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  • Third World Communism in CrisisReform Runs Aground in Vietnam
  • Vo Van Ai (bio)

The spectacular upheavals in Eastern Europe over the past year have opened new vistas of hope for the world, particularly for those living under totalitarian regimes in the Third World. Archaic ideologies seemed to crumble along with the Berlin Wall, breaking down barriers and heralding an era of dialogue and conciliation.

In Vietnam, there was some reason to hope that Hanoi would follow the road toward democracy traced by Eastern Europe. At its Sixth Congress in December 1986, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) launched a campaign for "renovation," denouncing the shortcomings of party policies and instituting a number of economic reforms. The press was given free rein to criticize the party, and official dailies such as Saigon Liberation published page after page of letters in which readers complained of corruption and abuse of power by party officials. Magazines such as Literature, the official organ of the Vietnamese [End Page 81] Writers' Union, were at the forefront of the campaign for "renovation" in the press. Throughout 1987, Literature published short stories, poems, and interviews that described the oppression of peasants by high-ranking officials, denounced party censorship, and advocated freedom for writers and artists. For the first time since the "Hundred Flowers" literary movement was crushed by North Vietnam in 1956-58, writers began openly voicing their aspirations and desires. Incisive criticisms were widely aired pressing for freedom of speech and a break with party-imposed obscurantism. As the novelist Duong Thu Huong so aptly put it: "Half a loaf of bread is still bread. Half a truth is no truth at all."

By early 1988, however, Hanoi had begun to realize the danger of allowing criticism to develop through the press. Unable to resolve the problems that were causing the complaints, the regime saw that what had started as a general airing of popular dissatisfaction with "negative elements" in the party was turning into a concerted critique of fundamental party policies; people were questioning communism itself and pressing for democratic liberties. An immediate curb was placed on the press campaign for renovation. The space devoted to reader complaints was drastically cut, and one of the most critical regular columns, entitled "Things to Be Done Now," disappeared from Saigon Liberation. This column, signed with a pen name, was widely known to be the work of Nguyên Văn Linh, the party's new secretary and the standardbearer of its reformist wing. The editor of Literature was sacked, and his editorial board was replaced by a committee of party-controlled "yes-men." Ten other prominent editors were dismissed in the following months. In all, fourteen magazines and daily newspapers were closed down between 1988 and 1990. The organs of the Vietnamese Socialist Party and the Vietnamese Democratic Party were both suppressed, and the parties themselves were disbanded despite their 45-year record of loyalty to the VCP. Many journalists and other writers were sacked, harassed, or even murdered for their outspoken criticisms. The playwright Luu Quang Vu and his wife, the poetess Xuân Quynh, were killed in a car accident in Haiphong in 1988 after the production of several of his plays satirizing collectivization and commenting on the alienation of man under a communist regime. Such "car accidents" have become strangely frequent of late, the rarity of cars in Vietnam notwithstanding.

Although Vietnam's campaign for "renovation" has received a good deal of play in the Western press, no one in Vietnam today can say what precisely the party means by this term. Even the "renovators" themselves cannot define their aims. The only thing certain is that without the example of Soviet perestroika, there would be no renovation movement in Vietnam. But Hanoi's leaders are not prepared to institute political reforms like those begun in the Soviet Union, preferring instead to follow the Chinese road of economic liberalization coupled with political intransigence. Thus, each time it allows a "loosening up" in the [End Page 82] economy, the regime tightens its political grip. This contradiction in VCP policy is personified by Party Secretary Nguyên Văn Linh, who first emerged as a leader of the...


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