By: David Brown

“If the problem of human rights isn’t properly solved,” said my friend C.V., “Vietnam is going to be isolated from the international community, and that will make it really hard to develop our country.” We spoke just after blogger Mẹ Nấm was taken into custody on October 10, charged with “distorting the truth, opposing the party line and state policies.” 

Western press reports linked the popular blogger’s arrest to her criticism of the Hanoi government’s management of an environmental disaster,  the hundreds of tons of fish killed in April when a newly commissioned foreign-owned steel mill unaccountably released toxic chemicals into coastal waters.  Police told Vietnamese reporters, however, that the charges lodged against Mẹ Nấm were more relate to her compilation of some 31 deaths of individuals in police custody, a list she posted over. two years ago.

Mẹ Nấm is in jail not only because she dares to challenge Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, but also to caution other bloggers who argue that Hanoi has been too lenient in its bargaining with the steel mill’s Taiwanese owner.  She is a pawn in another round between those whose objective is normalizing Vietnam as a fast-developing member of the international community and those who think that an excess of zeal in this respect could well undo the Communist Party’s authority.

The party numbers perhaps four million of the nation’s 90 million citizens. Most members join because they want to get ahead in the public sector or in state-owned enterprises. A party card isn’t necessary for success in the private sector but being known as a dissident isn’t career enhancing.  And then there are those, like Mẹ Nấm and C.V., who just can’t tolerate the idea of a Vietnam where a self-selected vanguard of the proletariat decides the nation’s course non-transparently and on behalf of everyone else.

Asia Sentinel readers will recall that in January, the 12th Congress ratified Communist Party conservatives’ rejection of Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng’s bid to lead the party as well as the government. Midway through his second five year term, Dũng had shaken off earlier missteps and won the qualified approval of the general public. However, party stalwarts considered him a dangerous populist. He reminded them of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose feckless attempt to reform the Soviet system led to its disintegration.

Dũng was the flawed exponent of a new order, that is to say of a Vietnam not substantially different from other well-run, rising nations. The current prime minister, Dung’s successor, was one of Dũng’s deputies. Though in principle buoyed by party and public consensus that Vietnam must ‘globalize,’ Nguyễn Xuân Phúc is on a much shorter tether than was Dũng. He is liable at every turn to second-guessing by the party’s 17 member Politburo, a body that is dominated by police generals and party apparatchiks. Phúc may wish that the cops would lay off bloggers but in fact there’s little he can do to dissuade them.

Hanoi’s management of the Great Fish Kill is the best measure so far of the new power constellation.

In two important respects, the Phúc government has already failed the test. First, Hanoi took more than two months to confirm the obvious: that toxic discharges from the new Taiwan-owned steel mill at Vũng Áng had put the fishermen of four provinces out of work for many months. Second, though the mill’s owner, Formosa Plastics, ultimately agreed to pay half a billion US dollars in compensation, hugely more than any comparable settlement in Vietnam’s history, the consensus of Vietnam’s blogosphere is that Phúc sold out.

What Price Prosperity?

Environmentally dubious foreign investment projects aren’t new in Vietnam. They’ve been part of the mix since Hanoi began its courtship of foreign investors a quarter-century ago. And before that, while Vietnam was “building socialism,” environmental protection was a rarely affordable luxury.

Foreign capital has been pouring into Vietnam in the last few years, including gleaming new factories bearing the logos of firms like Samsung, Intel, Panasonic and Canon.  Some ventures, like a huge bauxite mining/alumina smelting complex in the central highlands, the Formosa Plastics development at Vũng Áng, and a zinc mill just proposed on the coast near Huế, are more problematic from an environmental perspective, but well nigh irresistible to provincial authorities in poorer parts of the nation.

It’s hard to imagine Vietnam becoming wealthy without hosting big ventures that marry up advanced technology with young, smart Vietnamese workers. Formosa Plastics  mobilized US$11 billion to build its steelmaking complex at Vũng Áng and has said it intends to invest more if the business prospers, ultimately providing 30,000 jobs. 

When Vietnam was still desperately poor, it didn’t produce enough trash for pollution to be a problem. Now Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are megacities with overtaxed sewer systems and chronic air pollution. Developers line the nation’s once-pristine beaches with tacky resorts. The wealthy flee to apartment towers or gated communities. For the rest of Vietnam’s citizenry, the concomitant of economic growth is a palpably deteriorating environment. With cash in their pockets, Vietnam’s urban middle class can these days afford the luxury of caring about quality of life issues. Many are speaking up on social media. Significant numbers are showing up for ad hoc protests.

March 2015 will likely be remembered as the moment that environmental activism went mainstream. Then, thousands of young people rallied to stop the logging of tropical hardwoods that grace Hanoi’s downtown streets. The municipal construction department’s explanation was lame, its intentions patently corrupt, and after enough ordinary citizens complained, higher authority put a stop to the ill-conceived project. In countries where grassroots environmental advocacy is common, the tree-felling fiasco would have been a routine political event.

In Vietnam, however, the event was revolutionary. Hanoi has signed virtually every international agreement on environmental stewardship, but it’s still the party/state that sets the agenda and monopolizes decision-making. The regime’s suspicious of civil society in general, and particularly hostile to organized protest. There’s no acknowledged space for environmental activism of the sort practiced in democracies by not for profit organizations.