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  • Speaking Out in Vietnam: Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party-Ruled Nation by Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
  • Thaveeporn Vasavakul (bio)
Speaking Out in Vietnam: Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party-Ruled Nation. By Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. Hardcover: 224 pp.

Although Vietnamese citizens are able to speak their minds, the manner in which they do so varies according to the political situation they find themselves under. For instance, during the period of state socialism (1951–89), collectivized farmers displayed their disapproval of state planners' compensation and agricultural price policies by neglecting cooperative agricultural lands in favour of their own private plots. Managers and workers at state-owned enterprises misreported capacity information and exaggerated input demand in response to central planners' ambitious targets and meager inputs. Such acts of disapproval were public, systemic and political, forcing authorities to pilot reforms that propelled Vietnam's transition away from central planning to a market economy. As the Soviet communist bloc disintegrated, intellectuals, writers and even some senior leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) publicly cast doubt on the regime's viability. In looking at recent socio-political developments in Vietnam, Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet's Speaking Out in Vietnam: Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party-Ruled Nation confirms that the practice of speaking out publicly remains a prominent and persistent political feature of Vietnam's one-party system in the reform era.

Speaking Out in Vietnam investigates four clusters of public political criticism occurring between 1995 and 2015: factory workers protesting their working and living conditions; farmers demonstrating against land appropriation and corruption; citizens opposing China's encroachment into Vietnam and questioning the patriotism of party-state authorities; and democracy and human rights activists advocating regime change. Kerkvliet observes that party-state authorities dealt with public criticism with a mix of responsiveness, toleration and repression. Here, Kerkvliet borrows from Harold Crouch's study of Malaysian politics in describing Vietnam as a "responsive-repressive" state, in which it exercises authoritarian powers to maintain political stability while simultaneously being sensitive to countervailing popular pressures and opposition. Although he describes state-society relations in Vietnam as "dialogical", Kerkvliet cautions that this does not imply that the country is on the brink of introducing multiparty elections, freedom of speech and press, or other elements of procedural democracy. [End Page 460]

Speaking Out in Vietnam presents a dynamic account of citizens speaking their minds, drawing information from the liberalized Vietnamese press, Internet-based resources and direct interviews. The study of labour strikes is based on over 900 Vietnamese news reports, while the analysis on land demonstrations consults wide-ranging sources including villagers' letters, land complaints filed by lawyers, villagers' interviews given to journalists, journalists' own accounts and authorities' commentaries. The account of anti-China activism relies on more than 600 sources including Vietnamese blog sites and news outlets, while the discussion of democracy and human rights advocacy makes use of critics' own writings on the Internet. Speaking Out in Vietnam also offers insights gained from interviews with certain groups of critics over the years.

The book documents how the four different groups of public critics have spoken out on issues of justice, fairness, human dignity, sovereignty and due process. The factory workers, mostly in foreign-owned enterprises, organized strikes in reaction to their employers' negligence of labour law or the government's wage and welfare policies. Farmers affected by unfair land appropriations demonstrated in public to express their anger over the lack of transparency in local development planning, below-market-price compensation schemes and perceived corruption. Other than sending collective statements to party-state authorities, anti-China activists held public assemblies to commemorate the soldiers killed in conflict with China in order to express their anger over Beijing's claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, China's attacks on Vietnamese fishermen, and Vietnam's increasing dependence on Chinese investment and imports. Lastly, through their networks, organizations, Internet sites and publications, democracy and human rights activists advanced CPV-led confrontation, engagement and civil society approaches to regime change.

Speaking Out in Vietnam highlights the preference of party-state authorities for toleration and accommodation of citizens' demands...


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pp. 460-462
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