A Vietnamese woman overlooks her fields. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
A Vietnamese woman overlooks her fields. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

In a year of global democratic rollbacks, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party stepped up its repression of outspoken critics in the blogosphere.

In late December, Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy chairman of the General Political Department of the People’s Army of Vietnam, confirmed that the Vietnam’s military has deployed 10,000 so-called “core fighters” to combat “wrongful views” online.

While Vietnam lacks the technological surveillance powers of China, the announcement of the cyber-troopers signaled greater official scrutiny and repression of the online spaces where Vietnamese citizens challenge and debate the government’s performance.

But the Party is arguably undermining its legitimacy by clamping down on dissent rather than delivering basic governance improvements.

In many instances, it’s not democracy or human rights that bloggers are after per se, but essential public services like clean water, less pollution, and a degree of transparency that the government doesn’t appear ready to oblige.

Case in point: a provincial court on November 30 upheld a ten-year prison sentence following a one-day trial in June for blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as “Mother Mushroom.”

Her crime: critical commentary of the government’s mishandling of a toxic spill in 2016 by the Taiwan-owned Formosa steel plant in central Ha Tinh province. Quynh had frequently criticized the government on her blog, but the story is more complex than it appears at first glance.

Prominent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (C) stands between police in the dock during her appeal trial in Nha Trang resort city, Vietnam November 30, 2017. Mandatory credit VNA/Tien Minh via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. VIETNAM OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN VIETNAM. MANDATORY CREDIT
Prominent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (C) at her appeal trial in Nha Trang city, November 30, 2017. Photo: VNA via Reuters/Tien Minh

The Communist Party was not directly responsible for the initial environmental disaster and could have easily distanced itself from the problem. But instead of dealing with the spill head-on or acknowledging the Taiwanese corporation’s responsibility for the damage, it chose to ignore and then actively suppress the story.

Following the leak, which contaminated nearby waters and caused massive fish deaths in the central coastal region, the government dithered and refused to publicly denounce its foreign investment partner.

In the end, Formosa admitted to its responsibility for the spill, accepted a US$500 million penalty, and later agreed to boost its investment by another US$350 million. It’s not clear how much, if any, of those funds have gone to help individuals adversely affected by the disaster.

Quynh, who was convicted for spreading “propaganda against the state”, an anti-state crime that allows for 20 year prison sentences under the penal code’s Article 88, joins a growing number of dissident bloggers jailed for crossing a nebulous legal line by speaking out against the Party’s governance failures.

While Vietnam’s fast economic growth and warming ties with the United States over the past few years have rehabilitated the country’s international image, the one-party state continues to clamp down on free speech and remains firmly authoritarian.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc waves to the crowd upon arrival to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings in Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc waves to the crowd on November 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Nevertheless, many Vietnamese, especially those of the younger generation, say that they are pleased with the country’s direction and optimistic about the future. Indeed, the Vietnamese are immensely proud of their country’s growth and deeply nationalistic.

And they are big fans of the United States, American culture and its political system. They may want more political freedoms, but the general popular perception is that things generally aren’t so bad.

In fact, a UN Development Program-sponsored survey known as the Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI) confirms that public service delivery in Vietnam has improved every year since the survey’s inception in 2011.

While human rights remain well below international expectations and a taboo subject to ordinary Vietnamese, many citizens are quick to criticize the Communist Party’s shortcomings in regard to governance and the delivery of basic public goods and services.

From alleviating flooding and improving infrastructure, to reducing red tape and widespread official corruption, a majority of Vietnamese are outspokenly critical of their government’s performance.

According to the PAPI survey in 2016, more than two-thirds of Vietnamese citizens report that water quality has grown worse over the last three years, a sign of mishandled natural disasters such as floods and growing pollution from industry and mining.

Dead fish are pictured at a corner of Hanoi's largest lake Ho Tay on October 3, 2016.A mass fish death has been found during the week-end at the lake due to its highly polluted water, according to the local media. / AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM
Dead fish are pictured at a corner of Hanoi’s polluted Ho Tay lake on October 3, 2016.
Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

In Vietnam, questions of quality of life and human rights often converge on governance issues. If Hanoi is unable to grant essential governance improvements, reduce corruption and improve economic opportunities, ordinary Vietnamese will continue to rail against their country’s leadership, chipping at their legitimacy.

As Zach Abuza, a scholar at the National Defense University in the United States, notes, “The Vietnamese are definitely demanding more transparency and accountability from their government, and these bloggers are the ones leading the charge.”

The arrest of Mother Mushroom and other dissident bloggers points to a fundamental imbalance at the heart of Vietnam’s political system. As long as the Communist Party cracks down on bloggers, activists and human rights lawyers for exposing poor and sometimes abusive governance, it is attacking the weeds without addressing the root problem.

The Communist Party should realize that while hardly anyone expects it to democratize in the next few years, it could significantly alleviate rising sociopolitical pressures, expressed online and occasionally on the streets, by making modest improvements in daily governance.

Vietnamese citizens are an active and increasingly educated polity, with a rapidly expanding and demanding middle class. They now travel the globe and are exposed to a variety of foreign cultures and influences, unlike a previous generation that was blacked out from the wider world.

Vietnamese protesters demonstrate against Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa during a rally in downtown Hanoi on May 1, 2016 against a toxic spill that caused massive fish deaths along the country's central coast. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Vietnamese protesters demonstrate against Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa during a rally in downtown Hanoi on May 1, 2016. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

To compete in today’s global economy and the international marketplace of ideas, Vietnam’s leadership would do well to direct its attention and resources toward improving its governance.

The US Donald Trump administration has largely overlooked Vietnam’s human rights abuses in choosing to continue the Barack Obama administration’s engagement with the Communist Party.

While Obama and former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry on numerous occasions urged Hanoi to ease its political repression and encouraged independent labor unions as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, they too chose to sublimate democratic desires for geopolitical considerations.

As China asserts its ambition for greater territorial and political control in Asia, Washington has cultivated stronger strategic ties with Hanoi as a counterbalance. But ignoring Vietnam’s authoritarian tendencies in favor of realist security imperatives could eventually backfire.

The strongest long-term partner will be a more liberal Vietnam, one whose citizens stand behind their government’s legitimacy and decision-making, and one that doesn’t jail critics calling for more transparency and accountability from their leaders.

Hunter Marston is a Southeast Asia analyst based in Washington DC. He is on Twitter at @hmarston4.