Going into the Vietnam Communist Party's 12th Congress in January last year, outsiders could perceive an epic contest between reformers and conservatives. The conservatives labeled the reformers as “opportunists” and often they were right. The reformers laughed when the conservatives argued that ideology (Leninist, not Marxist) would keep Vietnam safe in a turbulent and threatening world.
The Congress ended with a clear triumph for the conservatives. The end of an unusually public intra-party brawl was Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's retirement and the announcement of a new Politburo dominated by apparatchiks, police generals and in particular by the Party's General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong.
Hanoi quickly became boring. These days, aside from the occasional environmental outrage, it's tough to find a news hook in Hanoi. New reporters on the Southeast Asia beat have been picking up on a notion that's been resonating in the Vietnamese dissident echo chamber, to the effect that US President Donald Trump's indifference to human rights issues has emboldened the Vietnamese regime to intensify its persecution of political dissenters.
Indeed, it is quite true that Hanoi's minions have been hauling in dissident activists much faster than usual. Vietnam's media minders have also cowed Facebook and You Tube into taking down content that the regime considers seditious. There's a problem, however: a causal connection between Trump's indifference and the crackdown on alleged subversion is both implausible and unprovable. Vietnam's internal security agencies and their political masters have their own reasons for what they do. They're the core of a regime that is dead set on firming up discipline within the all-powerful Communist Party and shutting down public agitation for changes to the system.
Readers fond of historical analogy might conjure with the idea that Vietnam has entered its Brezhnevian period. Just as Soviet party leaders wearied of Nikita Khrushchev's new ideas, rusticated him, and restored a measure of orthodoxy in the 1980s, General Secretary Trong and his colleagues wearied of Prime Minister Dung's cavalier attitude toward party discipline and his cozy relationships with ostentatiously wealthy businessmen. They united to squelch Dung's bid to replace Trong in the top party job. Now they seem to have resubordinated Vietnam's government to the party's Politburo, its 15-man, three-woman leadership committee.
When Trong was reelected to a second term as General Secretary, there were reports that he intended to step down in 2018 in favor of his protege, Dinh The Huynh, formerly propaganda czar and now head of the party secretariat. In June, however, there came reports that Huynh was being treated in Japan for a grave illness; thus, in August, opinion firmed that the 73-year-old Trong would keep his job until 2021.
Trong is an ascetic; some would call him an anachronism. In a system where high officials rarely refrain from opportunities to turn position into profit, he's long been a foe of the flagrantly corrupt. After Trong outmaneuvered Dung at the 12th Congress, none were surprised by the resurrection of Party Decision #4, a house-cleaning manifesto approved by the party's 200-strong Central Committee in January 2012. Decision #4 had become a dead letter after Trong tried and failed to take down Dung later that year. Now, explained Nhân Dân, the party's organ, "the situation of corruption and waste remains serious, with manifestations daily more sophisticated, complex and disturbing to public opinion."
Trong is right. Corruption is rife, it is embedded in Vietnam's politics and it's a huge drag on Vietnam's economy. At the micro level, citizens pay big bribes to get their children into better schools, shopkeepers pay off the precinct policeman who in turn kicks back to his superiors, truckers and bus drivers keep envelopes filled with bills to ensure that if stopped, they won't have to waste a day or two in court for a trumped-up infraction. At the macro level, rent-seeking misallocates scarce resources. All too often, jobs go to those who pay the biggest bribe, not to those who are best qualified. Companies that kick back the most win contracts, whether or not they're most capable or the lowest bidder.
In Dung's time, some of the bankers or state-owned enterprise executives whose greed too obviously got the better of their judgment were arrested, stripped of party membership, prosecuted and even executed as a caution to the rest. So it is also in the time of Trong, but now the hunt for malefactors is notably more proactive. In particular, Vietnam's current regime has targeted a cabal of senior officials centered on PetroVietnam (PVN), the state's oil and gas enterprise, for "mismanagement and serious wrongdoings."
First to be detained were a former minister of industry, Vu Huy Hoang, and his good friend, Trinh Xuan Thanh, the former head of PVN's construction subsidiary (of whom more later). Then it was the turn of PVN's former chairman, Nguyen Xuan Son, Dong A Bank chairman Tran Phuong Binh, and Construction Bank Chairman Tram Be.
