Le Quynh, BBC-Vietnamese / GlobalVietDiaspora, 29 May 2012
Editor’s Note: This article was originally in Vietnamese published by the BBC-Vietnamese on May 23 .
Four researchers on Vietnam talk to the BBC about their views on Vietnam’s politics and whether the country will embrace democratization.
The focus of exchange between the BBC and the four researchers is British scholar Martin Gainsborough’s recent paper, published by Journal of Democracy (April 2012 issue).
This is one of the very few articles by foreigners which try to shed light on why the politics of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam “[lacks a] commitment to liberal values.”
Those three countries, however different, have many points in common – according to Gainsborough, who has spent significant amounts of time on conducting empirical research in Vietnam.
In his article, Gainsborough gives special attention to the factor of political culture – one that centers around respect for the elite and paternal relationships – in order to explain the nexus of States-Citizens in these countries. The political culture that their authorities share is opposed to pluralism and suspicious of independent organizations, particularly their own civil societies.
Further, because of “the rise of ‘money politics’” and “commercialization of the state”, the West’s idea of liberal democracy is unlikely to thrive in this group of countries. The premise of such a phenomenon is that power results in money, and the state/government bodies and enterprises depend on each other.
Below is the BBC’s report on the four researchers’ commentaries on the aforementioned journal article, Elites vs. Reform in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam,” and their predictions of Vietnam’s political trends.
Dr. Le Si Long, University of Houston, USA:
As I understand it, Martin makes the argument that regime collapse is unlikely to happen in Vietnam, and that Vietnamese government does not have their backs against the wall. He also discusses a number of routes that Vietnam will take, but argues “what is certain is that a sudden and wholesale ascendancy of liberal politics is the least likely outcome.”
On the whole, I do not necessarily disagree with Martin’s general argument. My only point is that Martin appears to underestimate the current “structural breaks” and “turning points” in Vietnam that are emerging, of which will shape the route the Vietnamese government will take.
Here, “structural breaks” include the inability of government to control corruption; fundamental weaknesses in a country’s economy and financial system (i.e., consistently high inflation rates, currency and price instability, and cumbersome bureaucracy); and government inefficiencies that cause adverse developments (i.e., reliance on poorly run and wasteful state-owned enterprises and contested land seizures by local authorities). However, I would admit that “structural breaks” are often predicted but rarely occur.
Regarding “turning points,” the activities of labor rights, land rights, human rights, pro-democracy and religious freedom groups that were once relatively compartmentalized from each other now are beginning to cross-fertilize despite state repression. By some accounts, the increasing networking between these politically active civil society groups is attributed to the inability of the one-party state to address particular public demands. As observed by Carl Thayer, the risk of political instability or social unrest comes from the fact that criticism of the regime’s policies in one area can spill over into another and another. However, I would admit that “turning points” cannot take hold unless it has, at least implicitly, support from various sub-groups or a key coalition within the party system.
Nonetheless, I would make the argument that the emerging “structural breaks” and “turning points” are making it difficult for the party leadership to continue business as usual. Cases such as bauxite mining, Truong Sa & Hoang Sa, and land seizures by local authorities have led to public debates on reforms – how to build up a rule-of-law and responsible government. The more that public no longer sees the Communist Party as great (meaning the party no longer stands in the hearts of the people and carries out the people’s wishes), the more people (including individuals such Cu Huy Ha Vu) will call for some form of pluralistic political system.
The reason why regime collapse is very unlikely is largely because the Vietnamese party system is very capable of co-opting the burning issues of any “turning point” movements.
Essentially, what prevents today’s call to reform is the absence of consensus and incentives of which ultimately come from a “structure break” (as in the case of economic reforms in 1986) where a particular coalition would gain consensus to push for transformative changes.
Lastly, I would agree with Martin that if the country’s next transformative changes do come about, the sudden and wholesale ascendancy of liberal politics is an unlikely outcome. However, the transformative changes will likely mark a significant pivot in bringing about “peaceful evolution” that has longed been absence in Vietnamese political history.
Dr. Andrew Wells-Dang, A Consultant on Civil Society, Hoi An, Vietnam:
I think Martin G. is certainly correct that there are undemocratic aspects to Vietnamese (and Lao and Cambodian) political culture that have persisted from previous regimes to the current leadership. I don’t think this is deterministic of future changes – after all, many other East and Southeast Asian cultures have similar features, and some of them (Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan…) have developed into relatively well-functioning democracies, while others have not. Of course, each country’s case is different in details; the same applies for Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia, where there is a major contrast between the personal nature of power in Cambodia and the consensus-based party systems of Vietnam and Laos.
One thing that comes out clearly from Dr. Gainsborough’s analysis is that democratization depends on changes in society and political culture; it is not only a matter of replacing one group of rulers with another. In part based on this realization, most civil society actors in the current context do not prioritize political opposition. Through carrying out community-based projects and modeling participatory ways of working, civil society can play constructive roles in promoting a more democratic society and culture, even within the present political system. One cannot predict when or if particular political changes might occur, but social and cultural engagement can take place at any time.
I would point out that limiting “the use of public office for private ends” is not necessarily equivalent to democratization: some democracies (such as the Philippines, India) have similar issues with corruption and abuse of power, while some non-democracies (Singapore, perhaps Cuba) have made progress in addressing these problems. All of these systems have to find answers to the question of what countermeasures can be taken in case elected or appointed leaders overstep acceptable boundaries: either by voting them out of office, removing them through public movements, or using internal disciplinary processes. Vietnam at present has only the third mechanism, and that is only effective some of the time.
