Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong looks like a genial grandpa but he's tough as nails. He is sure things were better many years ago, when Vietnam was still poor but the ruling Communist Party was still pure. He is a theoretician, a true believer who two-plus years ago prevailed in an epic power struggle. Now he aims to cleanse the party of backsliders, timeservers and opportunists. Like him or not, it is time to pay heed to General Secretary Trong.
Ever since Ho Chi Minh eliminated competitors and, nearly a decade later, forced France to give up its Asian colony, the Communist Party of Vietnam, or CPV, has wielded absolute power – first in Vietnam's northern half and, after 1975, over all of Vietnam.
The party's revolutionary aura wore off decades ago. By 2016, it looked more like an Asian Cosa Nostra, skimming off and sharing out a substantial fraction of Vietnam's economic growth for private benefit.
That wasn't Trong's vision. He's campaigned for years to restore the Vietnamese Communist Party's internal discipline and, so doing, buff up its image. Named to the top party post, general secretary, in 2011, Trong embodied tradition, unswerving faith in Marxism-Leninism and moral rigor. In speech after speech, his message was much the same: "if we allow backsliding and corruption, we will lose our party and our political system; every success of our revolution will sink beneath the sea."
Wry smiles generally greeted Trong's apocalyptic warning. Corrupt relationships had become the glue that held the party organization together, cemented alliances and motivated ambitious young officials. Trong's bete noire, the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, was riding high and ideology was passé. Whatever Vietnam was evolving toward, it certainly didn’t square with Trong's vision.
Dung's disdain for ideology was palpable. By party standards, Dung was bold and brash. He promoted technocrats, embraced globalization and fended off Politburo meddling in government business. He regarded the party machinery as an impediment and was prepared to see it atrophy. And, though a relatively capable two-term prime minister, Dung was notoriously tolerant of corrupt behavior by subordinates. And though indictable evidence is scarce, many remember Dung as, to quote one keen observer, "simply a kleptocrat and a thug."
Loathing for Dung
Trong loathed Dung. At a plenum of the party's Central Committee in 2012, Trong introduced a resolution of censure. It failed. Humiliated, discounted, still the general secretary persevered. As the Party's 12th Congress approached, he mobilized an ''anyone but Dung" coalition that forced Dung's retirement and secured for himself a second five-year term as General Secretary.
It was, in fact, a rout. Within the CPV, hostility to "the interests" – Dung, his nouveau riche cronies and their cronies -- now burned so fiercely that Trong emerged with a reliable and largely hand-picked majority of supporters on a 19-member party politburo. Their origins signaled a shift in perspective: six members were police generals. Five more were drawn from the party's secretariat.
Unlike 2011, this time Trong had a clear mandate. The general secretary is fond of saying he is just one among equals in a collective leadership, that's not true. He's now unquestionably the boss, a leader who read his triumph at the 12th Congress as a victory for party tradition, a mandate for a serious assault on the structure of corruption, and an opportunity to curb the spread of dissident opinion.
Anti-corruption drives mounted by authoritarian regimes typically punish losers without changing the system that engenders corrupt behavior. Since the 12th Congress, Vietnamese analysts have been watching to see if Trong is the genuine article. Is he hell-bent on eliminating corruption wherever he finds it, or merely intent on undoing corrupt rivals?
The new regime began with the salutary demolition of a section of Dung's political network. By late 2016, prosecutors were closing in on managers of PetroVietnam, the state oil company, and some of its subsidiaries, affiliates, allied banks and officials of the ministry charged with Petrovietnam's supervision. In addition to arrests, there was the cashiering of the Saigon Party chief, Dinh La Thang, and his expulsion from the Politburo in mid-May 2017. Thang had been Minister of Transport and before that the head of PetroVietnam; he was the highest profile holdover from the Dung government.
Midway through 2017, however, scandals were surfaced that were not clearly linkable to the former prime minister. In Danang, theft in the development of high-end beach resorts led to the ouster of the city's party chief and the arrest of a high-ranking police officer turned businessman, who was arrested as he tried to flee Vietnam. Then, since early this year, public attention has been riveted by the roll-up of a gambling syndicate organized within the Ministry of Public Security and protected by senior police officers.
The anti-corruption drive thus shows no sign of flagging. All of this has been well reported by Vietnamese media and sporadically by international media. Trong has famously said that rather than slack off, he intends to add fuel to the fire.
Vietnamese media are also closely following the progress of a politburo decision to put 1000 or so top party leaders, including cadres recently retired, through a rigorous audit of their personal property. Eager to help, newspapers have been featuring stories on recently-built villas and vacation homes, splendid residences impossible to afford on a state salary. Though it would be imprudent of the media to mention that Vietnamese officials are skilled at hiding illicit gains, they are primed to cheer Trong on if, this time, audits flush out coveys of kleptocrats.
Punishment for the cadres
Making for less interesting copy but an equally potent weapon in Trong's quest to restore party discipline and morality is his campaign to identify and punish ideologically corrupt party leaders.
In October, the party central committee approved a list of 27 heresies which are held to have degraded the morality, lifestyle and performance of party members at all levels. Leading cadres are to be scrutinized with especial rigor, the resolution says, and senior apparatchiks are doubtless scrambling to demonstrate that they aren't prey any of the 27.
If past is precedent, neither the audit campaign nor the anti-degradation campaign will come to much, but it could be different this time. The campaigns against ordinary and ideological corruption are for Nguyen Phu Trong the fruit of a lifetime of effort. At 73, the General Secretary is already well past retirement age and impatient to fulfill his mission of cleansing the Party and restoring its authority.
At this moment, all evidence suggests Trong has an unusually solid grip on the CPV organization and through it, also on the institutions of government. At the party plenum that will convene in May, he'll be able to advance his proteges into several vacant politburo positions. The meeting has also been widely promoted as a decisive refocusing on ''building a contingent of cadre, especially those at the strategic level, with adequate virtues, capabilities and prestige for their tasks."
Plenum may indeed be memorable.
Party journals have put particular emphasis on detecting cadres infected with the heresies of "self-evolution" and "self-transformation." Cutting through the Marxist-Leninist jargon, the symptoms are a loss of faith in ideology, contempt for party authority, egocentric and pragmatic behavior, pursuit of position, factionalism, corruption and abuse of power. That's code for the evils that Trong detected in the leadership style of Dung and his close associates.
Trong's campaigns rivet the attention of the CPV's roughly 4 million members, people whose positions, advancement and, for many, off-the-books income are at risk. They are also a matter of interest to other Vietnamese whose income depends, less or more, on being au courant with Party trends.
For the other 90 percent of Vietnam's population, however, what matters most is whether the Communist Party, under whatever leadership, can steer the state capably toward an ever-higher standard of living, even as far as the upper-middle-income status foreseen by the World Bank. As long as the party delivers prosperity and a palpably improving quality of life for the many as well as the elite few, its grip on power is secure.
David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Vietnam and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.