Analyzing the web of scandal, well-connected independent journalists concluded that Dinh La Thang would soon go down. Although Thang, a high-profile Minister of Transport under Dung, had been promoted to the Politburo and named Saigon party chief only a year earlier, he was linked by ties of patronage to the individuals just mentioned. And indeed, a few weeks before Trong convened a semi-annual meeting of the party's Central Committee in early May, Thang was summoned to Hanoi, deleted from the Politburo, and reassigned to a non-job.
The same journalists predict that Nguyen Van Binh and several of his former subordinates would be the next to fall. Binh headed the State Bank under Prime Minister Dung and was elevated to the Politburo at the 12th Congress, but he's been assigned no substantial role in the current regime.
Pham Chi Dung, a senior police official turned dissident blogger, concluded in a recent commentary for the Voice of America's Vietnamese service that "every path leads to Nguyen Tan Dung."
In that scenario, Trinh Xuan Thanh is the pathfinder. The former PVN executive fled Vietnam last year as the police closed in. Surfacing in Berlin, he petitioned for asylum but, just before his plea was to be heard on July 24, Thanh again disappeared, this time to surface in Hanoi. He'd been spirited home by Vietnamese state security agents who insist that Thanh turned himself in voluntarily.
While German officials had a hissy fit, Hanoi's spokesmen shrugged off Berlin's protests. They seemed confident that Vietnam's breach of protocol would have no lasting consequences for bilateral relations. Look now for Thanh to testify against his former associates, perhaps including Dung.
Carl Thayer, the dean of Western Vietnam-watchers, maintains that precedent explains most things the Vietnamese Communist Party does. Trong has a personal score to settle; he was humiliated by Dung in a notable clash five years ago. Will Trong seek to prosecute Dung once he's been stripped of influence? Probably not; there's no precedent for jailing a retired member of the Politburo.
Put another way, if prosecuting former top leaders becomes the new norm, hardly any of them are safe. Systemic corruption flourished during the Dung decade. It was more sophisticated than before, but it was nothing new. Ever since Transparency International began ranking nations as more or less corrupt 22 years ago, Vietnam has been near the bottom of its list.
"I'm not going to break the vase just to catch some mice," Trong famously said a few years ago. His meaning was clear: to the old guard, nothing justifies risking the Vietnamese Communist Party's tight grip on the Vietnamese state.
Dung was therefore most dangerous not because he built his power on crony capitalism, but because he lacked respect for the party's institutions. His contempt for Trong was blatant. Dung didn't calculate that Trong would succeed in painting him as a Vietnamese Khrushchev or Gorbachev. He didn't foresee that they'd forge an “anyone but Dung” coalition to foil his unwelcome ambition. (Disclosure: neither did I).
The Vietnamese public won't be cheering on Trong's campaign, though, not yet at least. A lot of rent-seeking will be exposed if and when ex-Prime Minister Dung's cronies are brought to trial, but so far Trong's campaign looks more like a vendetta than a housecleaning. Political junkies inside and outside the party are watching closely. Though fascinated, they're not naive. They won't cheer unless the purge extends to kleptocrats who were not demonstrably part of the Dung network.
The Politburo installed by the 12th Congress is heavy with people who made their careers in the party's bureaucracy and with police generals. Trong can't do without the police, yet it is precisely the Ministry of National Security that is Vietnam's most notoriously corrupt institution, rivaled only by Vietnam's judiciary.
Vietnamese who follow national affairs still read the supervised press, comparing reports in the leading papers to news and comment posted online. Every now and then the national dailies slip a zinger past the censors, like Tuoi Tre's deadpan report on Sept. 3 that in the year-long anti-corruption campaign that ended on July 31, the Ho Chi Minh City police department had unearthed only one case of corruption within its ranks.
Bui Quang Vinh served for five years, all of Prime Minister Dung's second term, as Minister of Planning and Investment. Leaving office, addressing the 12th Congress, the well-respected technocrat sounded an alarm. Vietnam has hit a wall, Vinh explained. The nation still benefits from a demographic dividend and a flood of foreign investment. However, unless there is a new round of reforms, this time political and institutional, the nation's development will be stunted. It will not be competitive in world markets. It will never become rich.
Vinh said the party must choose. It could selectively pursue corrupt individuals and maintain party unity. Alternatively, it could get serious about corruption by reforming the institutions that foster it.
David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.