The Communist Parties of China and Vietnam do not get on
The difference is partly philosophical
ONCE upon a time the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam were staunch comrades in the proletarian struggle. Mao Zedong thickened ties by helping Ho Chi Minh in his anti-colonial fight against the French and Americans, providing both military equipment and advice on communist discipline and ideology. Capitalism has transformed both countries in ways that would have shocked the two revolutionaries. Yet both parties have survived against the odds, running Leninist dictatorships while overseeing rapid economic growth. They are far and away the most successful of the world’s remaining communist states, easily eclipsing shabby Cuba, tiny Laos and militant North Korea.
It is not just in embracing free markets that Vietnam has mimicked China. Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has centralised authority and clamped down on dissent. Observers wonder whether the party in Vietnam isn’t starting to follow suit. A harder line was signalled at the last five-yearly congress, in early 2016. The zippy prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, had been expected to take over as general secretary from a thorough party man, Nguyen Phu Trong. Instead, Mr Trong and his allies forced Mr Dung’s retirement, and Mr Trong kept his job.
The party has since grown tougher, enforcing discipline and authority. Across the country, it has cracked down on dissidents and activists. And with shades of Mr Xi, Mr Trong has pursued an unprecedentedly vigorous campaign against corruption. Well-connected leaders in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang have fallen. In September a former chairman of PetroVietnam, the state oil giant, was sentenced to death over embezzlement at a tainted bank. Goons spirited another former head of PetroVietnam out of Berlin to face charges in Hanoi, to Germany’s anger. Some say Mr Dung himself will be charged.
Like Mr Xi, Mr Trong rightly believes that corruption threatens the party’s survival. Corruption is an even bigger problem in Vietnam than in China, and something had to be done. Enforcing party discipline also offers a better hope of carrying out reforms in a system in which power is dispersed and the centre is often ignored. As in China, the line between fighting graft and purging political enemies is often blurred. But Mr Trong’s abrupt removal of the offspring of the party elite from plum jobs can be seen as promoting pluralism and meritocracy in a country where nepotism is rife, says Bill Hayton of Chatham House, a think-tank.
Yet for all the similarities between the two parties, the days of warm ties are long gone. Mr Xi visited Vietnam in November and woodenly intoned about fraternal solidarity. That rang hollow to Vietnamese incensed by China’s expansive claims in what Vietnam calls the East Sea, not the South China Sea. In 2014 China towed an oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam, sparking violent anti-China protests.
The two parties first fell out in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping launched a war to punish Vietnam for toppling China’s clients in Cambodia, the murderous Khmers Rouges. (Vietnam gave China a bloody nose.) But the wary distrust dates back centuries. Vietnam is hard-wired to resist and resent the notion that it is in any way a vassal of the overweening empire to its north. Party fraternity cannot easily be revived in an era of prickly nationalisms.
What is more, some analysts argue, for all Mr Trong’s aping of Mr Xi, the two parties are drifting apart philosophically. Since 1989 and the slaughter of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protesters, political reform in China has been off the table. Party and state are in effect one.
In contrast, starting around the turn of the century, the Communist Party of Vietnam has encouraged more pluralism. Clearer distinctions have been made between party and state. Top posts such as general secretary of the party, state president, prime minister and member of the Politburo have increasingly been filled by competitive elections, albeit within the elite of the party. In 2010 the local party congress in Danang held direct elections for the municipal leadership, a first. More broadly a degree of dissent is condoned. Some Vietnamese, including retired officials and generals, have argued that Vietnam’s end-station should be multiparty democracy. In Mr Xi’s China such airings are out of the question.
Mr Trong remains just a first among equals in a collective leadership. He heads the party but not the state.(?) Term limits will force him to step down by 2021—and he may go sooner. Mr Xi, however, is state president as well as party leader. He made clear at his party’s five-yearly congress in October that he is the country’s undisputed boss. He may even overturn convention and seek another term in office in 2022 after a decade in power.
Growing a party
This divergence may well widen. Notwithstanding the current chill, discourse remains far freer in Vietnam than it is in China. Intra-party discussions are more lively. Outside the party, dissidents and religious groups still lay claim to a part of the public stage, and foreign pressure on the authorities not to be too harsh can work—Germany is trying now. Citizens have much freer access to the internet. Le Hong Hiep of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore argues that under Mr Trong criticism will be tolerated—and even found useful—so long as it is not seen as a challenge to the regime. In China, in contrast, the internet is heavily policed, and no public voice is allowed to critics in the party, let alone to dissidents.
And then comes that prickly nationalism. Not even a Vietnamese leader as well-disposed towards China’s Communist Party as Mr Trong can afford to disregard national feelings and sink all into better relations. Anti-Chinese sentiment runs high. It is only a matter of time before some fresh affront, probably to do with China’s claims in the South China Sea, strains those old fraternal ties still further