Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong applauds after delivering a speech at the closing ceremony on the final day of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam's Communist Party in Hanoi on January 28, 2016. country. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Communist Party Secretary General and State President Nguyen Phu Trong applauds after delivering a speech at the closing ceremony on the final day of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam's Communist Party in Hanoi on January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Phuong raises a contemptuous eyebrow on recalling how some of her fellow university graduates are leaving Vietnam to find work in neighboring Cambodia, a country vastly poorer than her own.

Local media reported that this year an estimated 200,000 university graduates will not find domestic jobs that match their degrees, and that many of the country’s best and brightest are expected to emigrate to find suitable work.

Education has long been the source of social mobility in Vietnam, particularly for those without Communist Party connections. But corruption in school admissions and on securing jobs upon graduation has undermined what is meant to be the paragon of the country’s meritocracy.

A recent report by Transparency International, an anti-graft group, found Vietnam has the second highest bribery rates for public schools in the Asia-Pacific region after India. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they have paid bribes at least once.

Anecdotal reports suggest it costs as much as US$3,000 to buy a place at Vietnam’s most sought-after public primary schools, a huge expense in a country where the average annual income last year was US$2,200.

Accepting a bribe of over US$90 is a criminal offense under Vietnam’s Penal Code. But in almost all areas of Vietnamese life, “greasing money” payments are par for the course.

Vietnamese traffic police on Ngo Quyen street, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Vietnam 113th out of the 176 countries it ranked, the third-lowest placed Southeast Asian nation after Laos and Cambodia.

Sixty-six percent of businesses admitted paying backhanders or “informal payments” to public officials last year alone, the state-run online newspaper VietnamNet recently reported.

Benedict Kerkvleit, a professor at the Australian National University’s department of political and social change, thinks that corruption is the most pressing political issue in Vietnam today. “It affects virtually all other issues,” he said.

The government’s current financial woes, including a ballooning budget deficit, are partly due to the country’s failing state-owned enterprises, which are bleeding losses through corruption and mismanagement.

When polls ask what most irks ordinary Vietnamese, endemic corruption invariably tops the list. Some analysts believe it has reached such levels that it now threatens the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.

Performers dance with large national flags in a file photo marking the 87th anniversary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, February 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

The government has responded through a high-profile anti-corruption drive that has netted several of its own members.

In May, Dinh La Thang, the Party’s chief for Ho Chi Minh City, was removed from his post and dismissed from the Politburo on corruption-related charges. He is the first apparatchik to be sacked from Vietnam’s highest decision-making body since 1996.

Officials said Thang made “very serious mistakes” by defying Party orders and losing the state millions of dollars, a criminal offense in Vietnam, in his previous role as general director of state-owned energy firm PetroVietnam.

Former PetroVietnam executive Trinh Xuan Thanh, who allegedly caused losses of US$150 million to the state firm, was abducted last month by state agents from Germany and taken back to Vietnam, according to the German foreign ministry.

Others recently charged for graft include Tran Van Khuong and Giang Kim Dat, former executives of the state-owned shipping firm Vinashin Lines, who were handed death sentences in February for embezzling around US$11.5 million.

Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (C) stands next toPresident Tran Dai Quang (L) and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R). Photo: AFP/Pool/Kham

The government’s anti-corruption efforts, however, have likely only scratched the surface. Independent journalists report almost daily about officials who go unpunished for corrupt practices. Those reports suggest that official corruption is becoming more, not less, prevalent.

The reason, analysts and experts say, is largely structural. The Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption, the state’s main anti-graft body, is personally overseen by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s most powerful politician.

Yet decentralization measures implemented since the 1980s have greatly reduced the central government’s ability to check local officials. Bringing Party members in line with the anti-corruption message has thus proven more difficult than would be expected in an authoritarian one-party state.

China, another one-party state, is showing that it can be done. As of last October, more than one million Chinese officials had been punished for corruption over a three-year period.

Zhou Yongkang, China’s former domestic security chief, listens to his sentence on corruption charges in a court in Tianjin. Photo: China Central Television via Reuters TV

In Vietnam, a mere 125 people have been brought to trial on corruption charges since the beginning of last year, according to official figures. Speaking after Thang’s dismissal in May, Trong vowed: “More will come, you should wait.”

Yet confidence in his ability to uproot endemic corruption is low. “We can expect to stop paying bribes if and when our officials are replaced with robots,” the South China Morning Post recently quoted one anonymous businessperson as saying.

Indeed, Huynh Phong Tranh, chief of the Government Inspectorate, was widely mocked when he said a few years ago that “corruption in Vietnam has reached a level of stability.” But “stable” corruption may be the best the communist government can offer.

Many analysts believe Trong’s anti-graft campaign is more about politics than reform. Ho Chi Minh City chief Thang’s removal from the Politburo was just as indicative of intra-Party politics as upholding the law. Thang had close ties to ex-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, whose allies Trong is fast purging to consolidate his own power.

Another problem, analysts say, is that the government views anti-corruption efforts as its sole prerogative. Although anti-corruption hotlines were opened in December 2015 for the public to report cases of abuse, there are harsh limits on what citizens can say.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (L), stands trial on anti-state propaganda charges on June 29, 2017. Photo: Vietnam News Agency / Stringer

Phan Kim Khanh, a blogger who reportedly operates two pro-democracy news websites, Vietnam Weekly and Anticorruption Newspaper, was arrested in March after publishing articles on corruption. He faces trial on anti-state charges of “propagandizing” against the state.

So, too, was Bui Hieu Vo, another blogger, who authorities claim “fabricated and distorted… information” against the government, a criminal offense under various laws that restrict criticism of the Communist Party and its government.

If corruption is to be tackled indiscriminately, then the system must be cleansed from the top-down, analysts say. But while the government focuses on certain high-profile corruption cases – a propaganda exercise to restore public trust, critics say – it has done little to uproot the graft that impacts upon ordinary peoples’ lives.

The Party’s hands are largely tied. The minimum wage for public sector workers was recently raised but it is still only US$53 per month, a third of the nation’s average income. Without the fiscal ability or political will to pay state workers more, the government must turn a blind eye to low-level graft, analysts claim.

For many police, soldiers, teachers, doctors and local officials, corruption is the only way to make a viable living. That’s likely another reason why Vietnamese university graduates are looking abroad rather than at home for well-paid and respectable jobs and opportunities, a rising phenomenon of corruption-driven brain drain.

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