Vietnam's Communists Feud on Pace of Reform
In key party congress, leaders voted for status quo - for now
On the streets of Hanoi, a visitor can still see many shop signs splashed over with paint, remnants of a recent campaign against "social evils" by the ruling Communist Party.Skip to next paragraph
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Along with prostitution, pornography, and gambling, many signs with foreign lettering - especially those with brand names such as Coca-Cola and Sony - were targeted as unwanted last February. The government has since relaxed its crackdown. But the campaign served as a vivid symbol of Vietnam's hesitant attitude toward a market economy and the outside world - including the US.
A decade after launching its doi moi (renovation) policy of allowing limited capitalism ruled by a Leninist one-party state, Vietnam's collective leadership lacks a clear road map of what direction to take, reflected in the party's June 28-July 1 congress.
Despite rapid economic growth, the party appears to have not resolved an internal dispute between those pushing for acceleration of market reforms and conservatives seeking to put the brakes on changes that erode "socialist" goals.
The dispute forced the Eighth National Congress to stick with the present leadership troika of President Le Duc Ahn, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, and party Secretary General Do Muoi, at least for another year.
"Settling on the status quo reflects what is a lack of agreement on how to proceed," says one Hanoi-based Western diplomat.
The country's rapid economic growth - close to 10 percent a year - and foreign investment commitments up to $20 billion look impressive. Yet as in China, the leadership is concerned about the effect reforms have on their ability to maintain political stability and assure hold on power.
Some in the foreign business community welcomed the congress's apparent endorsement of continuity. But the party also sent out a number of mixed signals in a report that calls for keeping the state holding certain enterprises while allowing more private business. Mr. Muoi, seen as a centrist in the party dispute, pronounced his support for accelerating reforms. "Economic development is the only way we can raise the living standards of the people," he told foreign journalists Sunday.
Nicolas Rosselini, an official for the United Nations Development Program in Hanoi, claims that the party Central Committee report "validates the last 10 years of doi moi ... It seems to give the go-ahead for further reforms in the future."
"The process of reform is continuing," adds Do Duc Dinh, senior researcher with the Institute on World Economy, a Hanoi-based government think tank. "There will be no backtracking in the future."
Yet signs of retrenchment have also emerged. Membership in the party's 19-member Politburo includes more representatives from the military and internal security branches. A new five-member standing committee was also set up within the Politburo which, in addition to the leadership troika, will include two members of the Army and Interior Ministry.
"Our task is to maintain social and political stability and order," Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam declared following the conclusion of the congress yesterday. Experience "has shown that we can only have economic adjustment with social and political stability."
Top party delegates also criticized the leadership for opening up the economy too quickly. Nguyen Van Linh, the party's secretary general during the initial years of doi moi, accused foreign investors of a litany of offenses, including evading taxes, taking advantage of workers, and exploiting the country's natural resources. "The government must defend the economic sovereignty of Vietnam," he proclaimed.