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.

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.

Vietnam's leaders have also firmly ruled out any change in their political system. "It must be made clear that renewal is by no means a change in the socialist goal but a more correct understanding of socialism," the committee report declared. Vietnam must maintain a strong state sector in the economy, strengthen political stability, and reduce "negative phenomena," both from within and abroad, it continued.

Vietnamese officials have made it clear that they see the United States as a potential source of instability. "There are still some people who are skeptical about American intentions because of the [Vietnam] War, the cold war, and the period of the embargo," admits Mr. Dinh.

Hanoi's suspicions center on the US tradition of linking trade and politics. In justifying its trade links with countries such as China, Washington has argued that open markets can be used to promote more prosperous and democratic societies. "If Vietnam is to find an important place in the community of nations and to attract investment, it should move beyond just opening its doors," US Secretary of State Warren Christopher declared during his visit to Hanoi last August. "The key to success in this rapidly changing world is ... the freedom to participate in the decisions that affect our lives."

In Vietnam, however, this idea has taken on the sinister connotation of "peaceful evolution," which Hanoi sees as ultimately leading to the destabilization and overthrow of the communist leadership. "It is not a secret that some circles in the US would like to conduct that [policy of] peaceful evolution," Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Vu Khoan declared without offering details. "They do not hide that objective."

Officials have been quick to note, however, that the destabilizing "circles" are few in number, adding that relations with Washington are gradually improving, if not yet at the pace that Hanoi had originally hoped following the establishment of diplomatic relations last July. Vietnam is particularly keen to clinch a bilateral trade agreement with Washington and secure most-favored-nation status, which would allow it to export low-cost goods to the US without prohibitive tariffs.

"I want the United States to be good friends with Vietnam," Muoi declared. "I think most American people, the big majority in America, have sympathy toward Vietnam. They want to establish friendship and want to see Vietnam develop."

Nevertheless, Hanoi plans to remain vigilant in order to defend against outside threats. While promoting the policy of openness, "we will try to prevent anyone from taking advantage of that policy in order to create instability in the country," Mr. Khoan warned.

How to achieve those twin objectives remains unclear. But what is likely is a continued campaign against the unwanted side effects of doi moi. A report issued by the government's Ministry of Culture and Information for the congress, called for a campaign to halt "the infiltration of cultural negative aspects, foreign fanatic tendencies"' and the "idea of money-lover, humiliation of morality, and humanitarian values." It also hailed the "social evils" campaign as promoting a "cleaner and more healthy" cultural atmosphere.

Culture Minister Tran Hoan said that while well-publicized events such as the public burning of confiscated pornographic books and videos were unlikely to be repeated, a renewed effort was needed to crack down on the import of "noxious culture" through closer monitoring and a campaign to educate the public to its dangers.

Vietnam will always welcome "the best that world culture has to offer" - he cited "Gone With the Wind" as one example of acceptable quality entertainment - but other films such as "Cyclo," a film about the trials and tribulations of a Vietnamese pedicab driver, which won the prestigious Golden Lion award in Venice, will not be screened "because the film doesn't truly reflect the process of renewal in Vietnam."

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