Performers dance with large national flags marking an anniversary of Vietnam's communist regime in Hanoi, February 3, 2017.  Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Performers dance with large national flags marking an anniversary of Vietnam's communist regime in Hanoi, February 3, 2017. Photo: AFP / Hoang Dinh Nam

Shortly before his death in 1969, when revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh put down on paper his last testament, his thoughts were occupied with how Vietnam’s Communist Party should maintain its core ethics.

Every Party member, Ho wrote, “must be deeply imbued with revolutionary morality” and must show “thrift, integrity, uprightness, total dedication to public interests and exemplary selflessness.” His successors, he implored, must “preserve absolute purity.”

Upholding morality – and bemoaning its regression – has been the compulsion of every Party leader since. But few have prioritized it as much as current Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

The new morality

Improving the morality of Party members will be a deciding factor of “whether the revolution will succeed or fail,” he told senior officials earlier this month upon opening a major Party conference.

“The force of [our] political system is big, but not yet strong,” continued the country’s leading politician. He added that while most Party officials are competent and honest, some still have “shortcomings and limitations.”

Newly re-elected Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong speaks as a press conference after the closing ceremony on the final day of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam's Communist Party in Hanoi on January 28, 2016. Vietnam's top communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected on January 27 in a victory for the party's old guard which some fear could slow crucial economic reforms in the fast-growing country. AFP PHOTO / POOL / LUONG THAI LINH / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Luong Thai Linh
Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool/Luong Thai Linh

Since assuming the Party’s top spot in 2011, Trong has set his legacy on purging corruption and loose morals from the Party’s ranks. During his first five years in office, this drive was stalled by having to share power with then-influential Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

Dung not only turned a blind eye to corruption, analysts say, he had graft and dodgy business networks to thank for his political ascent. While some considered his influential clique “kleptocratic”, others saw Dung more as a “populist autocrat” – a rare mold in a political context more accustomed to ideologically-minded, tedious apparatchiks like Trong.

Dung eventually fell at the Party Congress held in January 2016, when he was forced to step down from politics. Trong kept his position thanks to a repose on age restrictions. With the opposition figure gone, Trong has worked since to return the Party machinery to its more traditional structure.

That means consensus decision-making – “democratic centralism,” in Party lexicon – rather than Dung’s more individualistic style of leadership. Greater emphasis has also been put on extolling socialist values rather than praising market capitalism, despite the fact the latter has recently sparked fast economic development.

Trong gets tough

But Trong’s sine qua non was a mettlesome anti-corruption campaign, similar to the one unleashed in China around the same time.

At first, it appeared this would simply purge Dung’s protégées and associates, such as the Ho Chi Minh City’s party chief Dinh La Thang, who was fired from the Politburo in May 2017 and subsequently jailed for 18 years on graft charges.

Vietnam's Communist Party Politburo former member and former chairman of PetroVietnam Dinh La Thang listens during verdict session at a court in Hanoi, Vietnam January 22, 2018. VNA/An Dang via REUTERS
Former Politburo former member and chairman of PetroVietnam Dinh La Thang (C) in court in Hanoi, January 22, 2018, Hanoi. VNA via Reuters/An Dang

But the campaign has expanded beyond mere politics. Dozens of former executives from state-owned enterprises (SOEs), as well as leading businesspeople and senior security officials, have now been prosecuted by the courts.

There are practical reasons for this. Graft has cost the government dearly over the years. But losses are even more problematic as Vietnam struggles with rising public debt and a widening budget deficit.

Tackling corruption within SOEs, in particular, is vital as the Party is now busy divesting many of them, bringing in billions of dollars badly needed revenue in the process.

Presenting a cleaner image of SOEs, even those not for sale, will certainly help attract investors and raise money for the Party.

The Party is also aware that its legitimacy in the eyes of the public has been degraded by years of overt corruption. It would seem, based on recent surveys of public opinion, that the Vietnamese are pleased with Trong’s anti-graft efforts.

But, as recent months have seen a noticeable shift from just battling financial graft to moral corruption within the Party, an important ideological aspect of Trong’s vision has come to the fore.

At this month’s seventh plenum of the Party’s Central Committee, a grouping of some 200 senior Party members, important announcements were made on personnel reshuffles, while long-planned wage and social insurance reforms were agreed. But Trong’s morality campaign clearly dominated the proceedings.

Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong gestures as he waits for deputies to join him on the podium for a group photo at the end of the final meeting of the outgoing parliament in Hanoi on April 12, 2016.Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, April 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Closing the plenum on May 12, Trong said that one of the week-long meeting’s most important outcomes was the decision to introduce new performance assessments on Party members, which would allow leaders to designate “strategic” officials who display excellence in management and political morality.

Late last year, the Party introduced new measures to punish members who even question orders that come down from above. These strengthen the senior hierarchy’s ability to expel members who might bemoan the increasingly ideological direction that Trong is taking the Party. Any bubbling dissent, in effect, will not be tolerated.

Part of this was the Party’s approval, in October, of a list of 27 “heresies” that will be used to judge the morality of officials, noted David Brown, a former US diplomat and Vietnamese linguist, in a recent article.

“The campaigns against ordinary and ideological corruption are for Nguyen Phu Trong the fruit of a lifetime of effort,” Brown wrote. “At 73, the General Secretary is already well past retirement age and impatient to fulfill his mission of cleansing the Party and restoring its authority.”

A reactionary revolution?

Indeed, there is almost a revolutionary zeal to Trong’s morality campaign. He certainly speaks more often about the country’s supposed ongoing “revolution” than his predecessors – and with a greater sense of historicism.

With one eye on the future, Trong contends that improving the ethics of Party personnel is needed to prepare for the next Party Congress, in 2021, when many of the current Party leaders will retire. The new “strategic” officials are expected to form the basis of the next generation administration, most likely to be fashioned in the image of the outgoing hierarchy.

But the Janusian leader finds inspiration from the past. A hardened ideologue who spent years as a head of the Party’s Theoretical Council in the early 2000s, Trong cuts a reactionary figure. He is clearly committed to returning the Party to its old ways of political control in order to secure the Party’s dominance in a fast-changing Vietnam.

Fans react during the AFC U23 Championship final between Vietnam and Uzbekistan, in Hanoi, Vietnam January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kham
Vietnamese watch a football game in Hanoi, January 27, 2018. Photo/Kham

In a telling speech in 2016, Trong spoke apocalyptically about officials undergoing “self-evolution” and “self-transformation,” shorthand for the Party drifting away from its Marxist-Leninist roots by adopting new political ideas, perhaps even democracy.

At the time, after almost a decade Dung’s premiership, it appeared that socialist ideology and discipline was losing ground within the Party and being replaced with individualism and careerism.

Trong’s ongoing purge is thus just as ideological as it is political. Self-transformative thinking, Trong has warned, “could lead to collaboration with sinister and hostile forces” that might destroy the Party.”

Indeed, the morality campaign has been coupled with what democracy activists say is the strongest crackdown on dissent witnessed in decades. In a Vietnam now populated largely by those born after doi moi, a 1986 policy that started the free market reforms that have replaced the previous command economy with capitalism, the purpose of the Communist Party has looked increasingly specious in recent years.

Rather than allowing for greater introspection, Trong’s morality campaign is designed to put an end to free thought within the Party. In one sense, this is a crusade by the reactionary old guard, now temporarily restored to power, to make sure its ideas won’t be expunged by new thinking.

In another, it comes from the likely justified realization that the Party cannot survive at this transformative period of Vietnamese history if its monopoly on power is loosened and perceptions gather the Party is more corrupt than moral.

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