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6 Village Conventions Misportraying Private Interests as Public Ones For many the Đổi mới reform process epitomizes the country’s slow “transition ” out of state socialism. Yet this transition, from a centrally planned economy to a market-driven one, is far from complete. All land remains officially owned by “the people,” and state agencies still manage its use through a complex array of certificates. The foundational principles that characterized the party/state’s approach to government prior to the reform era—“socialist legality ,” “democratic centralism,” and the “right of collective mastery,” among many others—continue to affect decision making and policy implementation as well.1 Key political figures also insist that capitalism is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Lê Hữu Nghĩa, the director of the Hồ Chí Minh National Political Academy and a party Central Committee member, for example, asserts that capitalism possesses modular qualities.2 These qualities, he and otherprominenttheoreticianspubliclyassert,permitpolicymakerstoharness capitalism’s positive features (ones that advance official interests) and discard negative ones (those that do not). For those who share this view, undoubtedly a select minority at this point, the socialist-oriented market economy is neither a contradiction in terms nor a marriage of convenience; rather, it is a pragmatic hybrid that offers a way for the party/state to achieve its long-stated goal: “a rich population, a strong country, and a just and civilized society.” When asked, virtually everyone I spoke with during my repeated visits to Vietnam over the past decade dismissed this goal and the forecasted result as being little more than mere rhetoric. Nevertheless, it would be premature to completely disregard official statements regarding the party/state’s commitment to maintaining political and moral “order” and promoting social 176 and economic “harmony” as entirely false. High-level officials still play a significant role in “guiding” how Vietnamese can govern their own lives. The “new” village conventions, a legibility device that appeared in the late 1980s, are a good example. The conventions did not spontaneously emerge as a response to the chaos decollectivization created, as is commonly assumed, however. To the contrary the conventions were a crucial part of the party/ state’s broader efforts “to raise the people’s cultural and intellectual standards ,” especially in rural areas. Such interventions continue today and, like the “new” village conventions before them, rely on a combination of “guided” forms of self-regulation, “scientific” forms of technocratic management, and revolutionary forms of mass mobilization. The chapter is divided into two parts. The first half explains why policy makers believed it was necessary to raise these standards. I then describe the role high-level cadres played from the start, as well as the types of illegibility and mistrust these “local” governing documents were supposed to overcome. The second half shows how these processes and the modes of documentation that made them possible reshaped competing understandings of “the public interest” in one village in Bắc Ninh Province. The ethnographic case study details the strategies low-level officials and members of an unregistered local association (all of them current or retired cadres themselves) in this village employed to advance their respective private interests in the name of “civilizing ” the village as a whole. The outcome of these conflicts—a development initiative that paradoxically became a successful failure—highlights the contradictions that lie at the very heart of the socialist-oriented market economy. Consciousness The official interest in the “new” village conventions was not limited to lowland areas where ethnic Vietnamese constitute the majority. Many of the country’s fifty-three recognized minority groups, particularly those in upland areas, wanted to have their own “customary laws” recognized as well. The nature and significance of these trends were a common topic of conversation within the Institute of Ethnology in Hanoi during 2000–2002. A number of its cadres conducted research on one or both topics, and they frequently contributed to policy debates over the role community norms should play in local self-government. I periodically sat in on some of the conversations.3 But I did so out of professional courtesy since neither trend seemed very relevant to my own research, which had already turned to the question of how Village Conventions 177 high-level officials sought “to guide” local affairs using new forms of documentation . As it turns out, I was wrong. Following one such conversation, Lợi, a senior researcher at the institute, unexpectedly loaned me a photocopied collection...


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MARC Record
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