HANOI – The remains of a B-52 shot down by North Vietnamese anti-aircraft artillery lie in the middle of Huu Tiep Lake in northern Hanoi, by the side of a busy back road. For old residents of Ba Dinh district, it’s a powerful reminder of what the country fought for: during the American War – as it is known nationwide – the district was almost razed to the ground by US bombing. For the young generation, the debris is little else than conceptual art.
The B-52s might one day be back – figuratively of course. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has officially invited Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra for a Washington visit. There has been no response yet: according to diplomats in Hanoi, the Politburo is carefully studying its options, considering this is a key national security issue. The US rationale is a subtle variation of the classic “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”: the George W. Bush administration’s aim, using the Vietnamese claim on the Spratly Islands, is once again to contain China, and prevent the South China Sea from inevitably becoming a “Chinese lake” – Beijing’s de facto perception.
The Pentagon’s strategy is not getting much help from the US Department of Commerce, whose International Trade Commission (ITC) officially announced early this month that Vietnamese catfish exports would be slapped with 36 and 64 percent tariffs. Frozen catfish-fillet exports are a very important business for Vietnam. The Vietnamese Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) is furious. General secretary Nguyen Huu Dung says the US decision was illogical: “America’s farmers have experienced losses due to adverse weather and natural disasters, not due to Vietnamese production.”
But catfish fillets are one thing, and bigger fish swimming in the South China Sea are another. In the mind of many a Pentagon strategist lurks the siren call of Cam Ranh Bay, 50 kilometers south of Nha Trang and one of the world’s largest natural harbors. Cam Ranh Bay used to be a huge US naval base before it was taken over by the Soviet Union. After the departure of the Soviets, the port was almost deserted. But now it is being developed as an export processing zone, part of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s drive to “accelerate the economic restructuring” and increase the exports of the provinces.
From a US point of view, Vietnam has everything to gain from a deal: dollars (more foreign investment in Cam Ranh Bay) and military muscle (US ships in the South China Sea as a warning to China). From a Vietnamese point of view, the further encirclement of China in such a blatant fashion may not be such a good move. A European diplomat in Hanoi says, “The themes of preventing Chinese influence in the South China Sea and forging stronger economic-military ties with the US are inscribed in a much more profound logic of what vision those cautious, deliberative analysts of the Vietnamese Communist Party have of the future of the country.”
Ngo The Thinh, a former officer in the Vietnamese People’s Army, professor of geography and history and writer in Vietnamese magazines such as Science and Fatherland, Historic Research and Buddhist Research, is an acid critic of the communist leadership. His father, a scientist living in France in the 1940s, was persuaded by Ho Chi Minh himself to come back and join the maquis to fight the French. In Thinh’s words, “Ho Chi Minh convinced my father to come back to Vietnam and change his salary from US$5,000 a month to $20 a month. As a reward, my father took Ho Chi Minh for an interview with [Karl] Marx and [Friedrich] Engels.” Ho Chi Minh died in June 1969, Thinh’s father three months later.
Thinh is an intellectual in a Confucian culture that for a thousand years has praised the role of men of learning: “Religiously we are Buddhists. Culturally we are Confucian,” says Thinh. For confirmation, one just has to visit the Van Mieu pagoda – or Temple of Literature – in Hanoi, founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and dedicated to Confucius. Van Mieu soon became the intellectual and spiritual center of the kingdom – as a cult of education and literature spread amongst the court, the mandarins and the common people. The Confucian examinations held at the Temple of Literature offered the possibility for even the humblest peasant to rise to the position of mandarin. It was a question of merit.
Not so with the Communist Party, say Thinh and many of his disillusioned intellectual mates at the University of Hanoi. They have a clear assessment of the best and the brightest of Ho’s generation: “They were patriots, not communists.” Now, their recurrent themes are the lack of freedom of expression in the press, and the corruption of the Communist Party: “They are thieves,” says Thinh. His university salary is $20 a month. He gets a maximum of $10 for each published article in a magazine. But a Confucian intellectual never loses his sense of irony. On a visit to the sublimely delicate Golden Lotus pagoda in northern Hanoi – now besieged by monstrous examples of property speculation – he comments: “This bamboo architecture has lasted for 300 years. The Iron Curtain fell in less than 50 years. Long live the bamboo!”
