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  • Vietnam’s Tentative Transformation
  • Frederick Z. Brown (bio)

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Vietnam has been one of only five countries to retain a communist regime. 1 Founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930 in Hong Kong, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) suffered through a lengthy period of French colonialism, maneuvered its way to power in the chaos that followed the Second World War, dislodged the French from half the country, survived the U.S. intervention, and finally conquered noncommunist South Vietnam in 1975. Today the VCP is the sole political party in Vietnam. It has clung to the Leninist principle of “democratic centralism,” has firmly resisted the establishment of the social conditions that would make possible the emergence of multipartism, and until the early 1980s remained wedded to Marxist economic dogma. Yet the VCP has begun to recognize that profound changes in Vietnam’s economic system are imperative if the country is to survive in the post-Cold War world, and it has grudgingly acknowledged that political change might not be far behind.

While the need for change is undisputed, the appropriate scope and pace of that change have become subjects of sharp debate within the VCP. Conservative elements have refused to countenance anything that might compromise the party’s authority. Even those who would like to move faster do not dispute the need for “stability.” Vietnam’s leaders are attempting to ski down a very steep slope without losing control. As communist leaders in other nations have learned, the reformist road is fraught with danger. Yet the VCP realizes that it has no choice. It understands that the ideological cement binding the party to the people [End Page 73] has eroded since 1975, and that this erosion is at the heart of many of Vietnam’s current problems.

Analyzing the Transition

The proceedings of the Eighth Congress of the VCP, held in late June 1996, convey the difficulty of the ruling party’s position as it embarks on the delicate task of implementing economic reforms while holding on to the reins of political power. From its inception 66 years ago until its victory over South Vietnam in 1975, the VCP held congresses at irregular intervals owing to the exigencies of war and, for part of that period, its underground status. Beginning in 1976, party congresses have been held at five-year intervals to review the regime’s accomplishments and announce the party’s objectives to the 97 percent of the Vietnamese people who are not VCP members. At these congresses and the semiannual plenums of the VCP Central Committee, economic policy and the political line that guides all aspects of party activity are discussed, and troublesome issues are supposed to be resolved. While the Eighth Congress stands out for what it did not accomplish, its temporizing and indecision (as well as the contentious internal debates that preceded it) provide clues to the country’s future course. Is Vietnam moving, however slowly and painfully, toward something that those in the West might call democracy? Or is this simply wishful thinking on the part of outside observers?

By now it is axiomatic that political systems in Asia—democratic or otherwise—develop according to each individual country’s historical experience, cultural heritage, and practical needs. The experiences of South Korea and Taiwan as well as the political evolution of countries as diverse as Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia demonstrate how varied—and bumpy—those roads can be. The Vietnamese experience has been particularly tortured, featuring a century of colonial servitude followed by revolution, war, and extended domestic turmoil. That painful past goes a long way toward explaining the current regime’s mistrust of outsiders—a suspicion that borders on paranoia—and its refusal to countenance any form of political competition.

During the protracted struggle between communist and anticommunist forces that followed the achievement of independence from France in 1954, North Vietnam continued to be known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the name of the communist republic proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh on 2 September 1945. This name retained the flavor of the anticolonial struggle and was indicative of North Vietnam’s allegiance in the Cold War. After...

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pp. 73-87
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