Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, January 23, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Kham
Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is due to step down early next year. Photo: Reuters

Concerns about the longevity of senior leaders are weighing heavily on Vietnam’s long-ruling Communist Party. The Politburo recently ruled that top-ranking officials will now have to undergo regular medical checks every six months, with a Party unit established to monitor the results.

When President Tran Dai Quang, 61, failed to make any public appearances for most of last August, it led to speculation that he was either the victim of a political purge or, as some bloggers claimed, poisoned by Chinese agents. Ill-health was the more likely, albeit duller, cause for his falling from public view.

Most of the Party’s senior leaders are now in their late-50’s or 60’s, almost double the median age of Vietnamese citizens, which is 30. And while the Party technically imposes an age-cap of 65 on senior figures, after which they are not supposed to be able to stand for re-election, it is routinely flaunted.

Current Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was 71-years-old at the last Party Congress in January 2016, but he was given a special exemption to continue his top role for another five-year term.

The latest elderly casualty is Dinh The Huynh, 64, who served as executive secretary of the Party’s Secretariat, a significant body in charge of implementing policy. This week the Party formally announced his early retirement after being on leave since last August.

Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (L) and Dinh The Huynh (R),  January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Na Son Nguyen
Before his sick-leave, Huynh had been tipped to succeed current Party General Secretary Trong at the next Party Congress, which will be held in 2021. Some analysts reckoned he was the Party’s second-most important figure, behind only Trong.

His position has now been officially filled by Tran Quoc Vuong, 65, who had been deputizing for the ailing Huynh since last year. As well as the Secretariat role, Vuong is also expected to continue as chairman of the Central Inspection Commission, the Party’s anti-graft taskforce charged with disciplining wayward senior officials.

This makes the retirement aged Vuong a considerable force within the Party, with some analysts speculating he is now the favorite to succeed Trong in 2021 (as long as he, too, is givenn an age-limit exemption). But impressive job titles hardly infer an imposing energetic figure.

“Vuong is bland even by communist apparatchik standards,” says Tuong Vu, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. “He has not headed a province and has no base in the police, the propaganda apparatus, or the military.”

But aged power is guiding the Party these days. At the last Party Congress, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, a two-term premier who some Party grandees saw as too individualist for a regime that has long ruled by consensus, failed to move up to General Secretary.

Former premier Nguyen Tan Dung, February 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Mike Blake

The same rationale might also explain the downfall of Dinh La Thang, who was removed as Communist Party’s Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City last year. This made him the first official to be sacked from the Politburo in decades.

Thang was later sentenced to 13 years in prison, an unprecedented action taken against a former Politburo member, for corruption charges dating to his tenure as general director of PetroVietnam, a state energy giant now at the center of the Party’s anti-graft purge.

Analysts have speculated that Thang was also purged because of his close ties to former premier Dung, his ‘individualist’ style of politics and so that Trong could install his own man as the de-facto mayor of Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s economic hub.

In keeping with the Party’s desire for blandness, Thang’s replacement, Nguyen Thien Nhan, is widely considered another Party “yes-man.”

Out with the new and in with the old is seemingly the Party’s motto these days. Blazing this path has been Trong’s anti-corruption campaign, which he has described as the Party’s “hot furnace.”

Former member and chairman of PetroVietnam Dinh La Thang listens during a verdict session at a court in Hanoi, Vietnam January 22, 2018. VNA/An Dang via Reuters

In September, the Central Inspection Commission recommended “disciplinary action” against Nguyen Xuan Anh, the Party chief of Danang, and Huynh Duc Tho, the city’s chairman. They were alleged to have committed numerous abuses of power, as well as not following the principles of “democratic centralism.” Anh was sacked in October.

Other prominent casualties of the anti-graft purge include Ho Thi Kim Thoa, an ex-vice minister of trade.

One interpretation of recent events is that the current administration, led by Trong, is simply ridding the Party of individualist upstarts who could threaten its long-held belief in collective decision-making. At the same time, it is clearing away “corrupt” officials that give the Party a bad name.

But the ageing communists, which unified the once-split nation upon winning the Vietnam War in 1975, are clearly teetering on an existential precipice. The Party’s legitimacy is increasingly being called into question over widespread corruption and widening economic inequality, as well as a shortage of funds to sustain recent fast growth.

Vietnamese wear nationalistic garbs while watching a football game in Hanoi, Vietnam January 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Kham

Meanwhile, the more youthful pro-democracy movement is growing stronger, despite the Party’s best efforts to stifle its voice. It thus makes sense that the Party’s geriatric leaders would want to close ranks, lest someone from within bids for power on the notion old ways aren’t working anymore.

Trong is taking the opposite track, reaffirming the Party’s time-tested ways after a dalliance with individualistic rule under Dung. Whether he goes as far as China, which this month moved to abolish term limits for senior communist officials, is yet to be seen – though Trong has clearly taken pages from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft drive.

Nguyen Khac Giang, lead political researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, wrote last year that Trong is now “Vietnam’s most powerful leader in decades.” But it is almost certain that Trong will retire in 2021 and that his moves now aim largely to push his preferred likewise elderly successor to the front.

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