Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is due to step down early next year. Photo: Reuters

At the end of December 2019, Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong, concurrently general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), stated that the government’s anti-corruption campaign would continue in 2020. Despite the Covid-19 outbreak, he has been stepping up the campaign with disciplinary actions against high-ranking party members since the beginning of this year.

The massive anti-corruption campaign, or as defined by Trong, a “blazing furnace,” was launched in 2016 with the aim to fight against widespread graft in the party, which is considered as one of the most pressing issues threatening the CPV’s political legitimacy.

According to official statistics from the Central Commission for Inspection (CCI), in the four years since the launch of a “no-go zone,” the campaign has prosecuted, disciplined or imprisoned many senior party members, including two Politburo members and 21 incumbent or former CPV Central Committee members.

More remarkably, for the first time in the party’s history, the campaign has extended to police and military forces, with 38 senior officers, including 23 generals, disciplined or prosecuted, most notably the deputy minister of national defense, Admiral Nguyen Van Hien.

Recently, the CPV re-stoked the furnace by prosecuting former trade minister Vu Huy Hoang, investigating top Ho Chi Minh City officials and several staff members of the Hanoi People’s Committee as well as suspending its chairman, Nguyen Duc Chung, from work for 90 days over his responsibility in some corruption cases. The unprecedented scale of this crusade is evidence of the CPV’s strong determination to clean up

The 13th National Party Congress, the most pivotal political event of Vietnam, will be held in January 2021. As such, it behooves the CPV to continue the anti-corruption campaign to reinforce its political power.

Despite witnessing improvements over the past years, both the people and the CPV still see corruption as a serious problem for Vietnam, given its high level as compared with many other Asian countries. Hence fighting against corruption is crucial for the party in the current political landscape to gain the people’s trust.

Specifically, at the Party Congress, new plans and policies will be introduced to enable the CPV to substantiate its power. In this respect, if the “blazing furnace” campaign can continue successfully, the CPV will earn great merit for solving a national problem, which will pave the way for it to win the people’s consensus on its future initiatives.

A successful anti-corruption campaign is also necessary for Trong’s successor as general secretary and president. At Party Congress next year, Trong will have to step down because of his advanced age. However, it is uncertain whether Trong’s successor will be able to take on the campaign effectively, because of potential changes in domestic politics after the Congress that may affect the new president’s power.

Accordingly, the leadership configuration of Vietnam will return to the “four pillars” model in which the four most powerful positions in the political system are general secretary of the CPV, prime minister, National Assembly chairman, and state president. Besides, given the retirement next year of many members who support Trong, his successor may not have the same backing within the Party to carry on the anti-graft campaign on such a massive scale as Trong has. 

Nevertheless, if the campaign is widened, the new general secretary will find it less of a struggle to maintaining its momentum. If the campaign can discipline and prosecute a broader range of corrupt senior party members, it will be more well-shaped and institutionalized, as the uncovering of more grand cases of corruption will showcase the campaign’s success, making it a model for Trong’s successor to follow.

In this regard, the new party leader would be able to take on the campaign immediately without having to spend too much time establishing a power base and authority. Moreover, with fewer grand cases and a more institutionalized anti-corruption campaign, other corrupt senior officials would be more likely to face scrutiny under the leadership of the new general secretary. 

A widened anti-corruption campaign would also be beneficial to the CPV’s economic leadership.

Rampant graft has considerably weakened Vietnam’s economy, with billions of dollars in losses caused by ineffective, corrupt businesses. This requires a more transparent system to make the domestic economy healthier and attract to foreign companies. Hence heating up of the furnace could help Vietnam deal with this problem.

In the short term, achievements from an enhanced anti-corruption campaign would showcase Vietnam’s efforts to reform its domestic politics and economy, thus improving its international image. In the long term, a more institutionalized anti-corruption mechanism would substantially improve transparency, increasing domestic economic performance and turning Vietnam into a more attractive place for foreign investors. 

In a nutshell, Vietnam has numerous tasks for the post-Covid period, of which fighting  against corruption is one of the most important. Given what it has achieved so far in the anti-corruption campaign, the CPV should continue the crusade. Future successes will undoubtedly strengthen the party’s legitimacy and leadership, in both political and economic terms.   

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Phuong Pham

Phuong Pham is a graduate student at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London. His articles have appeared in The Diplomat, East Asia Forum, Policy Forum, Global-is-Asian, Geopolitical Monitor and The Geopolitics.