By Cameron W. Barr, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
UNTIL recently, Dang Nghiem Van's family reunions were a little tense.
Sitting in a dingy room in Hanoi's state-run National Center for Social and Human Studies, Professor Van explains that one of his two brothers left Vietnam for Paris after the country's French colonialists were defeated in 1954. The other lives in New York. He went into exile after 1975 when the Communists took over all of Vietnam.
Van, however, stayed in Vietnam and stayed loyal to the revolution. When he talks about the Communist Party, he says "we." The atmosphere among the brothers was strained.
"Before, it was PAAF," he exclaims, using the French equivalent of "pow" as he claps his hands. "Now," he says of the family's recent gathering last May in Paris, "it's `bonjour.' "
What made their reconciliation possible is the economic renovation, called doi moi, that Vietnam's Communist Party embraced in the late 1980s.
The government has abandoned central planning in many industries, encouraged entrepreneurism, and aggressively sought foreign aid and investment.
Perhaps most important to Van's brothers, the communist and socialist ideologies espoused by those who evicted France and the United States have begun to fade, at least in practice, as free-market economics has taken hold. But at the same time, Vietnam's transition is creating new disparities, widening the gap between rich and poor.
"Socialism," Van says, echoing Vietnam's retooled party line, "is a society where there is equality, where people are rich and prosperous, where there is no fighting." But the label isn't so important anymore, he suggests. "That society I just described - you can call it socialist or nationalist, it's up to you."
Well, not quite. Other officials and party members are much less willing to dismiss the old terms.
The Communist Party is resolutely in charge of the country, and brooks no discussion of multiparty politics. Vietnam is still socialist, says Do Duc Dinh, an influential economist in Hanoi. "The content of socialism has changed," he adds. "We can never again return to egalitarianism. No more equal distribution of poverty."
Experts agree that doi moi has had broad benefits for Vietnam, pointing to greater economic opportunity, a rising standard of living, and a freer social atmosphere.
Most Vietnamese are simply glad they don't have to worry as much as they used to about getting enough to eat. But the end of egalitarianism has its downside as well.
Vietnam's rulers made mistakes in their push for equality, such as a brutal land-reform campaign in the late 1970s, but they also created a well-educated and healthy society, factors that now give the country an economic advantage.
"A high literacy rate has enabled the people to adapt quickly and flexibly to new technologies and know-how," says a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report released in April 1994.
"Good health has enabled sustained hard work and physical productivity, and the high status of women has vastly contributed to national economic output," the report said. …