At a trendy cafe in the smart Saigon Centre shopping mall, a place where the nouveau riche go to see and be seen, Nguyen Ngoc Quang recalls the moment he fell foul of the darker side of Vietnam's much-lauded economic miracle. Men hired by the security police, he says, knocked him to the ground and drove over him with a motorbike. The message to the political dissident and online activist was blunt: stop or else.

But the former designer, 49, whose face is scarred from the September attack, is unbowed. "I won't back down," he said. "The government is trying to stop us because we are telling the truth. The people have been lied to for so many years."

Nguyen, who recently completed a three-year jail sentence for dissent, is part of a growing, vocal group of Vietnamese who are challenging the authority of the Communist party, which has ruled the country since reunification in 1975 and does not permit political opposition. On blogs and social networking sites, activists have attracted a growing audience by writing about human rights abuses, corruption and restrictions on speech.

But as the authorities prepare for tomorrow's Communist party national congress, a decisive planning session that will set the country's course and leadership for the next five years, the government has sought to reassert its authority by cracking down on critics such as Nguyen. In the past year, dozens of dissidents have been arrested and imprisoned, and numerous others have been harassed and monitored by the police. In a confidential diplomatic cable from its embassy in Hanoi, the US ambassador last year spoke of "the excessive use of violence" in putting down one protest, which he said was "troublesome and indicative of a larger GVN (government of Vietnam) crackdown on human rights in the runup to the January 2011 party congress."

As the leadership prepares to address a number of domestic concerns at the congress, including a poorly performing economy and public criticism of Vietnam's growing economic ties with its traditional rival China, tensions have risen. On Wednesday, police in the central city of Hue roughed up an American diplomat who was attempting to visit Nguyen Van Ly, a dissident Catholic priest who is under house arrest after being released from prison for health reasons. The authorities are also blocking Facebook, a key networking tool for activists, and this reporter was followed by plainclothes police in meetings with activists around Ho Chi Minh City.

"The Communist party wants to silence any criticism or unrest before its most important meeting," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Crackdowns on peaceful government critics are nothing new in Vietnam, but right now we are seeing a dramatic spike in repression."

Reviving faith in Vietnam's economy, which has begun to falter after years of growth, will be high on the party's agenda. Last week, a report by PwC predicted that Vietnam would be the world's 14th biggest economy by 2050, a giddy ascent for a country that experienced near-famine as recently as the mid-1980s. Evidence of this economic miracle is everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, with its skyscrapers, including the 68-storey Bitexco Tower that was opened in October, and boulevards clogged with motorbikes and cars.

The turnaround owes much to Vietnam's Doi Moi policy of change and renovation, launched in the 1990s, which gradually deregulated the economy while maintaining strict political control, much as has happened in China.

But the problems are mounting. Double-digit inflation is disproportionately affecting the poor. Rapid development has evicted farmers from their land. There have been a growing number of strikes in the country's export-driven factories and worries about industrial pollution.

And despite the leadership's public commitments to accelerate reform of the centrally planned economy, the state-run sector continues to receive significant subsidies despite poor performance.

Vinashin, a shipbuilder that is one of the largest state-run entities in the country, has come to epitomise government mismanagement of the economy. The company is on the verge of bankruptcy with debts of $4.5bn (£2.9bn), but the government is keeping it afloat.

"The Vinashin case shows that economic growth is mostly benefitting the authorities and those with connections. Most citizens aren't seeing the benefits. Prices are increasing and people are losing jobs," said Le Tran Luat, 42, a lawyer who writes about human rights and defends dissidents in court.

The week-long congress is expected to be dominated by internal party rivalries as two competing factions jostle for control of the leadership, according to Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Party conservatives, who look to China as a model, fear the continued liberalisation of the country and are probably directing the crackdown against dissidents as a warning to party reformers, Thayer said. The prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, the country's most powerful politician, is likely to be granted another five-year term.

