Vietnamese police officers stand next to a sign near the venue of the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam November 9  2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva
Vietnamese police officers stand next to a sign near the venue of the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam November 9 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

As Vietnam prepares to host this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this weekend, the ruling Communist Party is working overtime to make sure nothing disrupts the gathering of world leaders.

On top of dealing with the destruction wrought by a typhoon that has now left more than 60 dead, party leaders are equally determined to make sure agitating pro-democracy activists don’t spoil their showcase event.

“Vietnamese authorities are definitely afraid of activists connecting with international delegations [since they] could highlight the dire human rights situation in Vietnam and paint a negative picture of the Vietnamese Communist Party,” said Do Hoang Diem, chairman of Viet Tan, a banned group that campaigns internationally for democratic reform.

Dozens of activists and religious leaders have been arrested and jailed in recent months in what human rights organizations say is indicative of an escalating crackdown on dissent. More than 100 people are now thought to be languishing in prison for political reasons.

In the lead-up to Trump’s arrival, 24-year old blogger Phan Kim Khanh, was sentenced to six years in prison for “conducting propaganda” against the state, a criminal offense in Vietnam’s one-party system. The country holds more than 100 prisoners of conscience, according to rights groups.

“Any leader of a democracy who goes to APEC but doesn’t take up the cause of Vietnam’s political prisoners should be ashamed at missing the opportunity to do the right thing on a global stage,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a US-based lobby group, said in a press release.

A policeman reacts as demonstrating activists hold anti-China banners in Hanoi on July 17, 2016. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

Adam’s comment is arguably a nod to US President Donald Trump who arrives in Da Nang today from China. His handlers say Trump is unlikely to comment publicly on human rights during the APEC summit, and many suspect he will gloss over the matter privately when he visits communist leaders afterwards for bilateral talks in Hanoi.

Former US President Barack Obama’s administration made a point of hosting Vietnamese activists at the US Embassy during his visit to the country in May 2016. The State Department honored jailed Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh with its International Women of Courage award earlier this year, a likely holdover recommendation from Obama’s more rights-sensitive tenure.

Vietnam’s authoritarian government has a long history of silencing and intimidating regime critics ahead of the arrival of foreign dignitaries. Nguyen Van Dai, a prominent human rights lawyer, was arrested in 2015 while on his way to meet with a delegation of European lawmakers in the capital. Others are often put in temporary house arrest coincident with Vietnam-staged global events.

Communist Party leaders no doubt recall the last time they staged an APEC summit in 2006. Then, more than 100 intellectuals and activists signed a Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam, the strongest public demand in decades for a multi-party state.

The group, composed chiefly of urban dissidents, later became known as Bloc 8406 after the date of the manifesto’s publication, April 8, 2006. A number of the signatories were swiftly arrested for spreading propaganda against the state.

Bloc 8406’s emergence not only garnered international media attention but raised questions about the Communist Party’s long hold on power. It also emboldened other pro-democracy groups to raise their voices. Many activists in Vietnam equate anti-China sentiments, based in part on historic Communist Party ties, with calls for political openness.

Hanoi-based activists say anonymously to avoid reprisals that they are confident Vietnam’s one-party system, based on an outdated revolutionary ideology, will one day collapse. While not yet evident, there are certain signs of gradual political change.

A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

In 2013, during a constitutional reform process, there was a large movement that campaigned for the removal of Article 4, which effectively bars any other party from existing within Vietnam.

At 2016’s legislative election, a tightly controlled process to choose who fills the National Assembly, 97 independent candidates were allowed to compete and combined won 4% of the vote.

There are several reasons why the call for democracy, while still faint, is becoming more prevalent. Demographics are one push factor.

Urbanization, now occurring at a rate of about 4% each year according to the World Bank, is leading to more concentrated calls for autonomy. Vietnam is also quite young, with roughly 40% of the population below the age of 24, well before the Communist Party’s north-south unifying victory in the Vietnam War.

Another explanation is that once disparate dissident groups are now finding common ground. In the past, workers focused singularly on developing independent trade unions, urban liberals pushed for human rights, and rural activists fought for land reform.

Now, however, these groups actively form links and create united fronts against different national problems, chiefly environmental destruction but also other emotive issues like state land seizures.

But the greatest impact on the pro-democracy movement has been the emergence of social media, said Viet Tan chairman Do Hoang Diem.

An internet user browses a Vietnamese language Facebook page in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Reuters

“Pro-democracy activists have jumped onto this, using social media sites like Facebook and Youtube, to report on news events and social injustices as well as organize online,” he said.

At the end of last year, there were an estimated 53.7 million internet users in Vietnam, out of a population of 92 million.

The government clearly understands and is working to neutralize the online threat. President Tran Dai Quang said in August that he wants tighter controls in order to censor “news sites and blogs with bad and dangerous content.”

The communist leader said it was necessary to punish those who “undermined the prestige of the leaders of the party and the state.”

At the same time, the Communist Party must contend with rising internal factionalism that one activist wishfully predicts “can possibly lead to them buckling in the future.”

At last year’s Communist Party Congress, two term Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung failed in his bid to become the next General Secretary, the Party’s top post.

Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong. Photo: AFP/Luong Thai Linh

Nguyen Phu Trong, the incumbent party chief, was appointed another five-year term, a position he has used to purge Dung allies and bring the Party back to its traditional consensus-based policymaking, a reversal of the more charismatic Dung’s direction.

Vietnam’s Communist Party, unlike its socialist cousins, steers clear of cults of personality, except for the god-like one crafted for revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, which was seen as necessary as the Party made the delicate transition from a command to more market based economy in the 1980s.

Dung might not have been developing a cult as such, though his vast patronage network certainly afforded him considerable power. But he had become a major personality in what is supposed to be a nameless, faceless party.

Rather than a “pro-business” or “progressive” leader, as some commentators described him, he was as close to a populist figure Vietnam has seen in decades.

Trong’s revanchist policy has two main purposes. One is to secure the Party’s position during a time of monumental societal and economic change. If the Party is not unified and coherent in its policies, it risks being left behind as Vietnam shifts into a new gear.

Vietnamese protesters demonstrate against a toxic spill that caused massive fish deaths along the country’s central coast in a May 2016 photo. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Two, the Communist Party’s next Congress in 2021 will almost certainly see a generational shift with the retirement of many aged apparatchiks. For the Party to survive on its traditional values, such a major shift will need gentle and delicate guidance from cohesive Party elites.

At the same time, the Party faces significant economic red flags. The government has built up considerable debts in recent years, including outlays to keep inefficient state enterprises afloat, and now must impose austerity measures to restore national finances, analysts say.

Major infrastructure developments are now going unfunded, while public services the Party once prided itself on providing are becoming harder to access and dogged by corruption. Some experts think the country’s social security fund could go into deficit by 2021.

Perceptions of economic mismanagement will in turn fuel stronger activist calls for political change. While Trump and other global leaders in attendance at APEC may think they can separate economics and politics in Vietnam, the reality is they are fast converging.

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