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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 of e-government, stamps remain in widespread use today as a way to “sign” official documents.1 Of course an official’s ability to exercise bureaucratic power, “the right to grant permission” (quyền được cho phép) in Vietnamese, is not reducible to stamps—though it absolutely requires them. Less clear is what happens prior to something receiving a stamp of official approval, especially when the decision entails transforming something that was politically unacceptable at one moment, such as the use of unauthorized labor contracts on an agricultural cooperative, into something that is politically acceptable at another. What does the transformation from the illicit to the licit actually entail? And, finally, under what circumstances does the right to grant permission, which enabled some ideologically suspect practices to become official “models” meriting emulation, also reveal the limits on the ability of high-level officials “to guide” the labor practices used on agricultural cooperatives from the early 1960s to the early 1980s? This chapter and the next provide a genealogical account of these dynamics and the complicated role officials at all levels of the bureaucracy played in shaping struggles over the acceptability of different labor contacts, the legibility device featured in this chapter. The following section explains why unauthorized experiments with different kinds of labor-contracting agreements shaped collectivization from the 111 4 Labor Contracts Muddling Licit Practices with Illicit Ones very start, not just its end, as is commonly thought. The details provide the conceptual framework for my discussion of the tactics high-level officials utilized as part of their efforts to promote “exemplary” labor practices and suppress “deviant” ones. I then present aseries of short case studies to support my argument. They include a mass emulation movement based on the achievements of an exemplary cooperative and the labor contract used on it during the early 1960s; the first generation of “sneaky” (i.e., deviant) labor contracts it inspired, which central-level officials quickly suppressed; and new information on Kim Ngọc, a provincial-level official who was heavily involved in the second generation of sneaky contracts during the late 1960s. The Politburo suppressed these experiments as well. Ironically, the very officials behind this decision reversed their position on them in 1981, which officially accelerated a process that had already unofficially begun: decollectivization. Two Halves Make a Whole? In January 1981, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam endorsed the limited use of market incentives on agricultural cooperatives. The governing document, known as Instruction No. 100, granted households belonging to an agricultural cooperative private control over three crucial “links” of the production process: planting, caretaking, and harvesting. (The remaining five, however, remained under the control of the cooperative’s production brigades.) This decision abruptly transformed some previously illicit contracting arrangements into licit ones. The same decision also unwittingly accelerated the piecemeal process of decollectivization, which was already occurring in different places across the country. Efforts to explain how and why this process began when it did have typically stressed the emergence of domestic political pressures for change following the end of the Second Indochina War (1959–75)—though the U.S.-led embargo, which blocked most forms of international aid from non-socialist states to Vietnam (1975– 91), certainly played a very significant role as well. This pressure is commonly referredtoas“reformfrombelow.”Theexpressionlocatestheprimaryimpetus for change with Vietnamese peasants, who separately initiated their own reforms on agricultural cooperatives across the country, rather than with policy makers.2 For many the argument is a refreshing one; it runs directly counter to official narratives about the past as it also highlights the limits of centralized administrative authority during the purported height of the bureaucracy’s ability to exercise command and control over local affairs. 112 The Centralization of Documentation But reform from below did not happen in a vacuum. In fact the party/state enacted more than a dozen governing documents that significantly affected the agricultural sector between 1981 and 1988 with the goal of addressing the problems each previous attempt to improve the performance of the planned economycreated.3 Thiscountervailingforce,orwhatmightbetermed“reform from above,” enabled high-level officials “to guide” many of the changes taking place in rural...


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