Market-Leninism in Vietnam - Transcript

00:00:02 D. McCargo | This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

00:00:08 A. Hansen | Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Arve Hansen. I'm a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for development and Environment at the University of Oslo, and I'm the leader of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. I'm here today with Jonathan London, associate professor of Global Political Economy at the University of Leiden and a leading expert on politics and development in Vietnam. And today he joins us to help us understand politics in Vietnam. We'll discuss the recent party Congress, party leadership, and overall directions the Communist Party-led country is taking. So welcome, Jonathan, and thank you for taking the time to join us from Leiden.

00:00:44 J. London | Hello, and thank you for having me.

00:00:46 A. Hansen | Let's start with some of the basics. So Vietnam is ruled by the Communist Party. Its official ideology is Marxism, Leninism, combined with Ho Chi Minh thought. It is, according to the official story, at least using a so-called socialist-oriented market economy on the road to achieving socialism. Yet it is one of global capitalism's best performers in terms of economic growth. Now, you have labeled Vietnam's model a form of market Leninism. What is this? And how can we make sense of politics and ideology in Vietnam today without ending up in complicated theoretical discussions?

00:01:19 J. London | Well, I think maybe the best guide is to sort of taking a few steps back and to recall that the Communist Party is a Vietnam is an organisation that is almost 100 years old. And it was established in the context of anti-colonial struggle and, you know, global revolutionary struggle toward something called socialism as envisaged by Lenin. So the party developed in a way that was very much drawing on that history and that tradition. And of course, for several decades, it tried to essentially plan a socialist economy along the lines comparable to that practiced in places like the Soviet Union and respects China as well. And when that didn't quite work out in the 80s in particular, of course, Vietnam, like other countries, transitioned to a more market-based economy, but it retains its political party structure, of course. Soorganisationally, it remains a very Leninist party defined by principles of democratic centralism. But it also makes use of the market economy as the basis of its rule. And I didn't invent the term market Leninism. It's actually a journalist named Nicholas Kristofwith The New York Times that you may be familiar with who used it in the late 90s. But, you know, we need to recall, of course, that, you know, globally and even going back to Lenin himself, you know, principles of Leninist political organisation have always been compatible with different economic modes and countries such as Singapore and Taiwan, two countries that followed a recognisably capitalist trajectory. Nonetheless, they used forms of political organisation that were distinctively Leninistin their design. They were modeled on ideas drawn from Lenin. And so, you know, Vietnam and China are usefully understood as market Leninist in that they combine this Leninist form of political organisation with a market economy. I would just conclude this discussion here by saying that it's not only, of course, the formal organisationalLeninist aspect, there's also socialist history and, you know, but ideology and these things we may also like to imagine that they're not important or they're not real.

00:03:37 J. London | But for people in Vietnam and in particular for people in the party, these are ideas that are taken very seriously. And so when the Communist Party of Vietnam announces itself to be pursuing a form of the economy with a socialist orientation, they mean it. How we understand that that's up to us. But it is a country ruled by a party that is very consciously trying to combine these ideas about socialist redistribution with the market mechanism. And the way in which this occurs, of course, is filled with tensions and contradictions and things of this nature. But we can also observe that the form of a market economy that's practiced in Vietnam differs from, say, that we observe in other places in Asia.

00:04:25 A. Hansen | Yeah, thank you. And I guess these features are also what makes Vietnam such a fascinating place to be and to study, especially since it's actually working, at least delivering economic development at a very high speed. I may come back to that. But now it's been a few weeks since the 13th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam. And this is a big event, obviously. And this Congress was discussed quite a lot, both inside and outside Vietnam. What do you see as the defining feature, so defining takeaways of this Party Congress?

00:04:55 J. London | Well, this Congress, of course, occurs every five years. And they're important because they established the personnel who are the small group of people who will essentially dominate Vietnam's politics. What their general orientation will be, and I would agree with the observation of most, that the recent party Congress is clear sort of continuation. So I would emphasise the continuity. And of course, that's visible in the continuation of the general secretaryship of Nguyen Phu Trong who is now into his third term. He didn't bother to change the code of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which specifies two terms as the maximum. So there are some interesting and strange things happening with this election. But, you know, as many people have observed, the dynamic that Vietnam itself, the dynamic that Vietnam finds itself in today, can be understood by going back five or 10 years in which we saw a tenser and in a sense divided or more obviously divided policy in which this movement toward a kind of easing of the presence of the party organisation and the economy led to a kind of bonanza development under the authority of the former prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. And of course, the current general secretary pushing in the other direction. He managed to eliminate that from the political scene. And what has followed and what has unfolded has been a sort of campaign of political discipline that has combined elements of anti-corruption and political purge. And so what we've seen is when Phu Trong, to some people's surprise, seems this rather orderly, doctrinaire fellow. Nonetheless, under his authority and on his watch, he's been able to, along with a sort of coalition, rein in a movement toward a form of governance that he and his coalition viewed as threatening. So the sense and you know, the reality is that over the last five years and now continuing, that you have a process whereby this centre of power led by China, is asserting their control over the party and the party organisation. And this comes after quite a long period of comparatively decentralised governance within the party. And that presented a lot of problems so we could spend all day talking about it. But essentially we are seeing continuity in the person. And I think that's how I would understand things at the moment. No dramatic changes are expected.

