An Agenda for Institutional Reform in the Current Context

As a scholar of comparative political economy and analyst of contemporary Vietnam I am constantly confronted with dilemmas as to how best engage with Vietnam. Staying strictly within the realm of observation, analysis, and explanation is not for me. We are all human beings. We inhabit a world that is inescapably political. And a world that, from time to time, imposes upon us unexpected practical and moral dilemmas that we ignore at our own peril.

Vietnam’s future is the business of Vietnam. There are, however, instances in which foreign ideas and perspectives may have value, and it is in this spirit that I put forward the following ideas with the hopes that they might feed into constructive, forward-looking discussions among Vietnamese about the future of their country.


 An Agenda for Institutional Reform in the Current Context

An agenda of institutional reform must be undertaken to place Vietnam on path to a prosperous, secure future. Such an initiative would comprise targeted and systemic elements. It would draw support from the states of such countries as Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, the United States, and self-selected members of ASEAN. Where necessary, it would feature partnership with relevant technical assistance and transparency organizations. Investors from Taiwan and Hong Kong should be enthusiastically welcome as efforts to resolve tensions with Beijing continue.

The initiative I have in mind would be non-adversarial in nature and aimed at restoring Vietnam to a high-growth trajectory after a period of slow growth while restoring and building national confidence in the context of present challenges. If other such efforts are already underway, they should be wholeheartedly supported.

Although the chaos and violence of last week are deeply regrettable, the precise causes have, as yet, not been identified. In the mean time, tensions on the seas show now sign of abating in the near term. In the time ahead, Hanoi must work with maximum resolve to address the tensions with Beijing through diplomatic, legal, and creative solutions heretofore unimagined. The latter might include bi-lateral and multi-lateral joint development and preservation initiatives based on sound and enduring international norms and designed to bring economic, environmental, and security benefits to the entire region. A winner-takes-all logic will only produce losers. It will feed the continued militarization the region, with all attendant risks.

Vietnam’s economy is performing far below its potential. That its growth has slowed and now risks seeking permanently to a low-growth trajectory owes to institutional constraints widely recognized by reform-minded Vietnamese within and outside of the state. These include the absence of the rule of law, weak regulatory institutions, and misguided efforts to achieve a state-dominated market economy, as well as a repressive human rights posture that crushes transparency and, not least, the development of a brand of patron-client interest-group politics that has proven vastly counterproductive and wasteful of scarce national resources.

To acknowledge these institutional constraints is not to criticize Vietnam – it is to underscore that if Vietnam is to have the prosperous future its people deserve it must under-take breakthrough reforms.

One of the unforeseen effects of recent tensions on the seas is the clear sense that Vietnam must swiftly reevaluate its strategic outlook. The country must avoid adversarial relations with China. Friendship must be restored and strengthened. But that friendship must stand on the principles of equality and mutual respect. Yet this, in return, will require Vietnam to stand on its own two feet in a way as yet unseen.

Vietnam is at a crossroads. To return to a high-growth trajectory and to live in peace and security and without fear the country must change. To achieve these changes the country needs international support. But to gain that support the country’s leadership must communicate and demonstrate to the world that it is committed to change. Judging by public responses to Prime Minister Dung’s recent statement and based on my knowledge of Vietnam I have every confidence that the Vietnamese people would welcome such changes. What is needed now is political courage.

What, specifically, might occur?

1. A task force should be established led by Bùi Quang Vinh of the Ministry of Planning and Investment and formed in partnership with international development agencies and relevant technical assistance agencies in charting a strategy for effectively and swiftly addressing damage caused by events in Bình Dương, Hà Tĩnh and any other localities as deemed necessary;

2. National leaders working together and with the technical and material support from international development partners should launch a campaign of economic recovery and confidence building that would seek to overcome conditions and causes that fueled the recent disturbances. Information about the precise causes of the disturbances should be made public to the world;

3. Hanoi must signal its readiness to swiftly undertake reforms beyond those the Prime Minister alluded to in his New Year’s message and this commitment must be demonstrated by undertaking real steps to institute the rule of law which, by definition, would require amending the constitution;

4. A time frame for this process should be announced and the introduction of this timeline should be accompanied by the release of prisoners of conscience on a short timetable. While boisterous demonstrations have their place in the world of politics, they are not always helpful. If state leaders demonstrate a commitment to change and to protect rights in line with international human rights norms, all members of the dissident community must accept the responsibility of committing itself to principles of civility and non-violence. Social order is essential, but requires cooperation, trust, and sacrifice;

5. On the basis of demonstrated movements toward the rule of law and adherence to international principles of human rights, states of such countries as Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the United States, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand should immediately elevate the status of their relations with Hanoi;

6. A ‘road map’ for institutional – i.e. constitutional – reforms, to be achieved within one year or less, should be set in place; the group of 72 intellectuals and notable persons who championed constitutional reforms in 2013 or representatives thereof should be invited into consultations as partners. Talented individuals in overseas Vietnamese communities should assist;

7. Diplomacy with Beijing should continue, with an emphasis on the joint development of resources and demilitarization of the Southeast Asia Sea. Militaristic posturing and threats must be replaced by efforts to strengthen – not weaken –international norms. Cooperation and the creative use of incentives by all parties can assist in rationalizing regional claims. Principles of “mutually-assured constraint,” respect, and partnership are essential.

