Viet Leader’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Continues to Fizzle
Ten Years of Vietnam’s Fiery Furnace
By: David Brown
The numbers were large, showing an impressive increase in the scope and number of prosecutions. Even so, Vietnam’s Communist Party wisely chose not to declare victory when, on June 29, it marked the 10th anniversary of an anticorruption campaign closely identified with the party’s aging leader, Nguyễn Phú Trọng.
Among the spate of statistics were these, according to an Information Ministry newswire:
168,000 CPV members have been disciplined and 7390 “punished for corruption or links with corruption,” including “170 officials under the Party Central Committee’s management.”
16,699 cases of corruption, abuse of position, and economic-related irregularities have been prosecuted. US$2.6 billion worth of ‘corrupt assets’ have been recovered, including 76,000 hectares of wrongfully appropriated land. US$41.8 billion in fines have been levied.
“Despite many complications, continuous efforts are needed to stop wrongdoings,” General Secretary Trọng told more than 80,000 party members said to be tuned into a closed-circuit broadcast of the conference from the CPV’s Central Committee chamber in Hanoi.
Trọng ís right. His war on corruption is far from won. Scandals bared early this year offer convincing evidence that no matter how many officials are found out and punished, self-dealing – officials taking advantage of their position to further their private interests – remains ubiquitous. Reflecting on these scandals, Vietnamese commentators appear to agree that (1) nearly everyone who occupies a senior position is somehow compromised, and (2) the one thing comrades don’t do is rat on each other.
Up to the end of 2021, Vietnam’s citizenry seemed to be well-satisfied with their government’s management of the Covid pandemic. Then came the unsettling revelation of two Covid-related schemes to rip off the public for the benefit of well-placed bureaucrats.
One is the Việt Á scandal, a far-reaching conspiracy to monopolize the national market for Covid-19 test kits. The kits were publicly funded, designed by staff at the Military Academy of Medicine and manufactured by Việt Á, a medical supply company of obscure origin. As production began early in 2020, the Ministry of Health and local governments urged mass testing. Anxious citizens were eager to purchase the kits, which cost about US$20 and were advertised, falsely, as certified by the World Health Organization.
By the time someone tipped off the national police, a nationwide chain of kickbacks was well-established, extending from local health center officials up to the most senior level of the Ministries of Health and of Science and Technology.
The second scheme targeted tens of thousands of citizens stranded overseas when Vietnam and other nations closed their borders to international air travel. Desperate to get home, many handed over huge sums for seats on Vietnam-bound chartered planes. Staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from vice consuls in Vietnamese missions abroad all the way up to the vice minister responsible for consular services, hastened to exploit this lucrative opportunity. But, alas for the perpetrators, it was again just a matter of time until this multilayered scheme was busted.
For Trọng, these highly public scandals must be especially disappointing. Both struck a particularly sensitive vein: public health and welfare.
Most instances of institutional corruption in Vietnam thrive in murky spaces where public officials and those with private capital contrive to share illicit gains via stock manipulation, conversion of farmland to commercial uses, or kickbacks on procurement contracts. By contrast, the Việt Á and repatriation airfare ripoff scandals directly exploited the pandemic-induced fears of ordinary citizens who quite understandably were outraged.
When the two ministers and a vice minister who enabled the Covid test kit scheme were stripped of their Communist Party memberships – a prelude to their civil trial – it was big and welcome news. Nor does anyone feel bad for the former Vice Minister for Consular Affairs, who instead of taking up a posting as ambassador to Japan is headed for jail.
Trong is by all accounts incorruptible, personally modest, as tough as nails and unswerving in his mission: restoring the Communist Party’s moral authority. Since 2016 he’s been unchallenged as Vietnam’s top leader. He famously declared then that a “fiery furnace” awaits all officials who betray the public trust. Trong is nearly 80 now, no longer in good health but still intent on cleansing Vietnam of corrupt officials. At the least, he will be remembered as the leader who didn’t hesitate to send his peers to prison.
That explains a spate of prescriptive commentary in the national press early last month when the former ministers of Health and Science and Technology were stripped of their party membership and turned over to the judicial system for further processing. The challenge was to explain why official corruption remains pervasive and sometimes blatant despite a decade of unremitting effort by the general secretary and his acolytes to suppress it.
The official starting point of Trọng’s campaign was a party vote in 2012 to transfer responsibility for policing corruption from the prime minister’s office to a newly-formed party committee, the “Central Steering Committee on Corruption Prevention and Control.” Trọng, then in his first term as general secretary, had been infuriated by the insouciant attitude of the prime minister, Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, toward reports of self-dealing by subordinates. Dũng responded by ignoring directives from the Politburo that he didn’t like, and in 2015 campaigned to replace Trong as head of the CPV. However, it was Trọng who prevailed. He mobilized a majority of the party’s Central Committee, which ousted Dũng and accorded Trọng a second term as general secretary and then, late in 2020, a third term."
2016 was a turning point. Until then, although underlings were often punished for flagrantly corrupt activity, high-ranking party members were rarely prosecuted. Public opinion, inherently cynical, expected that Trọng would punish Dũng’s closest collaborators and then move on to other matters. Trọng proved them wrong.
Here’s the paradox: although some 170 high officials have now been punished during Trong’s tenure for failing the public trust, their peers don’t seem to fear the fiery furnace enough to go clean. Put another way, the supply of metaphorical ‘firewood’ hasn’t noticeably diminished. None of the aforementioned commentators claims that current officials are less likely than their predecessors to take advantage of their position to further their private interests.
These same commentators earnestly and variously call for (1) empowering supervision from the grassroots (in place of the common practice of instead charging those who protest against rip-offs with “taking advantage of their democratic rights”), for (2) fostering cadre morality and thus, whistle-blowing, and for (3) reviving the Marxist-Leninist tradition of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ (that is, top officials meeting in small groups to talk each other out of bad behavior).
Remarkably, none of the commentators suggested paying officials salaries that are adequate to fund a comfortable retirement, or empowering Vietnam’s national press to ferret out and expose cases of official corruption.