Vietnam | Life of the Party

An unprecedented challenge to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power

Executives of ship-building firm Vinashin in court. Activists see the state-owned firm’s collapse in 2010 as one sign that Vietnam’s political system needs to change. VIETNAM NEWS AGENCY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 July, 2013

THE LAST TIME LE HIEU DANG MADE an appointment to meet a foreign journalist, in his preferred side-street restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, government authorities ordered Dang not to come, my translator told me as we awaited his arrival. A long-time member of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, and in the past few years a civil rights lawyer, Dang has recently drawn the scrutiny of officials for criticising the party and leading efforts to prompt the government to reform the country’s political system. Dang’s phone calls and movements are constantly monitored, my translator said.

But Dang did keep his appointment with me. He breezed in more than half an hour late, directed us to a private room at the back of the restaurant and ordered a strong, black Vietnamese coffee. Sipping on it, he began to describe how his beloved Communist Party, which has been in power since 1975, has fallen into a decay borne of corruption and nepotism. “State-owned companies are taking everything,” he said, referring to a spate of mismanagement and corruption cases that have recently come to light, involving government-run businesses. “People have lost their enthusiasm to build the country.”

Dang hasn’t always been this disapproving of the Communists. He has been a member of the party for more than four decades, and fought for the communist North against the military-led South, which was backed by anti-communist countries including the US, in the Vietnam War. By the time a victorious North unified the country in 1975, Dang had stopped active service, but remained part of a group of staunchly communist intellectuals.

Under the Communist Party, attempts had been made at industrial and agricultural collectivisation in North Vietnam, and these were extended to the South after unification. But the country’s growth was stunted by the harsh economic and diplomatic sanctions it faced in the years following the war. In 1986, the Communist Party implemented a slew of reforms, termed Doi Moi (renovation), aimed at opening up the economy and encouraging private enterprises to take part in commodity production. These measures allowed Vietnam to re-establish diplomatic and economic ties with the West, and helped boost its economic growth to among the highest of East Asian countries in the 2000s. According to the International Monetary Fund, Vietnam’s GDP growth rate was 7.8 percent in 2004, the third-highest in the region, trailing only China and Cambodia.

Despite the success of these reforms, activists have become deeply dissatisfied with the country’s functioning. The boom in the economy has been accompanied by a spike in financial misconduct. For many Vietnamese, this was epitomised by the collapse of state-owned shipbuilding firm Vinashin in 2010 under $4.5-billion of debt as leading executives, including the chairman and CEO, were arrested for violating the law.

According to activists like Dang, the spread of financial misconduct is a symptom of an underlying problem with Vietnam’s political system. Almost four decades after its reunification, the country remains a single-party state. “The government has reformed the economy, so they should reform the political system,” Dang said. As mandated by the country’s 1992 constitution, which was last revised in 2001, the Communist Party enjoys a monopoly on political power. Only the party and its affiliates are permitted to field candidates in elections for the National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislative body, which in turn elects the prime minister and president. The only lawmakers who are not affiliated to the Communist Party are independents, who occupy just four of the assembly’s 500 seats. Dang believes the one-party system, which he subscribed to in earlier years, must be replaced. “We need a multi-party system so that the Communist Party runs in an election,” Dang told me.

Such dissatisfaction with the status quo seems to have unsettled the regime. In 2012, the National Assembly finished drafting a reworded version of the constitution, which includes new affirmations of human rights. Then, on 2 January this year, the government called on the country’s 90 million citizens to offer feedback on the proposal. The move marked the first time the state has consulted with its own people on how the country should be run.

Dang and his fellow activists, however, believe the new document offers little in the way of tangible measures. They argue that the government is merely making cosmetic changes to the constitution and then asking the public for responses in order to create the illusion of a democratic process. There is certainly no mention in the reworded document of multi-party elections, or of moves to loosen the firm grip that the Communist Party holds on power. Still, Dang pointed out, even in making the token gesture of asking for people’s opinion on the draft, the government created a rare window of opportunity for change. “When the government is collecting public opinion, this is the best time to speak out about democracy,” he said.

In January, following the government’s call for feedback, Dang, along with another dozen or so Communist Party members, helped draft a petition that urged major reforms to Vietnam’s constitution. “Many of us spent all of our lives fighting for the revolution,” he said, referring to Vietnam’s struggle against the colonial rule of France during the first half of the 20th century, and later against the US. “Now we cannot accept an unjust society.” The petitioners called for a political model that places greater emphasis on human rights, separation of executive and legislative powers and—most significantly—multi-party elections. “If the party wants to win the trust of the people, they must change,” Dang said.

The call for responses has put the government in something of a quandary. On the one hand, it has to listen to the growing tide of discontent—or at least be seen to. Otherwise, observers feel, it risks triggering the kind of mass protests witnessed during the Arab Spring. On the other hand, by accepting criticisms, the government could risk losing its own grip on power.

The party’s approach to resolving this dilemma has been to release public pressure with promises of political change and crackdowns on corruption in cases like Vinashin. It still seems unsure, however, of how to deal with reactions such as Dang’s petition. In previous years, Dang could have expected the authorities to arrest him for publicly calling for an end to the Communist Party’s 38-year monopoly on power. In 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the government had used the constitution’s Article 79, a vaguely worded state security law, as well as two other laws, to “imprison hundreds of peaceful activists in the last decade”.

At first, the government appeared to sit by as momentum behind Dang’s petition grew. By mid-February, about 4,000 people had signed. Then, in late February, the Communist Party finally stepped in and tried to set parameters on what could and could not be said. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said that calling for the end of one-party rule represented a “political, ideological and ethical deterioration” in Vietnam, and that such demands should be rejected by the people. When Nguyen Dac Kien, a journalist from the state-run Family and Society newspaper immediately responded on his blog by accusing the party—rather than the people—of deteriorating standards, the paper fired him.

While Dang and his associates have not yet been targeted, in a number of other cases the Communist Party has displayed an increased intolerance of criticism. “The Vietnamese government has produced an avalanche of political show trials as it tries to keep a lid on growing dissent,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in a statement in April. In the biggest of these trials, on 4 February, a court in south-central Phu Yen province tried 22 dissidents who had distributed leaflets calling for an end to one-party rule. All 22 were found guilty of plotting to overthrow the state, and were given prison terms ranging from 10 years, with a further five years’ house arrest, up to life.

The number of such trials is growing. In 2012, at least 40 people were convicted for political offences in Vietnam, according to HRW. “As many activists were imprisoned after political trials in the first two months of 2013 than in the entire year of 2012,” Adams said. “The Vietnamese government needs to realise it cannot solve the country’s huge social and political problems by throwing all its critics in jail.”

At the same time, the regime continues to present at least a façade of openness to civic engagement. Originally, the public consultation period on the proposed rewording of the constitution was to last from 2 January to 31 March. Then, in March, the government—without explanation—extended the deadline for public feedback until the end of September.

By the middle of June, around 13,000 people including army officials, members of the church and members of the Communist Party had signed the petition started by Dang and his colleagues. It is the biggest and most explicit challenge the Communist Party has faced since reunification.

After it closes the public consultation process on the new constitution at the end of September, the National Assembly is expected to rubber-stamp the amendments in October. No Vietnamese I spoke with expected real change. Dang predicts true democratic reform will not take place in Vietnam until long after the current constitution redrafting process finishes, but he seems convinced it will happen eventually. “I am certain the government will ignore the petition,” he said as he finished his coffee. “But there are senior party members who have signed. So, gradually, the government will accept these views.”