In Vietnam, politics lag while growth jumps
HANOI — The main message of Vietnam’s Communist Party congress is the absence of burning issues it will deal with under a leadership secure in its dominance but also constrained by an inflexible system and the power of vested interests.
The leadership changes to be announced at the end of the eight-day session on Wednesday involve members of the inner circle whose jockeying for power has had more to do with politics than ideology.
A political report is expected to include wording that could enhance the role of private enterprise in an economy hobbled by inefficient state-owned enterprises.
The outgoing party chairman, Nong Duc Manh, listed some of the country’s continuing ills in his keynote address at the opening of the congress, which takes place every five years.
“Quality, efficiency and competitiveness remain low,” he said. “Bureaucracy, corruption, wastefulness, social vices and moral and lifestyle degradation have not been prevented.”
The congress comes amid economic problems that have sharpened a debate over the pace of changes in a country with high growth but with underlying problems of undeveloped infrastructure, a maze of bureaucracy, corruption and a poorly qualified work force.
“The government is facing great challenges with the trade deficit, the budget deficit, the current account deficit and high inflation, and the problems are not easy to solve,” said Le Dang Doanh, a leading economist in Hanoi.
He also talked about the hardships of farmers who are suffering from the country’s rapid growth as developers buy up their land for industry, housing and golf courses.
“We have a totally opposite situation from the past, when the Communist Party of Vietnam was taking land from the landlord and distributing it to the farmer,” he said. “Now the Communist Party and the government are taking the land from the farmer and handing it over to the private sector.”
The government has kept tight control of the press and has come down hard on dissidents, particularly those who have had contact with Western governments. There has been a wave of arrests in recent months, Internet controls have tightened, and users have reported difficulty in logging in to Facebook.
It was not clear whether the crackdown, which appeared to be aimed at controlling debate in advance of the congress, would ease in the future.
Political analysts find themselves this year in the unusual position of tamping down expectations that the congress will produce significant results, warning against what one called “over-interpreting” the outcome.
“The key significance of the congress is an occasion when access to top jobs and patronage is circulated,” said one analyst, Martin Gainsborough, a Southeast Asia specialist at the University of Bristol and author of the 2010 book “Vietnam: Rethinking the State.”
“Policy documents are policy documents, and where Vietnam goes is dependent on a whole range of more political factors,” he said.
The product of a cumbersome system of compromise and consensus, the political report can only be taken as a guide to policies whose direction will be shaped in the future by competing vested interests and political agendas, he and other analysts said.
“Their ability to make macroeconomic and microeconomic levers actually work is quite weak for a whole range of reasons,” Dr. Gainsborough said. “The problem is if the party has to act whether it will act, or when they tell people to jump whether they will jump.”
He added: “There’s always a sense that people are careful not to upset someone more powerful than them.”
Another analyst, Hung M. Nguyen, director of the Indochina Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, echoed this view, saying the report would represent only “policy ideas.”
“The question is implementation,” he said. “There will be resistance from entrenched interests. But they need the Communist Party resolution as an umbrella and justification to try to make changes.”
Change will be incremental, the analysts said, as a generation of leaders with their roots in the war gives way to men and women who may have been educated abroad and are more comfortable in the world of the open marketplace.
A more articulate, more educated urban middle class and a more outspoken and assertive rural population will change the nature of Vietnamese society, if not its political structure.
Over the past two decades, Vietnam has been one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, averaging about 7 percent growth a year, and per capita income has risen to $12,000 in this nation of 86 million people.
While the leadership has made it clear that it will not tolerate talk of multiparty democracy, it is “democratizing” its one-party structure with small changes toward a more participatory and pluralist system.
These changes may include an increasing number of candidates in local elections or direct election of some party officials who have previously been appointed.
In addition, the congress was expected to invite businesspeople to join the Communist Party, modernizing it to include “peasants, workers and businessmen.”
With the party and government now firmly committed to a free-market system, debate includes different interpretations of the socialist part of the country’s guiding economic principle, “market forces with a socialist orientation,” Mr. Hung said.
“How far do you go in reforming the economy?” he said, describing the debate. “Are you really going to go deeper into the market system? And if you do, will you be disoriented from socialism? So there is some tension.”
By Seth Mydans - The New York Times - January 17, 2011