers submit to questioning by deputies. The Q&A is often good theatre, and it is well-reported by what the Western newswires insist on calling the "state-controlled media."

A year ago, for example, Minister Quang was pressed to explain to the legislature's Justice Committee what he and his ministry were doing to curb instances of police brutality. It's not news that the Vietnamese cops often mobilize squads of, er, local patriotic youth to intimidate people who complain too often and too vocally. It was indeed news that taking their cue from Vietnam's president and energetic reporting by the daily newspaper Thanh Nien, a number of deputies put the regime's internal security bosses squarely on the spot.

On Nov.15, however, Quang came to the legislature on a more routine mission: to update on his ministry's accomplishments over the past three years. As reported by the online paper Vietnam Net, his testimony was numbingly quantitative. No matter: bean-counting passes for public accountability in Vietnam.

Since June 2012, Quang said, the national police had solved more than 150,000 criminal cases and arrested nearly 290,000 individuals. Its 75 percent success rate, he noted, exceeded the 70 percent standard set by the legislature.

Going after the dissidents

In this three-year period, further, the police had dealt with 1,410 offenses against national security. They involved 2,680 individuals. About 350 oppositionists in 50 provinces and cities had "established in the name of democracy and civil rights more than 60 illegal organizations." However, said the minister, the police had defeated every conspiracy.

Moving on to economic crimes, Quang reported that the police in the same period had uncovered 1,145 cases of corruption involving 1,930 individuals.

The regional and global situation is becoming ever more complex, the minister warned. Disturbances fomented by enemy and reactionary influences were daily more dangerous. The police would strive to foil plots hatched inside the country, outside the country, in the cybersphere, wherever.

In short, Quang's report was notable only in its admission that the police have had less success combating the nation's endemic corruption than in uncovering dissident activity.

Tired Old Script

Vietnam's cops are following a tired old script. If they set their minds to it, HRW's correspondents could hoover up any number of such reports, all of which invariably refer at some point to the dangers posed by the doctrine of "peaceful change." They denounce civil society organizations for plotting to undermine the bond between the people and the ruling party. A quarter century after Communist regimes toppled in Eastern Europe, Vietnam's police remain vigilant against "enemy plots" to replicate the Czech, Serb or Polish scenario in Vietnam.

In short, just like the international organizations that track offenses against human freedom in Vietnam and elsewhere, Vietnam's internal security agencies, hard-wired to the ruling party's most conservative elements, seem to have nothing new to say.

Simplification and repetition are the essence of effective propaganda. In their zeal to simplify, both the Vietnamese party-state's ideological guardians and its most vocal foreign critics obscure the real story: that though law and ideology have been slow to change, de facto the citizens of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have become, in the last couple of decades and particularly in the last few years, remarkably more free to manage their own lives.

There are good reasons for this.

First of all, Vietnam is no longer an insular state. A quarter-century ago, its leaders concluded that the nation would not prosper if it remained on the fringes of world trade and finance. Indeed, Vietnam has prospered, but globalization has brought cultural and political consequences as well. Vietnamese now are savvy about the outside world. A few hundred thousand have studied at UK, Australian, American and other Western universities. Forty-four percent of Vietnam's 93 million citizens are regularly online. The regime has given up trying to block access to Facebook and other websites hosted on offshore servers. It has embraced gay rights and given up pressuring families to stop at two children.

Young Urbanites Push Back

Young, mainly urban Vietnamese keep pushing back against arbitrary restrictions. Some pointedly question abuse of police power, but many more, presumably with less forethought, just resist being herded.

Second, voluntary groups are emerging as significant actors in public life. They address the needs of an increasingly complex society. By law, all organizations must be approved by the state and are subject to state supervision. Some professional organizations, like the Lawyers Association or the Chamber of Commerce, have achieved substantial autonomy within that framework.

Other groups, arising spontaneously, have simply chosen not to apply for state recognition. Typically, they are loosely organized as "networks" or "clubs" and, in many cities and provinces, the authorities are now tacitly acceptive of independent groups that take on civic roles that are poorly or not at all filled by the state.