00:07:36 A. Hansen | Yeah, and it seems I guess especially those who don't know Vietnam well, have been waiting for political reform for quite a while, right alongside this economic development. But Trong in many ways, a conservative general secretary, that's not true. Now, some claim that he's the last of his breed of old-school Marxist Leninists in Vietnam and that actually the younger forces will eventually take over there and have a different view on things. What's your take on this?

00:08:04 J. London | Well, I'm increasingly dissatisfied with the term conservative because I have no idea what it means in the Vietnam context. I mean, I certainly would, you know, agree with you that there is something called sort of old-style Marxist Leninism in the Vietnam context. Historically, you know, I think it was Emmanuel Wollaston who pointed out that Marxism, Leninism was used as a kind of ideological straitjacket to announce that socialism is whatever I say it is, whoever I am in charge at any particular moment. So I think that there are certainly others within the party that still identify with the use of some brand of Marxism, Leninism as a kind of ideological straitjacket to discipline and to win political influence and support. He is 78 years old, same age as Joe Biden. He's not in particularly good health. And at the same time, as I was saying, I think when we use terms like conservative and reformer, we run into trouble because in respects, although we are beginning to understand much more about Vietnam politics and have a window onto who these people are and their backgrounds and things like this, I would say in comparison to the study of politics in other countries, even in SoutheastAsia, the study of Vietnam, politics, even for people in Vietnam, it's really tough. Because even the most informed people in Vietnam have a limited understanding of who these people are and of the interests and coalitions that shape their political thinking. So I think what I'm saying is, on the one hand, yes, Nguyen Phu Trong is an older guy and he represents a generation that is slowly, very slowly exiting from the political scene. There may be some sort of generational shift that we can expect. On the other hand, I think we need to perhaps question and I'm not saying I have the answers here, the meaning of conservatism in the context of Vietnam politics.

00:10:05 J. London | I mean, what does that mean? Does that mean an emphasis on the eternal supremacy of the Communist Party and all members of the party are sworn to that principle? Does it mean that they favour a greater role for the state and the economy? Well, if so, you know, what does that mean exactly? Since, you know, almost everybody within the economy, within a party, has privileged the role of party-linked and state-linked organisations. So I am without knowing, you know, a better way increasingly unsatisfied with these labels of conservative and, quote, reformer. But I would grant that Trong and respects represent a slower approach to change. And, you know, in that instance, I think probably is something of a generational moment that Vietnam is facing in the next three to five years as China and those of his generation passed the reins onto marginally younger people within the party. Now, it's still a Politburo dominated by older folks. The power within it is unequally shared. There are no women on the Politburo. The Central Committee is a larger collection that is in principle above the Politburo. But that's not the way it works in practice. So, yes, I think the generational change will occur. But what it might mean too early to say.

00:11:28 A. Hansen | Thanks. And those waiting for kind of a younger generation bringing democracy will have to wait for a bit as well then, I suppose.

00:11:34 J. London | Now, if you recall, well, some of us will recall that in the context of the Soviet Union or other countries, certainly Vietnam, it's always, you know, you have to wait for this generation to move on. But, you know, what we forget is that the next generation has its own interests and very frequently they are linked to the generation in power now.So institutions tend to be durable and they're supported by people who benefit from them. And so we see a very great deal of reluctance to disrupt arrangements. That privilege ruling groups across countries and certainly in Vietnam.

00:12:08 A. Hansen | Yeah, I agree with you. And this sort of theory that the new middle classes are supposed to overturn things. They get challenged in countries like China and Vietnam and in many other countries, obviously. Now, you mentioned Biden, and we have to talk about foreign relations a bit because obviously both China and the U.S. are important to Vietnam in a range of different ways. It's complicated. China, for example, ideologically, they're friends. But China is the number one enemy in Vietnam and the relationship is tense, to say the least. And then there's the U.S. Trump was actually very popular in Vietnam and largely probably due to his hard-line stance on China. So what about Biden, do you think? And how will Vietnam balance its position versus these two giants now that this tension between the US and China seems to continue intensifying under Biden?

