Introduction: Analysing the State in Vietnam

By Tria Kerkvliet, Benedict J. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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Introduction: Analysing the State in Vietnam


Tria Kerkvliet, Benedict J., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


In recent scholarship on Vietnam for the English-speaking world, the topics concerning the wars that engulfed the country between 1945 and 1975 still predominate. For example, 80 per cent of the new titles regarding Vietnam available through Amazon.com, a large vendor of books in English, are about the wars. Only 16 per cent are about Vietnamese society, culture, politics, and history (excluding the wars); the remaining 4 per cent are travel logs and cookbooks.(1) A search on the topic "Vietnam" among indexed journal articles published in 1999 and 2000 found that 74 per cent are about the war and war-related issues, including studies of medical and psychological problems of veterans (mostly Americans, presumably) of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The remaining 26 per cent deal with society and culture, economy, history (apart from the wars), politics, travel, and other topics.(2) In short, only a minority of researchers are making good the slogan "Vietnam is not a war" by examining other aspects of the country and its people.

Recent dissertations suggest that perhaps the preoccupation with the United States and its war in Vietnam is waning and that younger scholars are giving more attention to Vietnam as a place. Of the 115 dissertations done in 1999 and 2000 on "Vietnam" topics that are included in a widely used database, 60 per cent are about the war and closely related matters; 40 per cent are about social, cultural, political, economic, and other historical subjects.(3) If this is a trend, it is probably due partly to the passage of time; the war has less relevance and importance now than before, especially to young scholars. Another reason is that since the late 1980s, authorities in Vietnam have been more amenable to having scholars from Australia, Canada, Singapore, the United States, and other parts of the English-speaking academic world come to the country to use libraries and archives and learn from and live with the people.

One consequence of this broadening interest and better access to information is greater attention by scholars to political life in Vietnam since the country was reunited in 1975-76. That is the subject of the articles in this volume. To orient readers not yet familiar with recent studies on politics in Vietnam, I want to indicate here where the articles of this special issue of Sojourn fit in that literature and highlight some of their arguments.

Scholars have stressed different aspects of contemporary politics in Vietnam. My own article in the volume synthesizes their studies and identifies three schools of analysis. The "dominating state" interpretation emphasizes the Communist Party and other official agencies and institutions, and finds that groups or activities in society have little or no influence on the political system or national policies. The "mobilizational corporatist" school highlights the role of organizations that the state itself dominates. State agencies use such organizations to mobilize support for their programmes. But those organizations can also be channels through which citizens influence authorities. The "dialogical" interpretation draws attention to limitations in the state's control over society and to ways beyond formal channels through which people can affect state agencies and policies. Each of these schools captures important aspects of contemporary political life in Vietnam. No single one, however, adequately summarizes Vietnam's political situation. Until a "meta" interpretation is developed that encompasses them all, analysts will need to be prepared to use all three (and possibly others).

Much of the material in Russell Hiang-Khng Heng's article corresponds to the first interpretation, but some of it pertains to the third. The article points out that the state owns all media, hence journalists and the newspapers and magazines they work for are part of the state. Rules and regulations, however, about how newspapers and magazines should be run, what journalists can print, and how they carry out their work are not uniform.

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