In 2008, the Vietnamese government granted a land concession to a Chinese firm for a multibillion-dollar bauxite mine in central Vietnam. Pro-democracy activists attracted unprecedented support among urban elites and within the party – including independence hero General Vo Nguyen Giap – with criticism of the mine and China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, which contains potentially resource-rich islands claimed by both countries.

The United States, which under the Obama administration has sought to reassert itself in south-east Asia as a regional counterweight to China, sensed an opportunity. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Hanoi twice in 2010, and during her visit in July she said the US had a "national interest" in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Communist party conservatives, backed into a corner by the furore over the China issue, have sought to silence the debate by blocking and hacking websites and arresting anti-China bloggers.

Despite these hazards, urban intellectuals are continuing to join the ranks of the activists. Nguyen Thu Tram, 33, recently became involved in the Club of Free Journalists, a loose collection of amateur reporters who post stories about everyday injustices in their cities and offer an alternative to the heavily censored state-run press. Nguyen had to separate herself from her family out of fear of endangering them, and she says she is regularly interrogated by the security police.

"I insist on going out and talking to people, and reporting on what is happening in their lives," she said. "But using the internet is not a safe thing to do in Vietnam. Sometimes I feel that half of my body is already in jail."

Vietnam gets its name from the indigenous ethnic group while its language borrows heavily from Cantonese. But its politics come directly from the Marxist-Leninist textbook. The country is ruled by a 15-member politburo, at least six of whom are likely to be replaced at this congress, according to US diplomats. The real power lies with three men: the party general secretary, Nong Duc Manh, the state president, Nguyen Minh Triet, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung (below).

Manh is due to retire, and US cables predict that Dung and politburo member Truong Tan Sang are best placed to take over as general secretary. If Dung does not get the job, he is likely to remain prime minister. Both are southerners and were party secretaries in Ho Chi Minh City. Neither man is seen as a champion of political reform in the manner of late prime minister Vo Van Kiet. The dark horse candidate is To Huy Rua, a hardliner who runs the ideology and education commission.

A secretariat led by Truong Tan Sang looks after day-to-day policy implementation. The central military commission, which is composed of select politburo members and additional military leaders, determines military policy. The national assembly is the highest representative body of the people and the only organisation with legislative powers. Once seen as little more than a rubber stamp, the assembly has become more assertive in exercising its authority over legislation. However, it remains subject to the party and more than 90% of the deputies are party members. The 11th party congress will vote in a central committee of about 150 members, which will in turn elect the politburo.

By Mark Tran & Dustin Roasa - The Guardian - January 10, 2011

11th National Congress of Communist Party of Vietnam draws wide attention

HANOI - The upcoming 11th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) that will open here on Wednesday has drawn wide attention as it is an important political event of the Vietnamese Party, State and people.

As Vietnamese Vice Chairman of the Central Commission on Communication and Education Nguyen Bac Son put it here Monday at a press conference, the meeting marks the first congress of the second decade of the 21st century as well as the review of the foundation, combat, growth, leadership of the CPV in the past 80 years.

The 11th National Congress of CPV, with participation of 1,377 delegates representing over 3.6 million Party members in the country, will be held under the theme of continuing enhancing the party's leadership capacity and combativeness, promoting the nation's synergy, comprehensively boosting the renewal process, creating the fundamentals for Vietnam to become a basically modern- oriented industrial country by 2020, said Son.

Analysts held that to prepare for the congress, the party has made great efforts in instructing party committees of all levels throughout the country, bringing the draft documents to the public both domestic and overseas for comments and working hard to provide inputs for the draft documents of the congress.

Son added that the party insisted the documents must represent the spirit of reform and a consensus in the party and among Vietnamese people.

During the congress, four major issues will be discussed including the Draft Platform for National Construction, the Draft Political Report of the 10th Party's Central Executive Committee to be submitted to the 11th Party Congress, the Draft of the 2010- 2020 Socio-economic development strategy and the concerning personnel preparations for the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam. The congress is scheduled to last till Jan. 19.

Xinhua - January 10, 2011