Vietnam's Communist Party Ponders Change
The Communist Party of Vietnam turned 82 on Feb. 3, of which 36 years have been spent ruling Vietnam. We can only guess what the next 82 years will bring. Indeed, this past week the party’s delegates and executives met in Hanoi to discuss much needed reform.
These discussions will focus on curbing corruption and deficiencies among party members, along with supposed improvements to human rights. However, any serious suggestion about reform by senior party officials has been just that – a suggestion. As these proposed reforms are designed to benefit the party, change for the Vietnamese people will continue to remain a distant hope.
The party today has strayed far from its Marxist-Leninist roots, evolving into a semi-benevolent dictatorship whose iron-fisted tactics are reserved for those democratic and human rights activists unwilling to accept the one-party rule of the government.
The party at present
Economic reforms have helped Vietnam prosper, but the reforms have done little to address the hopes and aspirations of the people, providing only a cover for the party to say, “I did something for Vietnam.” For Vietnam? Perhaps. For the party? Most definitely.
Afflicted with a grandiose sense of accomplishment, the party has found reason to act only when absolutely necessary, if only to stave off a domestic Arab Spring from seizing the streets of Hanoi and Saigon. This complacency not only ignores future planning but it ignores the needs of the people until it is too late. This is not to say the party does not have its finger on the pulse of the nation, but the unwillingness of the Communists to act until needed betrays any sense of accountability.
What future, then, does the party have in Vietnam? Change is necessary, of course. Change within the party. Constitutional change and political change. But these necessary changes will not happen by themselves. A spark – peaceful or violent, although one hopes for the former – is needed, but what “spark” and how? And what happens after for Vietnam and the party?
Vietnam will undoubtedly change and likely in reaction to external forces. These forces can be China or the United States exerting their influence over Vietnam, providing Vietnam with some benefit but not before the government is required to make some adjustments. One need only look at the South China Sea maritime and territorial disputes to see evidence of this. Vietnam’s unease about China and its desire to acquire arms from the US requires Hanoi to undertake serious democratic reform and improve human rights conditions.
These external forces can also come from market pressure. Presently, Vietnam is suffering from high inflation and trade and budget deficits. However, economic reform may not be enough as we have seen Vietnam change economically but not politically. This is not true change but merely a diversion. It is an attempt at distracting the people while the system continues to fail.
True change requires a complete renovation of the political institutions of Vietnam, but what force can bring about this required act? And what of the Communist Party?
Limitations of the Internet
Short of a revolution, the party will not simply disappear overnight but slowly whittle away. As such, it may be years before we can measure the level of progress. Currently, one of the driving forces behind the need for reform in Vietnam. such as internal reforms as discussed in Hanoi, has been technological advances like the Internet.
The Internet has provided an outlet for Vietnamese citizens to voice their frustration. It has provided a means for them to compare their government to those around the world, to better understand its successes and failures. It has also provided an opportunity for citizens to become part of the global community, to become current with international developments. Access to information is greater than ever before.
But the Internet alone will not drive the Vietnamese people to demand change, for if this was the case, there would have been change long ago. The Internet can be controlled, as witnessed in China and Iran. Information can be manipulated. Although the people will play a vital role in building a new Vietnam, they will not be the primary actors in instituting change. The catalyst for change will undoubtedly come from without.
The big, red tent
What the South China Sea disputes have succeeded is lighting the flames of nationalism in the Vietnamese people. The government, however, trying to maintain friendly relations with China while requesting arms assistance from the US, has both quashed and supported public demonstrations against China.
As a result, this sending of mixed signals has infuriated Vietnamese citizens, who are unsure if their government is pro-China, pro-American, or simply lost. Moreover, this indecision has also created a rift between party members, many of whom are asking the same questions as the people. Although united in public, it is hard not to imagine that factions are forming behind closed meetings.
What will inevitably doom the Communist Party is not revolution but differences of opinion. The party is no longer driven by communist ideology. Given the one-party rule of Vietnam, the Communist Party has become a very big tent for those well-connected citizens and individuals with political aspirations. Ideological purity no longer matters.
As such, current party members are of different minds about a variety of issues. Factions will inevitably form as some party members coalesce around one position while others form around another, pushing their separate agendas to advance their interests. What will emerge is a very basic, if not limited form of democracy within the party. Should any faction gain momentum and influence, they may very well separate and kick-start democratic reform throughout Vietnam.
The catalyst for change will come from without, but the first instances of change will come from within. It will come from the Communist Party itself, reacting to issues that have inflamed the people. Whether this issue is the South China Sea disputes remains to be seen, but it is almost certain that the party will divide over how best to handle critical domestic and foreign policy concerns.
The Communist Party will not implode and disappear, but deep divisions and lack of party unity will eventually cause its downfall, this year or the next or maybe just the next decade.
(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)