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Why Vietnam Won't Fall

By Carl Robinson

Long-time Vietnamese dissident Dr. Nguyen Dan Que has no doubt enjoyed his few moments of worldwide attention. Inspired by events in the Middle East, the physician published an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post last week calling on Hanoi’s diehard Communist regime to become “free and democratic.” Almost immediately, the police arrested and charged him with calling for the overthrow of the government.  But just a couple days later, doubtless after a word from Washington, he was released on bail and allowed to return to his home in southern Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

The 68-year old must be quite chuffed at poking Hanoi’s hornet nest—and seemingly getting away with it.  (“Let’s dismantle the Politburo” and “assemble in the streets,” he said recently on the Internet, according to AFP.)   He’s been sniping away on human rights and political pluralism since 1978, three years after the collapse of South Vietnam.  He's been arrested four times and spent 20 years in prison.  In 1998, Dr Que was amnestied on condition he migrate to the United States.  But he refused to leave.  Not many Vietnamese would turn down an offer like that.

But just how concerned should Vietnam’s ruling communists be about a contagion from the Middle East suddenly striking their country?  After all, their political pre-eminence is guaranteed by the country’s constitution.   In early January, Vietnam’s Communist Party Congress re-affirmed that supremacy and vowed never to introduce political pluralism. Hanoi gets lectured on a human rights on a regular basis by Washington and groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International keep a close eye on dissidents with the latter “adopting” several, including Dr Que.

After traveling extensively around Vietnam over the past 18 months, I can report that Hanoi doesn’t have much to worry about.  Quite simply, Vietnam isn’t going to follow Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps Libya into collapsing any time soon.  And the reason?  Why, perversely, for the very same reasons the old South Vietnam fell to the hard-line, no-compromise communists from the North in 1975.  Nobody wants to fight.  They have better things to do.  

After nearly 60 years of Communist Party rule in the North and over 35 years in the South, all of Vietnam today is extremely individualistic.  Instead of a common sense of purpose and unity, it’s every person for him- or herself, the sauve qui peux mentality that led to the South’s sudden collapse and later desperate escape of the Boat People.  The best analogy is to a church-run boarding school where rules are made to be broken or for others to follow, not me.  Everyone is treated like children and receive regular religious teachings in the form of constant slogans, anniversaries and grandiose dreams.  When I complained about the dreadful echo of the early morning propaganda loudspeakers to a group of Vietnamese in a coastal town recently, one laughed and said, “That’s just political noise. I don’t hear or see anything!”

Basically, the Vietnamese are satisfied enough with their lot with average incomes steadily rising towards $2000 a year.  Sure, 12 precent inflation is a problem, but three years ago it was running close to 30 percent.  Everyone makes do, skimping and scrounging, while hustling a bit harder at work.  No one has forgotten how tough life was after 1975.  Hanoi’s failed socialist economy experiment morphed into today’s free-for-all “market economy" and no one is ready to risk putting where they are today in jeopardy.  And their children are totally obsessed with materialism and having fun.  I simply cannot imagine any circumstances under which the Vietnamese would rebel and overthrow the communist regime.

Of course, nobody really likes the government.  In fact, they are quite united in their dislike, which provides a constant source of conversation—and jokes—over coffee, both a constant of Vietnamese life.  Young people easily crack through the firewall around Facebook and post as inanely as their counterparts in the West.  With its constant challenges managing a diverse country now over 80 million people, compared to only 30 million at war’s end, the government is a soft target for ridicule as people simply get on with their lives.

Corruption is indeed a serious problem and, within certain bounds, a topic the government-controlled media is allowed to explore.  Big scandals erupt with regularity.  But in their day-to-day lives, everyone is complicit, starting with $15 bribes to avoid speeding tickets or something under the table to speed up that application for a home extension.  The money comes back around when these same corrupt officials, whose average wage is only $150 a month, sit down in a local restaurant to spend their hard-earned bribes.  Everyone is on a fiddle of some kind.  With so many privately-owned businesses, tax avoidance is rife.  Outside the depressing statistics, Vietnam has a huge and thriving secondary economy that runs on US dollars and gold bars.

And so, Vietnam’s dissenters continue to get the headlines.  And in the absence of government and business transparency bloggers continue to peddle hearsay.  But everything takes place under the watchful eyes and ears of Vietnam’s internal police.  Occasionally, they swoop in—but always very selectively, reserving a special ire for former communists who’ve left the tent to call for more pluralism or democracy.  The people get the message.

Of course, even one political prisoner is too many.  But realistically, Vietnam has fewer than 100 dissidents in jail or house arrest.  One rarely hears of systematic torture as in other hard-line regimes.  Plus, the regime has been able to export its potential malcontents, first as Boat People and, as the price of normalizing relations with the United States in the 1990’s, visas for the thousands of former South Vietnamese military who spent time in re-education camps after 1975.  Another price Washington demanded was freedom of travel, and today, Vietnamese can travel overseas.  Some never return, but usually for economic rather than political reasons.

In urging his hard line against the communist regime, Dr Que pointed out in his Post piece that “Hanoi needs Washington much more than Washington needs Hanoi,” especially as tensions rise over Chinese hegemony into the South China Sea and disputes over two island archipelagos.  Hanoi complains vehemently when Washington raises human rights issues, particularly in the State Department’s annual reports.  But then Vietnam has modified its behaviour, particularly when it comes to religious freedom.  Overall, Vietnam is much more open and less restrictive than 15 years ago.  Gradual rather than dramatic change is the way things happen in Vietnam. 

