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The Government of Mistrust

Illegibility and Bureaucratic Power in Socialist Vietnam

Ken MacLean

Publication Year: 2013

Focusing on the creation and misuse of government documents in Vietnam since the 1920s, The Government of Mistrust reveals how profoundly the dynamics of bureaucracy have affected Vietnamese efforts to build a socialist society. In examining the flurries of paperwork and directives that moved back and forth between high- and low-level officials, Ken MacLean underscores a paradox: in trying to gather accurate information about the realities of life in rural areas, and thus better govern from Hanoi, the Vietnamese central government employed strategies that actually made the state increasingly illegible to itself.
            MacLean exposes a falsified world existing largely on paper. As high-level officials attempted to execute centralized planning via decrees, procedures, questionnaires, and audits, low-level officials and peasants used their own strategies to solve local problems. To obtain hoped-for aid from the central government, locals overstated their needs and underreported the resources they actually possessed. Higher-ups attempted to re-establish centralized control and legibility by creating yet more bureaucratic procedures. Amidst the resulting mistrust and ambiguity, many low-level officials were able to engage in strategic action and tactical maneuvering that have shaped socialism in Vietnam in surprising ways.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Series: New Perspectives in Se Asian Studies

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

This book is not the one I intended to write. But a series of events made it the one I could. In 1986, with the country on the verge of economic collapse, the Vietnamese government enacted a series of reforms. The process, known as Đổi mới (Renovation), introduced the limited use of market mechanisms to forestall such a collapse. The reforms had an immediate...

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pp. xv-xvii

Vietnamese is rich in proverbs. Nguyễn Thi Nga, my first Vietnamese language instructor, knew them all, or so it seemed to me. During our lessons together she had me repeat her favorite ones at a rapid pace to improve my pronunciation and then explicate them as a way to correct my grammar and to assess my comprehension...

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Terminological Note

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pp. xix-xx

I use the term socialist Vietnam to refer to geographic spaces where the ideological goal guiding the actions of people in them was to transform society in line with socialism’s moral and socioeconomic tenets. For this reason, the phrase is not limited to the period of state socialism (ca. early 1960s through the mid-1980s), which my informants...

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pp. 3-28

Modern society would be impossible without documents. This observation is not immediately noteworthy. But it has important implications when the processes that shape how documents are produced, evaluated, and used are taken fully into account. Documents are more than material objects that convey information to others, according to lawyer...

Period I . The Pre-centralization of Documentation: Revolutionary Mobilization before Collectivization

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1. Call-and-Response Dialogues: Struggling to Convert Mistrust into Trust

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pp. 31-53

Erik Mueggler’s observation serves as the point of departure for this chapter. My focus, however, is somewhat different. It concerns the methods the first generation of Communist Party members and, later, the land reform cadres working at their behest used to radicalize themselves and others before the socialist state was firmly established...

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2. Field Reports: Confusing the Exemplary with the Deviant

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pp. 54-77

The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was officially dissolved in 1945 shortly after Vietnam gained its independence from France. The country’s freedom was short-lived, however. The First Indochina War began the following year and continued through 1954. The Viet Minh, a coalition of political groups, which the former...

Period II. The Centralization of Documentation: Bureaucratic Professionalism following Collectivization

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Introduction: Conflicting Narratives: The Transition to State Socialism

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pp. 81-88

Socialist states everywhere sought to accumulate all available means of production and, with varying degrees of success, place them under its exclusive administrative control in the name of “the people.” This process was a crucial part of the “transition” to state socialism because the centrally planned economy could not have functioned...

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3. Administrative Templates: Standardizing Vagueness

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pp. 89-110

My conversations with peasant-bureaucrats invariably revolved around numbers. They either cited them from memory or presented me with reports containing tables, graphs, charts, and so on as evidence that governing documents, although vaguely worded, do produce quantifiable changes in the countryside. In fact, when I asked whether...

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4. Labor Contracts: Muddling Licit Practices with Illicit Ones

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pp. 111-134

Official stamps first came into widespread use in the fifteenth century under the reign of King Lê Thánh Tông, who established Đại Việt, a centralized, premodern bureaucratic state closely modeled after its counterpart to the north: China. Despite the passage of time and technological developments, including the limited introduction...

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5. Performance Audits: Identifying Known Unknowns

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pp. 135-157

The year 2006 marked the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Đổi mới reforms. To commemorate the anniversary, the National Academy of Social Sciences coordinated four high-level roundtable meetings that year. The meetings featured presentations by prominent government officials, leading academics, and development...

Period III. The Para-centralization of Documentation: Socialist Marketization after Decollectivization

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Introduction: Mistaking Fact as Fiction and Fiction as Fact: The Transition out of State Socialism

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pp. 161-175

The Vietnamese government has devoted a significant portion of its annual budget to the construction of vast administrative complexes in district and provincial capitals throughout the country since the mid-1990s. Officials need and certainly deserve improved working conditions. Many of the buildings used prior to this point...

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6. Village Conventions: Misportraying Private Interests as Public Ones

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pp. 176-204

For many the Đổi mới reform process epitomizes the country’s slow “transition” out of state socialism. Yet this transition, from a centrally planned economy to a market-driven one, is far from complete. All land remains officially owned by “the people,” and state agencies still manage its use through a complex array of certificates...

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pp. 205-214

The bureaucratic conflicts I described in the preface made this book possible. Multiple agencies in the United States and Vietnam, despite having already approved my research project—a comparative study of decollectivization and the role historical memory played in shaping the resource struggles that transpired during and immediately...

Appendix 1. The State Administrative Structure (2001)

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pp. 215

Appendix 2. List of Contracting Experiments by Location, Type, and Date

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pp. 217-218


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pp. 219-234


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pp. 235-257


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pp. 259-278

E-ISBN-13: 9780299295936
E-ISBN-10: 0299295931
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299295943
Print-ISBN-10: 029929594X

Page Count: 300
Illustrations: 10 b/w illus., 4 tables, 1 map, 1 chart
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: New Perspectives in Se Asian Studies