00:13:01 J. London | Let me say a few things. Firstly, I think the relationship between Vietnam and China is obviously complex. And although, you know, a lot of Vietnamese folks identifying China as a principal enemy, nonetheless, the countries have and will coexist in some way, shape, or form. And so a challenge is always the word coping has been used very frequently. And I think that's very apt. I think it's important to recognise that there's no country with which Vietnam shares more similar interests. If at least we accept that the communist Party has sovereignty in Vietnam. Once we get beyond that, there's no country with which Vietnam shares greater interests in the region than the United States. And, you know, that's somewhat ironic historically. But in terms of trade and security and other issues, Vietnam and China continue to share these strategic interests. And that's not going to change. And I'm not going to count on Vietnamese for how we should interpret Donald Trump. But there was this sense in Vietnam that somehow Trump was going to say Vietnam from the Communist Party of China and things of this nature. Trump is fading into the background. Not fast enough, but he is. And in the meantime, the Biden administration is already quite a strong degree of continuity with Trump's stance. Although I think Trump was overheated and incoherent in his handling of Asia, there were certain things that he did. Including his recognition of Taiwan and other measures that were not completely disastrous in the ways that virtually all other aspects of his rule were. But what we're seeing in Biden is a very hands-on approach to East Asia. Now, this came as a surprise to some who said, hold on, if you look at Biden's foreign policy team, none of them are Asia hands per se. But that misses the fact that Lincoln is the secretary of state and very plugged into Asia.

00:14:54 J. London | Kurt Campbell has been around for a long time. John Kerry is very important, specialties with Vietnam, and he is in Biden's cabinet. I'm sure that they share a close working relationship. And so I think what we're seeing is a more coherent approach to Asia under the Biden administration that certainly than we saw under Trump and a more robust position than we saw under Obama. And so I think, you know, there are interesting questions about which way this will go. And, of course, the U.S. has lost some credibility and influence internationally. But nonetheless, I think that Biden'sapproach to East Asia will be welcomed by the people of Vietnam. And lastly, I would say is that you mentioned earlier that Vietnam has experienced success in economic terms, and that is certainly true in respects. But actually, you know, Vietnam'sobjective economic growth has been on the basis of a fairly unsophisticated mix of labour-intensive exports, services, not tourism, things of this nature. And Vietnam remains very weak in higher education. It has largely failed to develop backward linkages in a way that would deepen the process of industrialisation. And what we're seeing now is the movement of a lot of Chinese manufacturing and capital into Vietnam, and that's the low-hanging fruit that can form as a basis for capital accumulation, a.k.a. economic growth going forward for the next 10 or 15 years. But what is that going to get Vietnam? And so where I'm going with this is as follows that if Vietnam wants to pursue the sophistication of its economy, it can do so by forging deeper links with the US, with Europe, with Korea, with Japan, possibly with China,and respects in ways that are aimed at improving Vietnam's national innovative capacities. And if Vietnam can set foot on that road and it's not by any stretch of the imagination assured that this is the direction that will go in.

00:16:55 J. London | But if they can pursue these multilateral relations in a strategic manner with the U.S.and these other countries in the fields of science, technology, higher education, and soon, then I think that that would be a promising development. And they could do that in tandem with a security partnership that I think Vietnam would be wise to take. However, as we observed, Vietnam is always reluctant to set off alarm bells and hence the sort of three no's the policy of no foreign bases, no allegiance, and no alliances and things of this nature. So Vietnam will pursue a sort of prudent, sensible foreign-policy stance that is going to defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity in tandem with the U.S. and other security partners in the face of a very strong and menacing expansionary power that also, by the way, has interests in Vietnam, has interests in political stability, quote-unquote, in Vietnam. And so the bottom line is Vietnam's good relations with the U.S. can be expected to continue in this very interesting and strange historical relationship that was once murderous and is now contributing to Vietnam's development within this very capitalist world economy of ours.

00:18:08 A. Hansen | Well, I agree with you that in many ways, Vietnam's success story is more about economic growth than economic development per se, in terms of U.S. and domestic innovations and so on. Still, it is, of course, a great success story, improving living standards. And that's why many talk about this performance-based legitimacy of the party right now. Recently, there's been another kind of success story. And since we're in the middle of a pandemic, we have to talk about COVID, now, although there has been a recent outbreak, Vietnam is in many ways one of the biggest success stories in the world in terms of handling the coronavirus, and that despite sharing such a long border with China and being so integrated with China economically. Now, how do you think the handling of the pandemic has influenced party rule? Does this success story or relative success story at least add to the legitimacy of the communist party?

