Book Review: Speaking Out in Vietnam. Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party-Ruled Nation

One morning in the spring of 2015, Hanoians woke up to the whine of chain saws on two of the capital's boulevards. Official sources said the trees that lined them were aging and diseased. Quite obviously, however, most were healthy.

Officials who have the power to do so will often misappropriate public goods, in this case mature tropical hardwoods, whether in Vietnam or anywhere else. The unusual part was that Hanoi's citizens faced down the authorities. Coordinating through social media, unfazed by the riot police deployed to maintain order, thousands turned out to defend the 5000 trees designated for culling. Within a day or so, various ministers had condemned the carnage. The Hanoi City government shifted into damage limitation mode.

At almost the same time, at the factories of a giant footwear firm in Ho Chi Minh City, some 90,000 workers went on strike. They abandoned their stitching machines to protest a new law that allowed the government to retain pension fund contributions until the workers reach retirement age. Mostly they were women in their late teens and twenties, typically target savers, intent on returning home with funds to open a business or build a house.

For several days and to no avail, the city government deployed policemen and urged the strikers to go back to work. Then the central government stepped in, not to crush the unauthorized strike but to agree that the strikers were right. When exiting the workforce, Hanoi proposed, citizens could choose whether to take a lump sum refund of their social security payments or leave them to earn interest under government management. The strikers went back to assembling footwear for Nike, Adidas and other famous names. A month later, Vietnam's legislature confirmed the deal.

Events like these compel more than a bit of skepticism when Human Rights Watch and kindred NGOs describe Vietnam as hell on earth. They're the evidence for Dr. Ben Kerkvliet's alternative portrait of Vietnam as a "responsive-repressive state." For two decades, he's been analyzing how and when ordinary Vietnamese raise a fuss, and what the party-state does about it. Now Kerkvliet's pulled it all together in Speaking Out in Vietnam, a very readable book that's just been published by the Cornell University Press.

There are two sorts of 'politics' in Vietnam.

First, there are the arguments among the leaders of the Communist Party. Its four million (or so) members staff the government and make all the decisions for over 90 million fellow-citizens. While time has eroded their revolutionary aura and corrupt dealings their moral stature, they endlessly debate what the party must do to sustain its claim to make decisions on behalf of the other 90 million Vietnamese.

Second, there is the sphere that Kerkvliet has focused on, what he calls 'public political criticism,' the 'dialogical relationship' between the regime and citizens who have grievances. The squabbles he analyzes are mainly local: workers striking for better pay and conditions against foreign factory managers, farmers who resist surrendering their land at a fraction of its value, or people whose livelihoods have been blighted by industrial pollution.

When these citizens speak out, Kerkvliet argues, "party-state authorities will react with a combination of responsiveness, toleration and repression." Repression comes, normally, when officials have brokered what they think is a fair deal, but can't sell it to the last ten or twenty percent of the original protesters.

Dr. Kerkvliet backs up his conclusions with a heap of footnotes. The footnotes are there to persuade wonks like me; they won't intrude, meanwhile, on a casual reader's pleasure at finding a scholarly book written about an important subject without a lot of jargon, and devoid of pedantry.

Kerkvliet's survey subverts the relentlessly downbeat reports of NGOs that specialize in human rights advocacy. He shows us that countless protests have erupted over livelihood issues and been amicably resolved. And, if we confine our analysis to Kerkvliet's data set, the two decades beginning in 1995, it is quite possible to discern growing official tolerance for criticism and unorthodox ideas. Kerkvliet suggests a reason: many Vietnamese officials had concluded that a lighter hand was best for a nation striving for industrial development and integration into the global economy.

That's a fair judgment on Nguyen Tan Dung's decade as prime minister (2006-15), an epoch that was at the same time marred by pervasive, corrupt liaisons between those same officials and business interests. And, to be sure, then as now citizens whose enthusiasm for democracy led them to call for regime change or enter into ill-conceived alliances with émigré factions were routinely busted.

As I wrote for Asia Sentinel at the end of the Dung decade, it had become possible to imagine a Vietnam that would tolerate diversity, encourage the flowering of autonomous civil society organizations, and maybe even experiment with contested elections at the local level. Three and a half years later, it's evident that both Kerkvliet and I underestimated the potential for pushback in the political arena.

The Communist Party's 12th Congress, early in 2016, was a turning point. Dung aimed to supplant Nguyen Phu Trong as the party's General Secretary. Trong instead mobilized an 'anyone but Dung' coalition that returned him for another term as head of the party and packed the party's Politburo and Central Committee with his allies and protégés.

Determined to restore the party's authority, Trong has waged an unrelenting, generally applauded campaign against systemic corruption in the party and state apparatus. Intent on restoring revolutionary purity, he has driven prominent freethinkers from party ranks. Distrustful also of 'bourgeois freedoms,' Trong and his allies have unleashed the regime's internal security forces against outspoken political dissidents.

The "88 Project," an NGO that tracks incarcerations, reports that under Trong's leadership, the Hanoi regime is jailing dissidents at more than twice the Dung-era pace, and for much longer terms. The no-go zone for criticism of the regime has been expanded considerably. Even just chatting hopefully about regime change with friends on social media sometimes results in arrest and punishment.

Like the anti-corruption campaign, Trong's war on freethinkers just isn't letting up. And yet, perhaps counterintuitively, the 'dialogical relationship' between the regime and the citizens remains healthy. As before, the party-state pays close attention to local grievances. Perhaps even more than before, citizens upset about abuse of power by local authorities can anticipate constructive intervention by higher authorities. That's unless, of course, a dispute morphs into criticism of the Communist Party itself.

Dr. Kerkvliet's book very credibly analyzes citizen-authority relations in Vietnam's reform (đồi mới) era. Writing a book like this requires choices. A researcher can plow wide and shallow or narrow and deep. Speaking Out in Vietnam doesn't pretend to be comprehensive. Kerkvliet's research stops at the end of 2015. He didn't much address complaint that Hanoi tends to accomodate rather than confront China. He's light on environmental protest. There's little reference to the independent media that enliven Vietnam's cyberspace.

Speaking Out is a Goldilocks slice, deep enough, long enough and broad enough to support valid conclusions about the dynamics of dialogue in Vietnam and suggest fruitful directions to a new generation of analysts. Kerkvliet's book provides a robust framework for analysis going forward of the party-people dialogue. It is destined to be a basic reference for Vietnam-watchers.

Ben Kerkvliet remains hopeful about Vietnam. So do I. I've been wrong before (I called the 12th Party Congress for Dung, not Trong), but I remain persuaded that Vietnam's longer term prosperity depends on the ruling party's learning to tolerate -- no, to encourage -- the initiatives that bubble up from below. Time will tell.

David Brown is a retired American diplomat who frequently writes about Vietnam for Asia Sentinel and other international affairs journals.