Vietnam Party Congress: Better Red than Right

The best man didn't win

By: David Brown

The 13th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party adjourned at last on February 1. The eight-day meeting – closed to outsiders except for the opening and closing ceremonies – wound up a year of intense internal politicking. Delegates ratified pre-cooked lists of leading cadres, the men and a handful of women who will populate the 200-member Central Executive Committee and its standing committee, the 18-member Politburo. And, of course, they acclaimed Nguyen Phu Trong's agreement to stay on as the party's general secretary.

The foreign journalists who'd parachuted in for the congress and spent most of their time in Hanoi soaking up local color at last had something to report – the 76-year-old Trong had been reelected for an unprecedented third term (cue stormy applause). They filed their copy and headed for the airport. Nearly 1,600 delegates, representing 5.1 million party members in party units spread over Vietnam's 64 cities and provinces, scooted for home as a flare-up of Covid-19 sent Hanoi into lockdown. Vietnam's domestic media dutifully reported that the 13th Congress had been a brilliant success, but it seems more likely that behind the facade of continuity and stability, this congress mainly papered over a couple of worrisome problems.

#1. Unable to persuade the central committee to anoint his chosen successor, Trong subverted the norms on health and age that have shaped the orderly renewal of party-state leadership. Still squeaky clean and tough as nails, Trong's intent on ensuring that no one can (at least not yet) undo his work to crush self-dealing and other opportunist habits and, in general, to return the VCP to its Marxist-Leninist roots.

Begging the question of whether doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism-Ho Chi Minh thought provides a framework relevant to a nation that has enjoyed three decades of "market socialism," the party leadership is getting older. The average age of the 18 politburo members elected this week is 61. Now that Trong has made a joke of the 65-year age limit established to ensure regular renewal of the leadership, how many of the incumbents will be in a mood to retire in 2026?

Then there's the matter of health. Trong suffered a debilitating stroke in April of 2019. Since then, he has been visibly wobbly, though he managed to speak at considerable length to the congress on its closing day. Another stroke could trigger a free-for-all brawl among party factions.

#2. The best men didn't win, and Pham Minh Chinh (above), who's slated to become Prime Minister, is a particular worry.  Vietnam's national media are subject to state “guidance” and hence had no choice but to applaud these outcomes. Posts to social media tell a different story.

Chinh's an insider, a 63-year-old major general of police who's held only one public office, a four-year stint as party secretary in Quang Ninh, the coastal province that abuts China. His tenure there was most notable for his sponsorship of a plan to establish a special economic zone on Van Don Island where foreign enterprises would enjoy tax-free 99-year leases.  It's a project that's been peddled since at least 2007 by the privately-held real estate conglomerate SunGroup. It became toxic in 2017, two years after Chinh left Quang Ninh for a new post in the Party Secretariat. 

When a law to establish the Van Don SEZ and two similar schemes further south was submitted to Vietnam's legislature, a Facebook-powered firestorm of protest erupted that scorched Chinh as well as the National Assembly leader. True or not, public perception was that the plan was a sell-out to Chinese investors (casinos and such) and could provide a ready support base for invaders from the north. Prudently, the government withdrew the bill, but not before demonstrations roiled Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and other cities.

There's little on record regarding Chinh's performance in his most recent job, leading the Organization Commission, a unit of the party's central secretariat. Until he proves otherwise, concerns will linger about Chinh's ability to manage government business at the highest level.   

Chinh is following a hard act, Nguyen Xuan Phuc's near-flawless management of the government for the last five years.  Until Trong put himself forward for another term at the top, Phuc was the favorite to succeed him as general secretary.  Failing that, a majority outside the party and probably within it, too, would have welcomed a second term for Phuc as prime minister. However, Trong pulled strings and Phuc has been relegated to the role of state president, a prestigious job that's distinctly lacking in substance.

Also for reasons best known to Trong, economic policy expert Vuong Dinh Hue, Phuc's principal deputy from 2016-20 and a strong favorite to succeed him, was shunted to another prestigious but punchless position, chairman of the national assembly. Yet another of Phuc's deputies, Vu Duc Dam, was passed over for a seat on the politburo notwithstanding a star turn as the coordinator of Vietnam's brilliantly successful campaign to contain the Covid-19 virus.

The lesson to be drawn here is that for the next few years, being seen as a party leader who's more "red" than "expert" is likely to be career-enhancing. Given the growing complexity of Vietnam's economy and social fabric, that wouldn't be a good thing.

David Brown is a retired US government diplomat with extensive knowledge of Vietnam and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

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