This article evaluates internal and external challenges to the control of Vietnam's Communist Party (VCP). The VCP presently retains a monopoly on power amid extraordinary changes and challenges accompanying Vietnam's transformation into a vibrant trading nation, with a majority of its population born after the violent reunification of 1975. The VCP is coping with gradually rising demands for more political freedom and pluralism while simultaneously seeking to deal with external challenges from China, the United States, and the globalized trading system. Although Marxism in Vietnam is steadily crumbling, Vietnam's special form of Leninist authoritarianism, led by the VCP, is likely to continue for many years to come.
Hostile outside forces cooperate with reactionary elements inside our country....
--Vietnamese senior officer to author, Hanoi, March 2005
Hanoi's Fundamental Dilemma
The Communist Party of Vietnam's (VCP) perception of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's (SRV) external security environment, although relaxing somewhat under the impact of globalization, periodically reverts to the more familiar Communist Party refrain about foreign-instigated internal subversion. Such is the background behind the epigraph to this article, a statement offered to me in spring 2005 by an officer at the National Defense Academy in Hanoi. Vietnam's Ministry of Defense (MOD) formalized these types of concerns in its 2004 white paper on defense: "Vietnam is facing the threat of schemes and ploys by external hostile elements in collusion with internal reactionaries to interfere in Vietnam's internal affairs and to cause socio-political instability in Vietnam." (1)
In truth, VCP authorities do have reasons to be worried--both about how their rule is viewed by the Vietnamese population and about how long the Party's exclusive control of Vietnamese affairs can last. These worries have accumulated for a variety of reasons, not the least being that Vietnamese society today bears little resemblance to that which emerged after Hanoi's 1975 Communist "liberation" of South Vietnam. (2) In the thirty-two years since North Vietnam's Soviet-supplied tanks battered down the gates of the Republic of Vietnam's Presidential offices in Saigon, extinguishing what remained of that country's valiant, tragic defense effort and freedom of choice, the population of unified Vietnam has grown from 40 million to 84 million. Despite resistance by Party conservatives, Vietnam has become a robust trading nation where exports and imports combine to equal almost the size of the GDP itself. And, not surprisingly, one finds a hard-working, literate, and multilingual Vietnamese workforce, most of whom are too young to have any memory of the Second Indochina War (1959-75), not to mention much interest in it, either. Indeed, the majority of Vietnam's present population was born after the country's violent reunification in 1975.
This article evaluates challenges to the control of the Communist Party of Vietnam, both internal and external, as the VCP retains power amid extraordinary changes and challenges accompanying Vietnam's transformation into a vibrant trading nation. Hanoi's fundamental dilemma is the classic problem of reform Communism everywhere in Asia: How can Communist authorities maintain exclusive, one-party political dominance while opening the national economy to the forces of globalization, foreign investment, and trade? Indeed, there is no guarantee that they will be successful. Experimentation and policy zigzags, undergirded with substantial corruption, have characterized Vietnam's economic development and its growing liberation from Communist orthodoxy.
Internal Security: More Demands for Freedom
As in China, Laos and--of course--North Korea, Communist authorities in Vietnam worry about "social unrest" and "instability," concerns prompted, in part, by the corruption and arrogance of numerous Vietnamese party functionaries and the business oligarchs who collude with them, even as the country's economy has dramatically engaged with the Asian region and other areas. Public anger over state corruption in Vietnam periodically boils over, and, in surveys of foreign businesspeople, Vietnam is ranked among the most corrupt countries in Asia. Indeed, Transparency International's 2005 "Corruption Perception Index" rated Vietnam as close to the most corrupt country in the world. The graft is particularly evident in the collusion among senior Party members, state-owned enterprises, and the larger state banks, where non-performing loans routinely underwrite business deals, often of a speculative nature, amid a stock market that has zoomed in recent years. (3)
The clamor about these dealings, for example, has Party operatives identifying threats from "dissidents," "cyber-dissidents" (Internet activists), ethnic minorities, religious activists (sometimes labeled "insane" or "delusional"), and the usual criminal and gang elements--a shifting collage of "difficult" people who keep popping up, people who have to be monitored, detained, exiled, or--in extreme cases--made to disappear. (4) Serious ethnic minority demonstrations took place in the Central Highlands in February 2001, and reoccurrences broke out in April and December 2004. Hanoi's determination to control Vietnam's ethic minorities prompts combinations of secret-police activities and regular army presence. Harassment of Protestant groups is notable. In the south, notorious crime boss "Nam Cam," whose reach had thoroughly compromised the Ho Chi Minh City Police Department, was executed in June 2004, following a highly publicized trial involving drugs, gambling, and bribery. (5) Labor strikes are also now prevalent in Vietnam, most recently at foreign-invested companies, such as Fujitsu and Mabuchi Motor, which, in early 2006, saw an estimated ten thousand Vietnamese workers strike. (6)
But undoubtedly the most worrisome development to Vietnam's Communists has been the surge of dissident activity, highlighted in 2006 by the reform calls of "Bloc 8406," a loose collection of reformers and dissidents--led by doctors, lawyers, teachers, and some clergy--who launched the organization and its "Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam" on April 8, 2006. Four months later, the Bloc publicly called for a phased agenda of competitive democratic elections across Vietnam, a new constitution, establishment of …