If the above seems politically unfeasible, recognize that the most controversial proposals above measures would win Vietnam immediate international recognition and support. Objections that real reforms in Vietnam can only occur after economic growth has been achieved can be rebutted by an abundance of evidence that it is precisely the absence of such reforms that has slowed Vietnam’s development. Working in the spirit of national unity and partnership with like-minded countries will propel Vietnam into a brighter future. The Vietnamese people deserve no less.

Jonathan London
Hanoi, 25 May 2014

12 thoughts on “An Agenda for Institutional Reform in the Current Context

  1. [A ‘road map’ for institutional – i.e. constitutional – reforms, to be achieved within one year or less, should be set in place; the group of 72 intellectuals and notable persons who championed constitutional reforms in 2013 or representatives thereof should be invited into consultations as partners. Talented individuals in overseas Vietnamese communities should assist;]

    Phải có đảo chính thì điều đó mới xảy ra được . Chỉ cần có ý kiến khác một chút đã bị thằng biện chứng kết tội là “suy thoái”, phải “xử lý”. Cải cách hiến pháp ư? Hiến pháp từ năm 1946 đến nay đều cho phép người dân có quyền biểu tình nhưng ai thực hiện quyền đó thì bị bắt tù . Vậy ghi thêm vài thứ nữa vào hiến pháp liệu có ý nghĩa gì không ?

    • Trong bài không có những từ dân chủ, đa đảng v.v. đó là việc của người Việt Nam làm. 😉

    • Trong bài không có những từ dân chủ, đa đảng…. đó là việc của người dân Việt Nam làm. Bạn nói cụ thể tôi sẵn sàng điều chỉnh bài.

      • Thật khó nói. GS nhắc đến đa đảng, hẳn nhiên đây là điều kiện quan trọng của dân chủ. Nhưng nhiều người quên rằng cách đây không lâu Việt Nam cũng đã có đa đảng. Ngoài đảng cộng sản còn có đảng Dân chủ và đảng Xã hội. Khi Đông Âu bắt đầu đòi dân chủ thì hai đảng Dân chủ và Xã hội của Việt Nam đột nhiên đồng thời tuyên bố “tự giải tán”. Điều buồn cười là các đảng viên của hai đảng này được phép gia nhập đảng Cộng sản và tuổi đảng (cộng sản) được tính cả thời gian họ tham gia đảng cũ của họ! (the lenght of their old party membership was transferable to the new party (communist) membership) – almost all of them chose to do so.
        Nói thế để biết rằng tất cà những đòi hỏi cải cách đều có thể được đảng cộng sản chấp nhận trên giấy khi cần thiết, nhưng không thực hiện. Tóm lại Việt Nam chỉ có thể thay đổi về chính trị bằng một cuộc đảo chính (khả năng gần như bằng 0), hoặc là một cuộc Viet Nam Spring. Nhưng chỉ cần tranh luận về điều này trên blog là GS có thể bị cấm nhập cảnh Việt Nam ngay!

  2. “…misguided efforts to achieve a state-dominated market economy…”

    In all probability, these efforts are not misguided in the sense of honest mistakes. They may have been made deliberately to provide high wage-employment to people who cannot compete in an open market economy. The relatively large number of people depending on the current politico-economic system for an easy living is, arguably, what constitutes the most formidable obstacle to necessary reforms. They will fight tooth and nail to defend the status quo. An example may illuminate the point. All children of Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng are educated in the West and have obtained there advanced degrees. They could be expected to adapt with relative ease to the competition that a market economy entails. The daughter of the conservative ideologue Tô Huy Rứa, however, only possesses a bachelor (?) degree in journalism and propaganda (“Tô Linh Hương tốt nghiệp “Học viện Báo chí Tuyên truyền” năm 2009 và trong bản tiểu sử của cô phổ biến chi tiết, “Tham gia nghiên cứu khoa học cấp trường đạt loại khá với đề tài: ‘Thông tin đối ngoại trong đấu tranh diễn biến hòa bình ở Việt Nam hiện nay.’””). Needless to say that her professional skills would become worthless, should the reforms proposed by JL get implemented. You do not need to be a Marxist to see that there are many people in today’s Vietnam who have powerful economic incentives to resist any change. The real question, then, is whether they could obstruct it any longer, now that China has dealt their faction a potentially fatal blow.

    • As I see it, the state’s aim is a comprador borgeosie within and on the borders of the party, a corporate national bourgeosie (CNB) with Leninist sympathies. Đồng ý không ?

