Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

An Approach for Analysing State-Society Relations in Vietnam

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

An Approach for Analysing State-Society Relations in Vietnam

Article excerpt

Vietnam's leaders say the government is "of the people, for the people, and by the people". Yet the country's political system has only one political party, the Communist Party. Elections typically have only candidates approved by that party. Tight restrictions make very difficult the formation of any organization or the establishment of any publication that criticizes the Communist Party's domination of the political system. In such a system, what is the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, the authorities and "the people"? Secondly, what is being said and debated in the country about what those relationships should be?

This article offers an approach to analysing such questions. It uses three interpretations in the scholarly literature to examine specific political arenas. It finds that each interpretation contributes to an understanding of the political system but is incomplete. This approach also reveals contending notions in Vietnam about appropriate relations between state and society.

Conceptualizing Relations between "State" and "Society"

State and society are important concepts in everyday life as well as in political analysis. But the concepts are elusive and hard to define. One of the most perplexing problems is distinguishing between the two. Where does the state "end" and society "begin", and vice versa? State and society are different, yet they are not entirely separate. For example, in a country like Australia or the United States, is a government-funded university part of "the state" or is it part of "society"? People working in such a university are on the government payroll; they are often part of a state employee healthcare or retirement system; they are probably bound by certain restrictions applicable to all government workers. The highest governing body of such a university typically is often a board or council that includes representatives from the state. Yet most people in a university would probably not think of themselves as being part of the state. They would not see themselves as being responsible to the government's chief executive or the state agency "in charge" of higher education. Students at the university, even those on state scholarships, would not likely say they are part of the state. Instead, students and faculty are likely to think of themselves as being independent scholars, free to pursue their own course of study, and teach and take the courses they want within the bounds of university-designed -- not state-designed -- requirements. Periodically, issues do arise that highlight the complexities of a university's position. For instance, when a state official or agency tries to tell a faculty member how or what to teach or threatens to withhold funding from a university or an academic programme until it does as the government says or when faculty members and students who criticize the government are threatened with expulsion, then debates are likely to erupt over the role of the university and its obligations to state authorities, to "the community", and to scholarship. Boiled down, such discussions are about the state in the affairs of society, specifically, the relations between the state and the university.

This is but one of many examples in which boundaries between "state" and "society" are murky and in which trying to locate and draw them is important yet highly contentious. This situation is true in many countries, including Vietnam.

It brings me to an important point about how to conceptualize and talk about relations between the state and society. Rather than trying to say that one entity is part of the state and another entity is part of society, a more fruitful approach is to think of arenas in which boundaries, rights, jurisdictions, and power distribution between state and societal agencies are debated, contested, and resolved (at least temporarily).(1) These arenas can be within physical institutions, including those that, structurally speaking, clearly belong to the state, for example, government ministries and militaries. …

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