Vietnam's emergent civil society is not instinctively confrontational, but neither does it shrink from policy advocacy. Persistent low-key networking with officials to achieve public goals in a practical way is frequently effective. National issues are often the subject of petitions by intellectuals and retired party officials; these circulate widely online, frame public discussion, are reported by foreign media and on some occasions elicit a positive response by the authorities.

Third, as the Communist Party has wrestled with an existential dilemma, hardliners have given ground. Insofar as can be discerned from outside the Party, virtually all members agree that the Party's role as "the leading force of society" is sacrosanct. On subsidiary issues, the party leadership is divided.

Conservatives Demand a Heavy Hand

Conservatives insist that the regime's internal security agencies must deal harshly with citizens who speak up for political pluralism. They deplore the erosion of discipline and evidence of widespread corruption within the party. Doubtless they also regret the reform virus that has infected the party: the notion that growing the GDP and maintaining public order is not enough to validate its exclusive claim to run the country. The party must also, reformers argue, live up to the expectations of Vietnam's citizens for quality of life dividends – in health care, in higher education, in the built and the natural environment and, yes, also in the justice system.

The CPV renews its leadership every five years. It will do so again in January, at its 12th Congress. Party business is not public business so, as usual, the policy consequences of the pending meeting will only become evident bit by bit.

However, it's looking like Vietnam's prime minister has the whip hand. Nguyen Tan Dung has built up a party following best described as a coalition of opportunists and reformers. He's relatively popular with the nation's non-party elite as well, the lawyers, bankers, businessmen and experts who are the backbone of Vietnam's private sector.

Conservatives Expected to Give Way

Consequently, party conservatives will likely cede control of key positions, warning as they go that ideological flabbiness will be its death. They are tarred with the brush of being too cozy with Chinese counterparts, too cozy with a famously underperforming state enterprise sector and – most relevant – unable to imagine a more open and plural society.

A Dung-dominated regime would likely deliver substantial economic reforms. Perhaps it would also deliver on a so-far implicit promise of greater transparency, greater opportunity for the talented and ambitious, and a lighter hand vis-a-vis contrary opinions loudly voiced.

In earlier years, the common sense way to get ahead in Vietnam was to join the CPV (if invited). Every Vietnamese who has chosen not to become a party member is thus in some sense a dissident. From a few hundred activists a dozen years ago, the frequency of internet posts and the turnout for demonstrations suggests that tens of thousands of Vietnamese now regularly and actively advocate political change.

Visions vary. Some activists press the party to repair its faults and lead in evolving the present system toward democracy. Others seek to build organizations that will successfully confront and dismantle it. Yet others urge engagement with the authorities at all levels on quality of life issues. A fourth approach stresses bottom up democratization through expansion and strengthening of civic, social and community organizations.

Polity and Society Changing

By focusing on the Vietnamese regime's repression of its most vocal critics, Human Rights Watch and other champions of civil rights miss the larger picture of a polity and society that's changing rapidly. The ratings they derive year after year (e.g., "the world's 11th most repressive regime," or "worse than 91 percent of countries in internet freedom" [both Freedom House] are not credible. Rather than emphasize the illiberal provisions of laws and decrees, HRW et al. ought to focus on how these are implemented.

But alas, it's hard to quantify the diminishing zeal and increasing futility of the party-state's efforts to control what people know, what they say, and how they behave.

What does HRW make of the regime's failure to agree on charges against blogger Anh Ba Sam, arrested 18 months ago? Or of its reversal of the Ho Chi Minh City police detention of popular writer Bo Lap? How would HRW interpret the regime's acquiescent response to large demonstrations last spring in Hanoi, in defense of tree-lined streets, and in Ho Chi Minh City, in opposition to tinkering with factory workers' savings. Why hasn't the regime cracked down on the proudly unregistered League of Independent Writers? What's the significance of a precipitate drop in the number of bloggers and activists arrested, from dozens in prior years to (through September) only two in 2015?

Yes, Vietnam is not a free society. Elements of the party-state still aim to govern by totalitarian methods. The genie is out of the bottle, however, and the party knows it won't be put back. Paradoxically, the party's best hope to stay in power is to become something else – a political institution that's less corrupt, more transparent and capable of delivering more and more freedom.

David Brown, a freelance writer on and student of Vietnam, is a retired American diplomat.He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.