00:19:01 J. London | Yeah, I mean, unquestionably, Vietnam has, of course, appearances, major improvements in living standards, and a lot of improvements can be associated with specific policies of the Communist Party to have a basic floor of public services. I think the question of Vietnam is to sort of compare how it has performed with plausibly achievable alternatives, in other words. How would it have performed under plausibly achievable policy alternatives and from the economy to living standards? I think what critics of the Communist Party will ask, including people within the party, if the country performing as well as it plausibly could? And I think across many areas, including education, the economy and other things, the answer it could be and should be doing better. So we accept that it's doing very well compared to its history compared to all other countries in its income group. But this has tremendous potential. It hasn't been untapped. Now, with respect to covid, I think is fascinating because many critics, including a lot of academic critics, Western academic critics, in particular, have always, despite these improvements in economic growth, have characterised Vietnam as a sort of incompetent or incapable state, not particularly effective. And I understand the reasons for this sort of characterisation. I think even those critics were aware that there were areas, certain fields, such as disaster response, not disaster prevention, but disaster response, and other instances in which the state proved capable of achieving their policy outcomes through an impressive sort of mobilisation. And I would emphasise that we're still in the early days of Covid we don't know what direction it is going. And Vietnam has been remarkably successful. Now things are getting a bit tricky right now because there has been an outbreak and we don't know what direction it's going to take. But I think it has been a bit of certainly a relief and a very positive development that Vietnam has been able to escape a massive outbreak.

00:21:06 J. London | But it also has demonstrated that when the party is facing a situation in which it needs to mount a coherent emergency response, it can do so. I also think some credit goes to Vietnam's people as well, because this is a country and a society like many societies in East Asia. Indeed, we can draw some comparisons with Nordic countries in which public goods matter. People have a certain civic-mindedness and certainly, the experience of going through SARS was a good trial run. So I think generally people are fairly satisfied and proud that the country has averted a public health disaster, as we see, for example, in places like the United States and even Europe,and that this has not hurt party's legitimacy. I think that's certain. Of course, we can always go back to ask what is legitimacy? And you sort of have subjective legitimacy in which you are giving consent to the authority of some party versus de facto legitimacy, which is they have the guns. And, you know, the Communist Party of Vietnam has, of course, never sought approval for its political dictatorship.Nonetheless, with respect to its performance in the pandemic, it has done well. And I think everybody can be pleased that it has done well.

00:22:20 A. Hansen | We have to discuss the future a bit more. And obviously, you touched on some of these points already, but there are many theories about what will happen to politics in Vietnam and development for that matter. In terms of politics, some are claiming that or some are expecting a likely outcome, for example, the party splitting into different parties. And so there is a sort of democratic election more than there is today, at least. And others, as you touched upon in Vietnam, are taking over many of the economic activities of China and becoming increasingly central as a factory of the world. And some are saying that Vietnam is emerging as the main power in Southeast Asia and ASEAN, for example. What does the future hold for Vietnam, in your opinion?

00:23:01 J. London | Well, I think all of us are a bit of a loss as to what to make of China and Vietnam, for example. I think historically, what's the appropriate timescale in the past? Ruling groups in these countries could go on for centuries. And so, you know, we can't know with any certitude, of course, how durable the Communist Party would be. It already has managed to preserve its dominance while kind of refiguring the nature of its political settlement and accepting substantively capitalist kinds of social relations and a market economy and things of this nature. I do agree with you that this question of the meaning of pluralism in Vietnam and in the Communist Party and beyond the Communist Party is an important and fascinating one. According to party purists, there's no room for pluralism. Downwind is the Vietnamese term. And that's a nono, you're not supposed to be for when you're supposed to be for unity behind the party line. Nonetheless, observers of Vietnam are well aware that there is a pluralism,perhaps arguably within the party. And as my friend Ava Hanson at StockholmUniversity has asserted, I think with good reason, Vietnam is in key respects a pluralistic society. It is ruled by a party that has specific resolutions and ideas about where it's headed, with its policies within the party. We see some diversity and in Vietnam, you see considerable diversity. It is a country that, of course, is more open to the world than China in many respects. And so I think the development of politics in Vietnam and one important aspect is life to this question of what is the future if any, of pluralism in Vietnam and whether or not it has any potential to contribute to the development of a substantively more deliberative and even more representative form of politics in terms of Vietnam stature in the region.

00:24:51 J. London | I think if I'm recalling correctly, by 2050 the country population, that's going to approach, what, one hundred and thirty-one hundred and fifty million in that range? One hundred and twenty-five million. And it's going to have one of the fifteenth largest economies in the world. So it's Vietnamese folks like to think of their country as a small country. It's not particularly small and economic growth will continue whether or not it manages to sophisticated its economy. But I think in the field of foreign policy, Vietnam is very eager to cast itself and present itself as a responsible member of the international community, even though it's not observing basic human rights, but standing for principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. And so in the context of frank and expansionist Beijing expansionist mainland China, I think Vietnam'sstrengthening in economic and political terms is important for the country own independent future and perhaps also for the interests of regional and global stability.

00:25:50 A. Hansen | Thank you very much for joining us, Jonathan. My name is Arve Hansen, thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

00:26:01 D. McCargo | You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast.