Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reconsidering Vietnam’s political system

Despite being a one-party state, Vietnam’s political system has often been responsive to peasants, workers and others pushing for better economic, social and political conditions.

Major policy shifts in the last 25 years — especially replacing a centrally planned economy with a market economy and abandoning collective farming in favour of individual household farming — have been consequences, to a considerable measure, of bottom-up pressure for change, to which the country’s Communist Party leadership has acquiesced.

Yet it is unclear whether the Vietnamese Communist Party and its government are now responding appropriately to mounting demands to further improve a majority of people’s lives.

Evidence of such demands is abundant; and it is far more visible now than it was in the mid-1970s to mid-1990s when Vietnamese citizens rarely openly voiced discontent. Now, almost daily, disgusted, often angry citizens demonstrate at government and Communist Party offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere. Distraught people often travel long distances, hoping to make provincial and national authorities listen to their complaints, read their petitions and respond favourably to their criticisms.

During their demonstrations, which range in size from several dozen to over a thousand people, participants hold placards, wave banners and distribute lists of complaints to anyone within reach. They frequently wear clothing bearing words and pictures summarising their complaints and pleas. Demonstrators’ most prevalent criticisms are against local and provincial officials who seize their farmlands, pay them miniscule compensation, and then give the property to investors and developers in exchange for huge amounts of money and other benefits. A common view among demonstrators is that corrupt officials are stealing not just people’s land but also their livelihoods.

On the internet, one can readily find hundreds of new stories, commentaries and interviews by and about Vietnamese criticising specific government policies and particular offices and officials. The internet also contains numerous accounts of workers striking for decent wages and employment conditions. Moreover, there are online essays by nationalists lambasting the Vietnamese government for appearing to do nothing of significance to counter Chinese incursions into Vietnamese territory and exploitation of Vietnam’s natural resources.

Are authorities listening attentively to these and other public political criticisms; are they responding sympathetically and responsibly? Some are, but national surveys and other sources of information indicate that a larger proportion of authorities are not.

Authorities create firewalls against internet sites with material contrary to official views and accounts. The blogs of Vietnamese critics are not the only targets; so are Facebook and Vietnamese-language sites of the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Radio France Internationale and several other worldwide media outlets. While technologically savvy Vietnamese can find ways to get around these government-created impediments, many other citizens are stymied by them.

Corruption has arguably become more widespread, not just at local levels but at the highest levels, too. Waves of government campaigns, directives and speeches against corruption have had little impact during the past several years. One major reason, argue critics and even some members of Vietnam’s National Assembly, is the very agencies charged with fighting corruption either tolerate it or are themselves corrupt. A number of well-informed Vietnamese say even the prime minister surrounds himself with corrupt officials and is widely rumoured to be wealthy far beyond what his salary as a life-long public servant could provide.

Land confiscations (and the corruption that often accompanies them) are the target of more than 70 per cent of written complaints that Vietnamese government offices have received in recent years. Yet the draft of a revised land law, which the government circulated in September, does little to address critics’ central demand that land should not be taken from farmers for the benefit of developers and investors. They argue that if land must be confiscated for the public good — for example, to build a vital highway or military base — farmers should be fairly and adequately compensated.

Regarding relations with China, Vietnamese authorities say they are using diplomatic channels to deal with Chinese incursions. Yet they continue to publicly laud China as a dear friend of Vietnam, treating Chinese authorities with the utmost respect and with grand ceremony. Meanwhile, Vietnamese authorities intimidate fellow citizens who demonstrate, as they have in their hundreds on numerous occasions during the last two years, against China acting at Vietnam’s expense.

 Recently, a court in Ho Chi Minh City tried two protesters who wrote songs criticising the government’s response to China’s encroachment on Vietnamese territory in the South China Sea and calling on Vietnamese to join protest rallies. The court found both protesters guilty of spreading propaganda against the state and sentenced one to four years and the other to six years in prison. This court sentence is just one of many examples which suggest that Vietnamese authorities are shooting the messenger, rather than dealing with people’s legitimate complaints and criticisms.

There is still hope that the Vietnamese Communist Party government will again become more responsive and less repressive, although the outlook is less optimistic now than it has been in the past.

Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet is Emeritus Professor at the Department of Political and Social Change, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, the Australian National University.

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