When he says that “Ho gave power to the patriots; now they give power to the dollar,” Thinh is expressing the disgust of countless educated Vietnamese revolutionaries who have made immense, unbelievable sacrifices to get rid of a social system imposed by foreigners, only to see the “return of the living dead”: the reproduction of this system in a superficial way, via a Hanoi Hilton over here, a KFC over there, CNN on cable and most of all Vietnam appealing for aid from the former invaders – be it Japan, France or the United States. Thinh and other Vietnamese intellectuals are very much aware of the ultimate irony: what the US didn’t get with its powerful military, it is getting with its financial muscle. Serious questions are being asked – not publicly, because the press is heavily monitored – of what might have happened had the Americans managed to influence and control South Vietnam as they did other Asian tigers such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. These former Asian tigers are now the very model for the Vietnamese Communist Party. But the tragedy is that Vietnam cannot become a tiger by enjoying the same privileges they enjoyed before the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The Cold War context is gone.
Vietnamese revolutionary leaders were practical people, and very good managers. As in China, they came mostly from the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie. They didn’t know anything about Marxist theory – unlike their sons and grandsons, who had to study it in school. For decades the Party has tried to manage a profound contradiction: theoretically it is a Leninist party, but in practice it doesn’t enforce the Leninist concept of “democratic centralism.” The party encourages self-criticism from all members, but the leaders are unable to take serious criticism: the same small committee of old men is always in charge. Today, intellectuals in Ho Chi Minh City and even in Hanoi mercilessly criticize the mediocrity of Party cadres – regarded as a bunch of careerists who in many provinces far from the center have in fact become a new, dictatorial rural elite.
Unlike the simplistic recipes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it’s impossible to assess Vietnam’s economic development without taking into consideration the after-effects of the Vietnam War, as well as the invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 (which lasted for 10 years) and the short but vicious war with China in 1979. Vietnam suffered a virtually global boycott for more than a decade. There was simply no productive investment. Hyperinflation was the rule in the mid-1980s. Salaries became pitiful. There were three options for Party cadres: leave the state sector, die of hunger or become corrupt. Most chose the third option. So the Vietnamese Communist Party entered the 1990s in a situation where its authority did not depend on its moral standing as the leader of a war of liberation, but on its privileged network of power.
It’s fair to say that the Party’s decomposition is now almost universally recognized – and not only by critical Hanoi minds such as Thinh’s. As early as in 1994, the road ahead was clear: “The leadership of the Party is the decisive factor in maintaining a socialist orientation for our market economy and the entire development of our country.” Translation: the road to socialism is the Party plus capitalism. The question is inevitable: where does this outlandish mix of Leninism and capitalism go from here?
During wartime, “revolutionary morality” was a powerful antidote against this same corruption that today is eating the party from within. But there’s no morality anymore: just no-holds-barred, IMF-sanctioned capitalism. The Politburo actually hangs on the IMF’s and the World Bank’s every word. The Politburo cannot have it both ways. It simply cannot achieve a balance between greed and social peace – or between aggressive accumulation of wealth and absence of corruption.
The Party today seems to regard foreign investment as the cure for everything. It may be setting itself even one more trap. The Party wants foreign investors to profit from an army of cheap, educated labor. At the same time it wants state-enterprise managers to show profits at any cost. Who’s to pay the price? The working class, whose interests are supposed to be defended by the Party. Apart from that from Japan and South Korea, most of this foreign investment is doing nothing but to reinsert Vietnam in the Chinese diaspora business map of Southeast Asia. These investors favor quick and high returns. And to top it all, most indigenous Vietnamese capitalists are also Chinese: they’ve always been. By getting too cozy with the Americans in a military way, says another European diplomat in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Communist Party may fear upsetting not only mainland China but most of all these key Chinese diaspora investors.
The future of Vietnam can already be glimpsed in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This is urban Vietnam, unequal like in any comparative parts of the developing world, but overall in much better financial situation than rural, poor Vietnam. This means that social problems will explode in a classic scenario: poor, unskilled peasants plus the army of excluded from the capitalist banquet will inevitably oppose dictatorial rulers – whether they call themselves Leninist or market socialists or whatever.
Very few people outside Vietnam – and even inside, for that matter – have any trust in faceless bureaucrats such as Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, Permanent Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem, President Tran Duc Luong, Communist Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh or National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Van An. Empty rhetoric in the manner of “to gain people’s trust by serving them devotedly and showing a just and perceptive attitude” won’t cut it either – as the Politburo is increasingly regarded as 13 very mediocre men who have lost contact with the masses. Because of them, Vietnam may be left with the worst of both socialism and capitalism. And that will be the enduring tragedy of the Vietnam War: What have 2 million Vietnamese died for?