By: David Brown
At this stage in the Vietnamese Communist Party’s rites of renewal, it’s appropriate to ask what’s the significance, if any, of all the closed-door meetings and self-congratulatory pronouncements by party leaders. Whether we imagine Vietnam’s place on the broad canvas of east Asian geopolitics or contemplate the more finely grained process of steering Vietnam toward the future, does it matter if Comrade Z instead of Comrade Y climbs to the top of the party antheap?
Actually, it does. Let me try to explain.
What’s Happening. Every five years, there’s a Communist Party congress. Therefore, in late January, upwards of 1500 delegates will convene in Hanoi, not to choose new leaders, but rather to celebrate the party’s successes and to ratify the leaders that have been chosen for them.
In anticipation of the congress, a more elite body, the party’s 200-member central committee, has been straining to finalize a list of 19 candidates for the 19 seats on the politburo (the party’s executive committee), and to choose the members who will fill the four most prestigious positions: chairman of the National Assembly, state president and the two jobs that really matter, prime minister and general secretary of the party.
It’s a routine that institutionalizes regular and substantial turnover in the personnel at the top.
Always behind closed doors, the hopefuls and their supporters have been politicking for many months. Over and over, report Vietnam’s media, officials of the party’s secretariat have explained what sort of party members are qualified to be leaders. Straw votes were taken at central committee meetings in October and again this month. And at last, on December 18, according to credible leaks, 24 individuals were chosen to stand for the politburo seats. Ten of the 24 are incumbents. Their re-election is all but certain. The 14 other nominees will duke it out for nine seats.
In parallel, several of the politburo holdovers are actively seeking the four top offices.
Rank-and-file party members and a fair number of ordinary citizens are paying close attention, analyzing scraps of information provided by the official media and winnowing the rumors posted to Facebook. Still, it’s all so opaque that many of Vietnam’s 95 million citizens have been paying closer attention to the untidy, very public brawling in the US.
What It Means. In Vietnam as elsewhere, it matters who’s in charge. The events of the last five years provide abundant evidence of that.
Going into the previous party congress (2016), Vietnam was a rather different place in important respects. A gap had opened between the party and government structures, weakening policy coordination. Two-term prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung was riding a wave of prosperity. He’d branded himself as a straight talker, a reformer, somewhat dismissive of party dogma, receptive to new ideas, and savvy in international fora. Dung aimed to unseat Nguyen Phu Trong as general secretary.
Trong rallied an ‘anybody but Dung’ coalition, crushed his rival, and mounted a sustained campaign against the institutional corruption that had flourished during the Dung years. Trong presided also over a campaign of party purification intended to weed out “backsliders and opportunists.” On both fronts, the targets were often but not exclusively associates of the former prime minister.
Dung had been relatively relaxed about online criticism and grassroots protest. Trong by contrast seemed to regard protest as an existential threat to the regime.
Economic and social development policy has been well-managed during Trong’s tenure as general secretary. Vietnam’s energy structure going forward will be a lot greener. A comprehensive plan for the Mekong Delta provides answers to climate change and other stresses on the nation’s most productive agricultural region. Vietnam’s now a member of two regional trade pacts (RCEP and the CPTTP) and a few months ago Hanoi signed a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union. Foreign investment pours in because Vietnam’s become a hospitable site for increasingly sophisticated manufacturing. And, challenged by Covid-19, Vietnam’s public health services performed brilliantly.
Only the last of these accomplishments can be credited (and only in part) to Vietnam’s Soviet-inspired system of socio-political control. The rest are party accomplishments only in the sense that unlike Dung, his predecessor, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has not challenged the party’s ultimate authority. Phuc has put a lot of effort into keeping his politburo counterparts in the loop and into wooing their support at critical junctures.
Why It Matters This Time. Prime Minister Phuc wants to succeed Nguyen Phu Trong as general secretary, and in the non-public way that high Communist Party officials campaign, he’s been barnstorming Vietnam from top to bottom. Now too ill to think about staying on himself, Trong is intent on handing over his office to someone he can trust to sustain his signature policies, the anti-corruption and party purification campaigns, and to lock down folks who dare to utter deviant thoughts. In short, Phuc’s not his man.
For most of this year, Trong has pressed colleagues to name as his successor his trusted lieutenant in the anti-corruption campaign, the dour and seemingly dogmatic Tran Quoc Vuong. It’s said that Vuong trailed Phuc in a straw vote at the Central Committee plenum in October.
This week the air is again full of rumors. The least credible is that Trong has persuaded the armed forces’ top commissar, Lt. General Ngo Xuan Lich, to stand against Phuc in Vuong’s stead. Another has it that a deal has been struck: Phuc will serve a second term as prime minister, Vuong will be general secretary, and the well-regarded Vuong Dinh Hue, will not be named prime minister but instead fill another consequential post, chief of the party secretariat. Take your pick. As for me, I’ll favor a smiling, policy-savvy pragmatist over a dour dogmatist every time.
On December 18, the central committee adjourned again. National media were told that the committee planned to meet for six days but after four productive days, it decided to reconvene in January on the eve of the party congress. This strongly suggests that the party’s leaders believe they have got things sorted out. However, as Trong has famously said, đến rằm trăng mới tròn (which in colloquial American English means “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”).
David Brown is a former US diplomat with expertise on Vietnam. He is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel