Nguyen Phu Trong, the President of Vietnam. Photo Credit: Getty Images
By: Tim Cook, Columnist
On October 23, 2018, Nguyen Phu Trong, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, assumed the position of President of Vietnam. Trong took office after the previous president, Tran Dai Quang, died of a viral disease in September 2018. Trong will be the first leader to act as both President and General Secretary since Ho Chi Minh.[i] The Vietnamese leadership’s reorganization comes on the heels of protests against Chinese encroachment into the Vietnamese economy, as well as moves towards greater diplomatic integration with China. Although still early in the Trong presidency, his consolidation of power, and crackdown on domestic protests warn of a potential shift towards a more authoritarian style of leadership in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s government is not monolithic. The political system is unique among communist single-party states in that there is often relatively open debate within the ruling party, particularly in the Central Committee, which composes the top several hundred officials in the country.[ii],[iii] Vietnam traditionally follows a “four-pillar” model of consensus leadership, with the four most powerful people in the government being the National Assembly Chairman, the Premier, the President, and the General Secretary. All of whom hold seats on the Politburo, the executive body for both the communist party and the country. The Presidency is a relatively ceremonial position, though Trong’s assumption of the role is still advantageous to his influence within the party. The President’s diplomatic role is increasingly important given Vietnam’s closer integration into multilateral institutions such as ASEAN. Holding two of the “four-pillars” would also diminish the inner circle of Vietnam’s oligarchic leadership, allowing for a greater consolidation of power by the remaining three leaders.[iv]
Some analysts believe that Trong’s consolidation of power is only temporary and will be reversed at the next Communist Party Congress in 2021.[v] However, Trong has beaten expectations before. He assumed the position of General Secretary in 2011 at the age of 67, even though under party rules the maximum age permitted is 65. He was re-elected in 2016 by promising to retire halfway through the typical five-year term, but nonetheless retained his post. The top party leaders have allowed him to flout norms and promises when necessary.[vi],[vii] As President, Trong has pushed for greater economic and security ties with China and showed a troubling trend towards consolidating power and cracking down on the country’s domestic protests.[viii]
Vietnam’s move towards authoritarianism and greater economic ties with China may not be exclusively driven by Trong. Growing economic ties with China began before Trong assumed the Presidency. Vietnamese leadership signaled a change with the ousting of Premier Nguyen Tan Dung in April of 2016. Dung was known for his unusual amount of charisma within the party and strong anti-China stance. Though Dung was a contender for General Secretary, he was implicated in the failure of several state-owned enterprises. Dung’s ousting indicates that integration with China is not a unilateral decision, but a sign of changes within Politburo consensus.
In recent years Vietnam has also begun a troubling trend towards greater domestic control and crackdown. Protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City broke out in September 2018 after the failure of state-owned enterprises helped spur the creation of Chinese style Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The sometimes-violent demonstrations resulted in several arrests.[ix],[x] Though the government recently insisted China would not receive any favor in the process of attracting investment, the Vietnamese public nonetheless widely believed that China would take advantage of the opening to increase its economic dominance of Vietnam and ultimately infringe on Vietnamese sovereignty. The Vietnamese National Assembly ultimately agreed to postpone the SEZ law to allow for research to be conducted and for more opinions to be heard, however, dozens of protestors were imprisoned including one prominent blogger who was ultimately exiled.[xi],[xii],[xiii]
Trong and his allies also appear to have an increasing preference for a Chinese style anti-corruption campaign. In May 2018, the Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee approved a widely expanded campaign to target officials at all levels. If the effects of the campaign in China are any model, it will likely consolidate the greater power in the hands of Trong and a few leaders close to him. Corruption investigations in communist countries often have a political bent and may have the side effect of penalizing disloyalty to the General Secretary.[xiv]
Whether or not Trong retains a great deal of influence over the next three years, Chinese influence on Vietnam is altering its politics in unprecedented ways. While Vietnam’s closed Leninist system is more susceptible to authoritarian tendencies than some other countries in South East Asia, it could nonetheless be a bellwether for similar pivots across the region.
[i] Murray, Bennett, and Bac Pham. “Is Vietnam’s New Leader Taking Cues from China’s Xi Jinping?” South China Morning Post. October 27, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2170145/vietnams-new-leader-taking-cues-chinas-xi-jinping.
[ii] Andersson, Göran, Pär Granstedt, Barbro Rönnmo, and Nguyen Thi Kim Thoa. Report. Department for Democracy and Social Development, Swedish International Development and Cooperation Agency. February 2012. Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.sida.se/contentassets/fb0a1a40d8a24f80ae2b4b8b64bc2fdf/strengthening-the-capacity-of-the-office-of-the-vietnam-national-assembly_2224.pdf.
[iii] Brown, David E. “Looking beyond 2016: Perhaps the Vietnamese Party’s Last Good Chance to Get Things Right.” Brookings. July 28, 2016. Accessed November 08, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/looking-beyond-2016-perhaps-the-vietnamese-partys-last-good-chance-to-get-things-right/.
[iv] Vu, Cù Huy Ha. “Meet Vietnam’s New President: The Communist Party Chief.” The Diplomat. October 24, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/10/meet-vietnams-new-president-the-communist-party-chief/.
[v] Hutt, David. “Trong’s Strength Hides Weakness in Vietnam.” Trong’s Strength Hides Weakness in Vietnam | Asia Times. October 30, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. http://www.atimes.com/article/trongs-strength-hides-weakness-in-vietnam/.
[vi] Associated Press. “Vietnam’s Communist Party Meets to Pick Nation’s Leaders.” VOA. January 21, 2016. Accessed November 08, 2018. https://www.voanews.com/a/vietnams-communist-party-meets-to-pick-nations-leaders/3155656.html.
[vii] Murray, Bennett, and Bac Pham. “Is Vietnam’s New Leader Taking Cues from China’s Xi Jinping?” South China Morning Post. October 27, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2170145/vietnams-new-leader-taking-cues-chinas-xi-jinping.
[viii] “Việt Nam, China Beef up Defence Ties: Ministers.” Vietnam News. October 31, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://www.vietnamdance.com/2018/10/viet-nam-china-beef-up-defence-ties-ministers/.
[ix] Tomiyama, Atshushi. “Vietnam’s Economic Zones Derailed by Anti-China Protests.” Nikkei Asian Review. September 03, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-Relations/Vietnam-s-economic-zones-derailed-by-anti-China-protests.
[x] Vu, Khanh. “Vietnam Braces for National Day Protests in Hanoi.” Reuters. August 27, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-security-protests/vietnam-braces-for-national-day-protests-in-hanoi-idUSKCN1LC0TX.
[xi] Wallace, Julia. “With Social Media, Vietnam’s Dissidents Grow Bolder Despite Crackdown.” The New York Times. July 02, 2017. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/02/world/asia/vietnam-mother-mushroom-social-media-dissidents.html.
[xii] Eckert, Paul. “Vietnamese Blogger Mother Mushroom Released, Exiled to US.” Radio Free Asia. October 17, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/mushroom-exile-10172018085458.html.
[xiii] “NA Agree to Postpone Adoption of Draft Law on Special Economic Zones.” VGP News. June 12, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. http://news.chinhphu.vn/Home/NA-agree-to-postpone-adoption-of-draft-law-on-special-economic-zones/20186/34013.vgp.
[xiv] Jennings, Ralph. “Vietnam Widens Anti-Corruption Campaign by Cleaning the Ruling Party.” VOA. May 14, 2018. Accessed November 07, 2018. https://www.voanews.com/a/vietnam-anticorruption/4392671.html.