Vietnam’s social media outlets have been abuzz for the past week with claims that Communist Party chief and President Nguyen Phu Trong was rushed to hospital on April 14 and has yet to re-emerge in the public eye.
Some online posts have said the country’s most powerful politician merely had the flu, while others have claimed he suffered either a brain hemorrhage or a stroke and is on his deathbed.
Spinning into the cyclone of speculation, some have even alleged that Trong was assassinated by supporters of his rival, former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Trong, the reports note, was visiting Dung’s stronghold Kien Giang province when news of Trong’s illness first broke.
Others have claimed that there could have been a palace coup, perhaps led by Tran Quoc Vuong, who as the Central Committee’s Secretariat is in charge of managing the Party’s daily work, one of the Party’s most powerful positions.
More credible reports suggest that he was either taken to Cho Ray hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, the southern financial hub, or was flown to a Japan for treatment. If the latter is proven true, his condition is likely serious; most senior politicians receive treatment domestically for reasons of nationalism barring life-threatening conditions.
Carl Thayer, an academic expert on Vietnam, wrote in a briefing that private sources say Trong has “partly recovered,” most likely from a stroke, but is paralyzed in one arm.
Thayer added that the seriousness of his condition could be interpreted in whether he takes part in the next Central Committee plenum, which is set to be held in May.
Asia Times could not independently confirm any of the reports or speculation. But despite the state media’s reticence, Trong’s illness is now effectively an open secret in Vietnam’s tightly controlled society and internet. On April 14, “Trong” became one of the most searched words on Google in Vietnam.
Trong became the Part’s general secretary in 2011. But his first five years in office were frustrated by a rivalry with then prime minister Dung, who had amassed an atypical amount of power in the civilian government apparatus at the expense of the Party.
At the 12th Party Congress in 2016, Trong successfully formed a coalition to forestall Dung’s ambitions of becoming the party chief and to remove him from office.
With his power secure, Trong has launched an anti-corruption drive to remove Dung’s protégées from the Party and to sever the links between Party officials and corrupt executives in state-owned enterprises.
Trong has consolidated even more power since he became state president in late 2018, taking over from Tran Dai Quang, who passed away in September last year. It is notable that state media remained silent on Quang’s ill-health until just before he passed away.
If Trong were to unexpectedly fall from power, it could have a seismic effect on the country’s secretive and cloistered politics. For decades, the Party abided by an unwritten agreement that no one person would hold more than one the top four political positions at the same time.
Some analysts thought that by merging the president and general secretary posts, Trong aimed to consolidate his power and follow the path charted by Xi Jinping, who holds the same two positions in China. Another perhaps more compelling explanation is that he wanted to play a more active role in foreign affairs.
Vietnam’s relations with China can be conducted between their respective communist parties. But the United States, now one of Vietnam’s closest allies, prefers to deal with members of civilian government, not those from the Party apparatus.
In February, as Hanoi hosted the US-North Korean peace talks, US President Donald Trump is believed to have invited Trong on a state-visit to Washington sometime later in the year.
This would have proved somewhat problematic for Trong when he was just Party chief. But as state president, he is now Vietnam’s head of state, allowing the Party to have a greater say over foreign affairs.
But if Trong’s accession to the presidency was supposed to ease how foreign relations are conducted – as opposed to any dictatorial ambitions of Trong – his illness, if long-term and debilitating, could jeopardize all that.
If he is now unable to travel abroad, it could mean Trong has to resign from the position.
Nguyen Khac Giang, senior research fellow at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, has pointed out that Trong could be hoist with his own petard.
In early 2018, under Trong’s leadership, the Politburo issued Regulation No. 90 that rules senior political officials must pass health tests to continue in office.
“The move was then seen as an effort to ward off [the late president] Quang’s influence; it will bring some sense of irony if the regulation comes back to bite Trong so soon,” Giang wrote in the Diplomat last week.
But this would create even more turmoil over who succeeds him as state president, notably at a time when the Party starts to debate who will take over the leadership in 2021.
Political succession is a messy and potentially destabilizing exercise in Vietnam. Patronage networks, provincial ties and cliques mean senior politicians must jostle to have their own allies placed on important committees and elected onto the Politburo.
Such political jockeying usually begins at least two years before any Party Congress, when delegates assemble to vote on the Party’s next administration and top level appointments.
The next National Congress will take place in early 2021, meaning that now is the time that Central Committee plenums are taken up with debates on future personnel.
It is all but certain that Trong will resign in 2021; Party rules impose a two-term policy. But if Trong wanted to make sure his own conservative, ideologue allies take over the Party’s reins after he retires, his now presumably poor health could scupper those plans.
Eyeing his frailty, Trong’s opponents in the Party might think it is an opportune moment to stake a claim for their own positions.
There are many politicians who think economic liberalization needs to be hastened, especially dissolution of resource-draining state enterprises. Others want even closer relations with the US, at the expense of China. Still others want a more democratic form of communist rule.
Indeed, if “Trong-ism” can be defined as anything, it is his attempt to make sure the Party doesn’t fracture and its power wane as the country undergoes significant and transformative socioeconomic changes.
Opening up the Party even slightly, Trong has suggested, could lead to its downfall. That is why he has tried to cut away the corrupt, “immoral” and non-ideological elements from the Party that have made it bloated and self-serving.
With Trong ascendant over the last three years, these opposing cliques struggled to have any say over Party affairs. But if he is now in poor health, and his allies are sidetracked by succession issues, they could soon strike to weaken his control over the Party and potentially the country’s political and economic direction.