Barring some monstrous and unforeseen stuff-up, I believe Vietnam will continue down the path of gradual change.  The long docile National Assembly has started flexing its muscles in recent years, halting a high-speed North-South rail link on cost grounds and speaking out on a Chinese-run bauxite mining project.  The selection of candidates for next year’s election will be interesting to watch.  Authorities are also paying closer attention to public opinion, such as cancelling a huge fireworks display last October marking Hanoi’s 1000th birthday after ravishing floods struck central Vietnam.  And when people do get angry enough to take to the streets, such as the death of a motorcyclist in police custody in northeast Vietnam last year, the government does respond.   After all Vietnam’s upheavals of the past 60 years, another revolution—even rebellion—is simply not in the cards.

Carl Robinson was an Associated Press correspondent in Vietnam during the war.  He now runs the Google Group “Vietnam Old Hacks” for former correspondents and others who worked in South Vietnam during the war. Living in Australia since the war, he is also the author of Mongolia: Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Skies.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr user Noodlepie

Correction (March 11, 10:23 AM): An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of a prominent Vietnamese dissident. His name is Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, not Dr. Nguyen Van Que.


Anonymous's picture
Hilarious stuff

"Everyone is treated like children and receive regular religious teachings in the form of constant slogans, anniversaries and grandiose dreams." It's quite amusing that an american wrote that. Truly America is a land with an irony deficiency. "Manifest Destiny", "American Exceptionalism", forcing children to swear an oath to the country and to a bit of cloth every morning, fox news and teabaggers, the insane "We're no.1" rant and fear of democracy etc etc etc. As for the vietnamese traitors encouraging submission to US exploitation, they're less than animals.

Anonymous's picture
Spot on, Carl. Being Vietnam

Spot on, Carl. Being Vietnam born and lived in Australia as well as worked in other countries, I'm always amazed at the degree of optimism in the mass media about changes in Vietnam. Put it frankly I don't think any political change is going to happen at least in the next decade while China is growing strong on economic front and Vietnam piggy back on that. True there are discontent and lots of heart breaking stories, sometimes I don't even dare read local news (in vietnamese) for fear of catching report of inhumane deeds here and there. However the vietnamese are too busy catching up with their lives, those with money are busy making more, those without are busy gaining the little they can. It's an upwardly mobile society always on their feet, afraid of being left behind, enjoy what comfort their hard work can be rewarded with (quite rightfully). There is no mind for reforming society just yet. And this is not even shallow or superficial, it is a natural progression of any young country full of potentials towards more mature stage. Are you still in Vietnam nowadays or back to Australia ? I sure will follow your future articles if I can.

Anonymous's picture
Uncalled for

With all due respect. Mr. Robinson, in your article, you wrote: “such as the death of a motorcyclist in police custody in northeast Vietnam last year, the government does respond”. Actually, the final verdict for the policeman is only 7 years in prison. “The government didn’t handle it appropriately” describe the case better. Another similar incident took place just days ago, a civilian was brutally beaten by a high level policeman, and he died about a week later. All because of a dispute over 2.50 dollars. The victim insisted the fine was unjustified but agreed to pay 5 dollars, not 7.50 as requested by that lieutenant colonel. It’s a culture of Vietnamese police to use of excessive force against people. The government turn their blind eye to it. They only act when people become too angry. In a broader picture about police brutality, is it a hidden policy to bully its citizens to keep the regime untouchable ? It’s best to leave it to the audience to mull over. The international community should keep eyes open.Thanks for caring.

Anonymous's picture
Sad Reality

This is sad but IMO a true assessment of VN. Compared to Philippinos and Thais who have the courage to rise up against oppression, we Vietnamese are "the sick man of Asia". I wonder whether Confucianism has made us "sick": submission to authorities (even when they are wrong), living passively. I feel so sorry for those who are in jail as they are so alone while the rest of the Vietnamese keep quiet and move on with their lives. WAKE UP PEOPLE!

Anonymous's picture
Why VN won't fall

No one has known when a revolution occuring.So the revolution can happen in Viet Nam at any time; it may be tommorow or it may take a long time to have a peacful revolution.

Anonymous's picture
Communists make Vietnam extremely individualistic!!!

The author seems to know Vietnam and the Vietnamese very well. Thank you!

Anonymous's picture
Not "Nguyen VAN Que", but

Not "Nguyen VAN Que", but "Nguyen DAN Que".

Anonymous's picture

I wonder if the author saw or heard about the "show of force" by the police all over Vietnam after the revolutions that toppled totalitarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt (hint: there is a picture in the RFA's Vietnamese service website). Does that mean the communist government of Vietnam did not care about what might happen to them? In a country where laws are created by almost every communist authority (ever heard of the famous police phrase "I am the law!" ?) and where laws and orders are written by mouth, the statement "But realistically, Vietnam has fewer than 100 dissidents in jail or house arrest" is a premature observation. When one has to report to local authorities and has to "register for temporary residency/absence" when he or she visits someone in another city/province, that person is realistically under house arrest. Eighteen months are a long time but it does not mean one will be able to see and hear what really happens; especially if it is a foreigner well 'taken care of' by an army of undercover agents making sure that foreigner stays as far away from the truth as possible. As Mr. Christian Marchant found out for himself, attempts to get close to reality will be dealt with serious injuries. Nothing is permanent ... only a few months ago, even Mr. Mubarak would have never dreamed of a day like Feb 11.
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