      • Yes, I do. But the problem is that the state has created wasteful parasites rather than productive compradors. The main weakness common to all calls for reforms is the failure to address the question what to do with them. Giáo sư triết học Mác-Lê Nin, dư luận viên, bí thư huyện ủy, you name it, all these people know that they would become redundant in a market economy. Key constituents of the Tô Huy Rứa faction are likely to be found among them. Therefore, reforms can only be implemented, if the Nguyễn Tấn Dũng faction somehow comes to perceive the Rứa faction and its constituency as an unbearable burden, and are able to throw them under the bus… After all, somebody has to pay the price for change. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

  3. Bài viết của GS J.London nên được mau chóng dịch ra tiếng Việt một cách chuẩn nhất để phổ biến rộng rãi . Những đề nghị khách quan của ông thực ra cũng đã đôi lần xuất hiện từ nhiều nguồn người Việt khác , tuy nhiên những nguồn này thường bị nghiêng về các đối cực căn cước tế nhị dễ gây đối kháng, phân rẽ sức mạnh , ngay trong hàng ngũ những người luôn mong muốn 1 đổi thay tích cực và hữu ích nhất cho VN .

    Ông cũng không hề đưa ra 1 phương cách sử lí chế độ hiện tại nào , đảo chánh hay không đảo chánh, hay 1 mô thức nào khác , thì những sự thay đổi tối ư cần thiết này cho sự sống còn và tương lai VN cũng quả là cần sức mạnh vượt trội của những, hay 1 người, đang nắm quyền lực đủ mạnh ở VN , cộng thêm sự hổ trợ từ trong và ngoài nước . Từ đó các thế lực quốc tế và khu vực, đang hơn lúc nào hết từ e ngại đến phản kháng sự thô bạo của Trung Quốc đối với VN , mới có những sáng kiến phù hợp tác động thêm vào tiến trình ủng hộ 1 VN thay đổi hướng về nên dân chủ pháp trị và nhân bản , mà hổ trợ VN áp lực Trung Quốc ngưng nối mồi lửa từ xâm lấn qua chiến tranh . Họ làm thế cho VN cũng vì quyền lợi của chính mình khi VN chứng tỏ sự phù hợp với các thể chế quanh mình ngoài Trung Quốc .

    Có người đang bình luận sự im tiếng khá nặng nề của một số chóp bu trong Bộ Chính Trị ĐCS VN là dấu hiệu một cuộc tranh chấp lớn đang diễn ra trong nội bộ , có thể dẫn đến sự thanh trừng nào đó hơn là 1 cuộc đảo chính toàn diện , vốn không là thói quen trong khối XHCN . Vâng, vẫn chỉ là 1 bình luận thôi.

    Cám ơn GS một lần nữa vắt tim óc cho VN.

    Thân kính

  4. “What is needed now is policcal courage”.
    Very simple and straight forward! However the very essence of courage is lacking, specifically the inner courage. Vietnamese people sometimes admit wrong doing to themselves, but never voice it to everyone, even to their closest relatives. They have a HUGE EGO under a very affable appearance. That is an unfortunate trait, especially
    inherent to the majority of Northern and people of the Center of Viet Nam. Southerners are, by contrast, speak their mind and not vindicative.
    The above short simplistic explanation explains why the blue print submit by the author could not be realized.
    Up to this time, those in power never admit of doing anything wrong. Everything they did, have done, are doing and will be doing is deadly right because they believe in it. Hence they will never reverse their thinking and adopt something that is radically opposite to their belief.
    Besides, it seemes easy to compromise with the Chinese. Not quite so, should you have a whole large bill to settle. They never give away easily. Just a reminder:”think of how much the Chinese Aid gave to the devastated typhon victims of the Philippines last year, a merely $100,000.00, then under public outcry bounced up to $1,000,000.00!!”
    Should the tenth of what the author outlined be carried out, the people of Vietnam would be paridisiac

  5. Agree with you JL
    This is the chance for Vietnamese leaders to perform another round of reforms: improve human rights, democracy, state-own enterprises, international relations. It’s also the chance for Vietnamese to unite and to gain support from the international community in the struggle against the Chinese aggression.

  6. Take the Junta Government of Myanmar , whose vested interests were not lower than current Viet hardliners , as well as linked privileged clans , then Chinese influences , but the Generals in power could still offer the needed changes to their people and country .

    Prof. J.L inspired the timely “Political Courage ” and ” National Reconciliation ” for Viet Nam, not an argument of the impossibles or possibles . We don’t need intellectual snobs , nor warriors or political mongrels . Vietnam can never defeat China military might , nor that it can be ” saved” by a power broker, but able to join international norms of elected governance and human rights , Viet Nam surely can get supports to seek peace and further national development .

    After all , what we gained after warring victories over Chinese, French and American ? Do we need another war?


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