- Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State and Authority Relations ed. by Jonathan D. London
The tremendous public response to the Chinese deep-water oil rig stationed illegally inside Vietnamese waters from May to July 2014 showed how much Vietnam’s domestic politics has changed in recent years. Through social media, online petitions and mass demonstrations (before a few of them descended into violent riots), broad segments of Vietnamese society showed that they too have an important voice in the nation’s politics.
And so when Jonathan London argues that “Vietnam has entered a new if indeterminate phase of its political development” (p. 185), he has a point. Boldly, London asserts that Vietnamese politics is “today characterized by a sense of uncertainty and possibility that has no precedent in the country’s postwar history” (p. 1). His new edited volume on Politics in Contemporary Vietnam is an exciting collection of essays that brings together some of the most important contributors to the study of Vietnam’s domestic politics over the past two decades and offers a kaleidoscope of complementary yet contrasting views on the party-state. For the purpose of this review, I will discuss them according to three main groups, focusing on the Vietnamese communist party (Tuong Vu), state administration (Thaveeporn Vasavakul, Thomas Jandl and Edmund Malesky), and state relations with the wider society (Benedict Kerkvliet, Carlyle Thayer and Andrew Wells-Dang).
As with many discussions of Vietnamese politics, this book begins but does not end with the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Tuong Vu provides a rich historical account of the institutionalization of the CPV through successive periods of expansion and institutionalization (1945–60), ossification and decay (1970–86) and reforms at the top but continued decay below (1986 until present). While Tuong Vu emphasizes violence and the CPV’s “near-total grip on society” (p. 22) as the most critical factors in its institutionalization, his narrative of decay leaves much in doubt about the party’s political future. As he presciently suggests, “Not development but involution seems to be the trend, as the party can grow only by sucking from the state sector and the military already under its control but not by expanding its roots into a rapidly changing society” (p. 30). [End Page 473]
The next three chapters deal with different aspects of state administration. However, what is striking is how they all show how recent initiatives to democratize or make public institutions more accountable have ended up, in one way or another, reconsolidating authoritarian rule. After sixteen years of the Public Administration Reform programme (1996–2012), Thaveeporn Vasavakul — who has been studying it for nearly as long — argues that rather than democratizing public institutions, these reforms have helped reconfigure Vietnamese authoritarianism according to specific institutional and organizational needs arising with its “bold and not-unproblematic process of administrative decentralization” (p. 43). The main reason is that these reforms built accountability networks primarily within state institutional sectors, but offered little recourse for non-state actors.
Similarly, Edmund Malesky, who revisits his illuminating experiment to track delegate participation in the National Assembly on the Internet, and provides new analysis on the Assembly’s recently instituted “Confidence Vote”, suggests that both tools have been most effective as semi-transparent mechanisms for the authoritarian political system to gather information on public attitudes and potential disturbers. As Malesky argues, these findings emphasize the enduring constraints of the National Assembly as a “representative” organization and warn against the perverse effects that can arise when pursuing transparency initiatives within an authoritarian setting.
Thomas Jandl follows-up on the theme of decentralization by addressing this puzzle: if local-level economic performance since the 1990s has depended more on international trade than domestic factors, what challenges has this created for Hanoi’s top-heavy command over provincial leaders? In response, Jandl shows how Vietnam’s most successful risers have not been those that defended Hanoi’s line, but rather the ones that challenged it and succeeded — of which the late Prime Minster and architect of...