Vietnam : Facebook ? Not yet, minister
Facebook may be blocked by the censors in Communist Vietnam but presumably no-one told Vuong Dinh Hue, the finance minister, who has been crowing about his desire to engage with the people through the popular website.
The fact that a senior minister is advocating the use of a blocked social networking website points to the lack of policy cohesion in Vietnam, a country with very diffuse power structures, and the struggle that the Communist Party faces to adapt to life in the twenty-first century.
Hue is one of a new crop of ministers in the authoritarian, one-party state who seem keen to burnish their public image, in a subtle yet important shift away from the Vietnamese Communist party’s tradition of collective responsibility and group leadership by anonymous men in suits.
Another is Dinh La Thang, the buccaneering transport minister who banned officials from playing golf and said he would force his staff to take the bus.
But the new ministers’ desire to promote greater public dialogue, as evidenced by a number of relatively frank recent online chats, is tempered by the nervousness in government about the threat from perceived “hostile forces”, particularly within Vietnam’s vast security apparatus.
As part of a wider and ongoing crackdown on dissenting voices, Vietnam’s internet service providers began blocking access to Facebook in 2009, after a number of groups that were highly critical of government policy began attracting significant support on the website.
During a web chat with citizens that was broadcast on the government website on Tuesday, Hue was asked how long he spent on the Internet and whether he used Facebook.
Brandishing his iPad with the same vigour senior officials normally reserve for their Communist party membership card, he replied that he was a heavy internet user, particularly when it came to reading the news.
“I have an iPad, it’s just like my shadow, I use it everywhere, all the time,” he said.
As for Facebook, he admitted that his social networking skills weren’t as good as his daughter’s but added that he “will be willing to use this tool to receive feedback from readers as well as people in the whole country.”
A search on Facebook appeared to show that Hue is yet to set up his own profile, although there was what looked like a hoax account bearing his name, with 23 friends at time of writing. He does, however, have a number of Facebook fan groups, including one called “People who are crazy about finance minister Vuong Dinh Hue,” which has more than 600 supporters.
Hue and Thang will be hoping that their new, headline-grabbing approach will win them many more friends. Vietnam’s block on Facebook is unlikely to stand in their way as it is much easier to circumvent than the so-called Great Firewall of China and hundreds of thousands of young Vietnamese have worked out how to get around it.
The big challenge for these ministers who are keen to play up their personal role is how they will fare when the going gets tough and it is mud being flung their way rather than bouquets.
By Ben Bland - The Financial Times - January 18, 2012