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Viet President Ousted Amid Covid Scandal
Nguyễn Xuân Phúc joins allies Phạm Bình Minh and Vũ Đức Đam in obscurity
By: David Brown
However flimsy the evidence linking Vietnam President Nguyễn Xuân Phúc to corrupt Covid-19-related schemes orchestrated by Vietnamese government officials, it provided his enemies a convenient explanation for his allegedly voluntary January 17 resignation.
In the communique issued after an extraordinary session of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Committee, there’s no hint that Phúc or, two weeks earlier, two well-regarded deputy prime ministers, have been done in by factional enemies.
“Mr. Nguyễn Xuân Phúc has taken political responsibility . . . as the [prime minister] at the time when the violations and shortcomings of many cadre, including two deputy prime ministers and three ministers had really grave consequences,” according to the communique. “Mr. Phúc has applied to cease performing all his assigned duties . . . and retire.”
The communique said that the remaining 16 members of the CPV’s Politburo agreed to Phuc’s petition, and that his resignation will be formally approved by the National Assembly, perhaps before the long lunar new year holiday that begins on January 19.
Plucked from obscurity (he was a CPV leader in Quảng Nam Province, adjacent to Danang City) by former Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, Phúc performed brilliantly as Dũng's cabinet secretary and, a few years after, as his first deputy prime minister. When Party General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng and (at that time State President) Trương Tấn Sang united to force Dũng out of office, Phúc stayed on the sidelines and was rewarded with the prime ministership.
Phúc also was well-regarded as prime minister from 2016-2021. Then, as the 13th Congress approached in January 2021, he bid to succeed Trọng as the CPV's general secretary but had to settle for the relatively powerless job of state president. (Having failed to persuade the party's central committee to vote in his chief anti-corruption aide, Trần Quốc Vượng, as the new general secretary, Trọng instead put himself forward and won an unprecedented third term in that job.)
Perhaps because he'd had the audacity to challenge Trọng, Phúc as state president has had to contend with hostility from Trọng's inner circle and, additionally, with a so-called Ministry of Public Security faction that includes Phúc's successor as prime minister, Phạm Minh Chính. Now, apparently, they have contrived to bring him down.
The forced retirement earlier this month of Deputy Prime Ministers Phạm Bình Minh and Vũ Đức Đam deprived Phúc of important allies.
The leverage for Phúc’s dismissal is rumored to be evidence that Ms. Phúc’s niece and a wealthy businesswoman who is a close associate of his wife's family are major shareholders of the Viet A Medical Supply Company and therefore played important roles in the “Viet A scandal” that rocked the nation a year ago. The two, niece Nguyễn Thị Thanh Thủy and SNB Holdings Director Nguyễn Bạch Thủy Linh, were arrested on January 4, bringing to 104 the number reportedly detained so far for involvement in Việt Á’s scheme to corner the national market for its inferior PCR tests. Plausibly, therefore, a dark hand behind the scandal was, in fact, members of Phuc's family, if not Phuc himself.
This, layered over years of intraparty criticism of Ms. Phúc's real estate dealings, seems to have consolidated a politburo consensus that Phúc must go, either to be replaced as state president by Minister of Public Security Tô Lâm or by General Secretary Trọng himself, once again serving concurrently as general secretary and state president.
It's believed that Phúc agreed to go quietly in return for a promise that neither he nor his immediate family members will face prosecution. Phúc’s son is currently a deputy director-general of Vietnam’s General Department of Taxation, and his daughter is said to head a number of private business ventures.
Phúc’s bruited successor as State President, 65-year-old Tô Lâm, a senior police general, has headed Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security since April 2016. He is best known to the general public for a gaffe during his first top-level diplomatic foray: the Vietnamese press secured and published a photo of him being fed a $2000 gold-foil steak at a posh London restaurant.
David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Vietnam and is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel