Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Vietnam and the Challenge of Political Civil Society

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Vietnam and the Challenge of Political Civil Society

Article excerpt

This article aims to advance the discussion of Vietnamese politics beyond contemporary academic preoccupation with so-called "everyday politics" and "civil society" by promoting the concept of political civil society. Political civil society refers to non-violent political, advocacy, (1) labour and religious organizations and movements that seek to promote human rights, democratization and religious freedom in authoritarian states. The term "political" has been included to capture the activist nature of civil society in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s when citizens became active in creating organizations outside of state control in order to influence the conditions in which they lived, including political pressure on the state. The study of political civil society groups has been largely marginalized by mainstream academics who privilege the role of so-called developmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) in their writings on Vietnamese politics. (2)

This article will focus on the roles of nascent "political parties" and trade unions that emerged in 2006 and coalesced in a political coalition known as Bloc 8406. These groups mounted a series of challenges to the political hegemony of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) before they were repressed. This article will also analyse the role of external agents, such as the Viet Tan Party, in providing material, financial and human resource assistance to political civil society groups.

In the past, the activities of human rights, pro-democracy and religious freedom groups were relatively compartmentalized from each other. (3) Due to increasing networking between politically active civil society groups cross-fertilization is taking place and a nascent movement has gradually taken shape despite state repression. This development is occurring when the legitimacy of the VCP is coming under challenges due to public discontent with endemic corruption, rising inflation, environmental pollution and other social ills. The article concludes by noting that Vietnam may face the risk of domestic instability if the one-party state fails to adequately address the challenge of political civil society.

This article is divided into four parts. Part one briefly discusses key characteristics of Vietnam's one-party system. Part two discusses the question: what is civil society in a Vietnamese context? Part three analyses the rise of political civil society primarily through a focus on the activities of Bloc 8406 and the Viet Tan. And finally, part four offers some observations on the challenge these political developments pose for Vietnam's one-party system.

Vietnam's One-Party Political System

Prior to the era of doi moi (renovation), western political scientists had no difficulty in classifying Vietnam as a Leninist political system. The term "mono-organizational socialism" has also been used to describe Vietnam's political system. (4) In such a system the party exercises hegemonic control over state institutions, the armed forces and other organizations in society through the penetration of these institutions by party cells and committees. Senior party members form the leadership nucleus of the state apparatus, National Assembly, the People's Armed Forces and the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF). These party leaders are termed "dual-role elites".

The VFF is an umbrella organization grouping 29 registered mass organizations and special interest groups. The Vietnam Women's Union is the largest mass organization with a membership of 12 million and a staff of 300 across the country. It is funded by the state. Other mass organizations include the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union and the Vietnam Youth Federation, with 3.5 million and 2.5 million members respectively. The leaders of these mass organizations regularly serve on the Party Central Committee.

The Vietnam Union of Friendship Associations is the official agency in charge of "people-to-people diplomacy". …

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