The existence of civil society and its vibrant activism have been shown to contribute to a nation’s development and democratisation
Is there a civil society in Vietnam? Is Vietnam democratising? These questions need to be addressed amidst scepticism of — or even a rejection of the existence of — both a functioning civil society and democratisation in these countries.
Civil society is broadly defined as a network of non-state actors that differ from organisations such as self-governed sport clubs, research institutes and think tanks. The non-state actors in this context are commonly referred to as social organisations or associations. The key tenet of civil society is that it is independent of the state by all means — it is not subjected to state control and influence in any way or form. Only when this tenet is strictly upheld can civil society scrutinise public policies effectively without state restrictions.
The state control of, and restriction on, social organisations in Vietnam make many believe that there is no civil society. In Vietnam, it is very complicated. Social organisations in Vietnam can be split into two categories: governmental and pseudo non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The former includes those that are either financially sponsored and guided, or not financially sponsored but guided by the Communist Party of Vietnam. There are six governmental organisations that operate closely with the Communist Party: the Fatherland Front, the Farmers Union, the Women’s Union, the General Confederation of Labour, the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union and the Veterans Association. There are also two other national unions: the Vietnam Union of Literature and Arts Associations and the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA), whose membership is in the thousands nationwide. Also within this category are professional associations such as the Vietnam Journalists Association and economic federations like the Vietnam Economic Association.
The second category, pseudo NGOs, is represented by organisations that must register with the government under the auspice of VUSTA. These organisations proclaim themselves as NGOs, operating on their own initiatives and funds without state intervention and influence.
However, activities of these NGOs are under strict surveillance of government watchdogs. Thus, they are very careful about their criticisms, if any, against the government. A legislative project to develop a law allowing social organisations to exist free from government control in Vietnam is currently on the backburner, as the government fears that the law might put it in a political dilemma if it does not allow independent organisations to operate.
In recent years, with the support of social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and blogs, citizens in Vietnam are more updated and engaged in public affairs, and are more likely to challenge the legitimacy of the government and, above all, the communist party’s monopoly rule. Netizen (internet citizen) communities are increasingly engaging in activities such as calling for demonstrations or exposing corruption cases, making many believe that a civil society already exists and democratisation is coming in the two countries.
However, liberal democracy theorists would not be so optimistic. Some conditions are necessary, though may not be enough, for both civil society to operate and democratisation to occur, like freedom of association, freedom of speech and independent press. Unfortunately, most western civil society and democratisation theorists would agree that these conditions are still absent in Vietnam. In fact, the existence of social organisations networks and the activism of netizen communities should be considered as social capital, which really matters for democratization only when the above necessary conditions become available.
One cannot be too optimistic about the existence of civil society and ongoing democratisation in Vietnam. But there is no doubt a solid foundation for change. It is now just a matter of time.
Hai Hong Nguyen is a PhD candidate at the School of Political Science and International Studies, the University of Queensland.