Dr. Jörg Wischermann, Asia Research Institute, Hamburg, Germany:
Martin Gainsborough offers an intriguing view on three authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia and analyzes the impact of socio-cultural, political and economic forces ensuring the perseverance and forces which might lead to (limited) change of those regimes.
The underlying assumption of his analysis is the contradiction between political culture and interests of (not defined) “elites” on the one hand and what he calls civil society activism pursued by parts of the middle class on the other side. This hypothesized contradiction forms the central point of what could be called Gainsborough’s focused theory frame which he applies in order to analyze perspectives of perseverance and change in those three countries.
And it is here where the strength and the weakness of his analysis lie: Basically he understands culture in an essentialist way, i.e. basically assuming that culture is a concrete social phenomenon which represents the essential character of a particular nation (as for example Hofstede understands culture), thus attempting to fit the behaviour of people into pre-conceived, constraining structures. Based on such an understanding Gainsborough claims that in all three countries political culture is patriarchal and authoritarian in essence while being supported by mainly economic interests which help to preserve the status quo in politics and economy and the role and position of what he calls the “elite” (whatever that may be – especially as distinguished from what he calls the middle class). In stark contrast civil society activism (as he calls what others call civil society action, but obviously he wants to avoid the theoretical background which goes with the term civil society action) is portrayed as a force of incremental change. Whereas the first, the essentialist understanding of culture seems to be heavily contested (and which seem to echo an Orientalist view on Arab countries who were held averse to change due to their culture – until the Arab Spring destroyed what was left from this assumption), the second, the role of civil society action as a source of incremental change, is much more plausible and can claim empirical evidence at least s far as the case of Vietnam is concerned.
In the final section Gainsborough offers – what is not done very often – a look into the future of those three regimes. Unfortunately he confines his scenarios to more or less well-known points of reference (democratization in South Korea and Taiwan; splits within the ranks and files of the “elites”, etc.) and he claims, once again, the overwhelming power of an authoritarian political culture which in his view will limit all attempts for an overall change of those regimes (a claim which in my view he leaves unsubstantiated at least in empirical terms).
In the end, especially this final section of his article and Gainsborough’s repeated reference to the overwhelming power of political culture leaves the reader stunned: How could it be that Orientalism one year after the Arab Spring demolished the remaining parts of such thinking celebrates its reincarnation in Southeast Asia? Why does Gainsborough not confine his arguments to what can be clearly observed and what he has analyzed in great detail in his earlier works: The antagonism of interests pursued by various strata of for example the Vietnamese society which lead to what he observes: A fragile and temporarily hegemony of certain economic and political influential strata and the state they dominate over parts of the middle class, working class, peasants and civil society action …
Dr. Tuong Vu, University of Oregon, USA:
Gainsborough is right to argue that elitist political culture and a
feeble civil society pose formidable challenges to liberal democracy.
But liberal democracy is only one form of democracy; Asian democracies
such as Japan and South Korea are illiberal in many respects. To cite
one example, based on the National Security Law that has been in force
since 1948, the South Korean government may choose to prosecute and
imprison people simply for praising North Korea. In 2010, 151 people
were interrogated on suspicion of violating the National Security Law.
The number of people prosecuted for pro-North Korean online activities
was 82 in 2010. 178 domestic Web sites were shut down for pro-North
Korean content in 2011 (Choe Sang-Hun, “Sometimes It’s a Crime to Praise
Pyongyang,” New York Times, January 5, 2012).
To make more precise predictions, perhaps we should limit our
discussion to a more realistic system, say, a functioning multi-party
electoral democracy such as that in Indonesia. This system is certainly
far from perfect, but from a liberal standpoint it is still much better
than the current totalitarian dictatorship in Vietnam. If we think in
terms of this kind of system, then the possibility of a transition is
much higher even though it’s still impossible to say exactly when that
might occur. What makes such a transition very difficult to predict is
because it is typically caused not by one single event, but by a
conjuncture of many events.
Take the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998. This
event was possible due to the combination of a succession situation and
an economic crisis. Economic crisis had occurred before but only when
combined with the succession issue did it culminate in the collapse of
the Suharto regime. In Egypt in 2011, again, it was the combined effect
of a succession situation and the sudden appearance of a symbol (in the
form of a martyr) for the longstanding popular anger directed at police
brutality. Given the intense rivalry among factions at every Party
Congress in Vietnam, the poor macroeconomic management and worsening
quality of life in recent years, and the sharp rise in police brutality
and corruption, I see in Indonesia and Egypt a likelier scenario for
Vietnam’s transition than the transitions in Korea and Taiwan. To be
sure, succession in Vietnam is more institutionalized than in Indonesia
and Egypt, but since 2006 we have seen the masive concentration of power
in the hands of the Prime Minister and his faction (which no doubt
contributes to the above trends). It remains to be seen if this faction
is able to institutionalize their dominance in the next Congress.
In terms of the sources for change, what Singapore’s PAP is doing is
unlikely in Vietnam because the ruling party in Vietnam is a communist
party which has never accepted even the concept of opposition. From
“democratic centralism” to “loyal opposition” is too far a road for them
to travel. In contrast, opposition parties in Singapore have always
existed, however weak. Due to the lack of organized opposition in
Vietnam, a scenario like in the Soviet Union where someone/some faction
from inside the system (Boris Yeltsin) led an abrupt change is more
likely. Whether and what kind of Vietnamese Yeltsin emerges depends on
the particular combination of events discussed above, but that kind of
critical conjuncture appears far more likely today than, say, five years