ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Vietnamese Communist Party’s Moral Vanguardism

The Party’s “morality campaign” has played a more important role in its thinking than the parallel and higher-profile anti-graft drive.

The Vietnamese Communist Party’s Moral Vanguardism

A statue of Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh in front of the City Hall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Credit: Depositphotos

One should not ask for too much sympathy for having spent recent weeks wading through the archives of Tap chi Cong san, the turgid journal of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). My teenage years were fortunately spent with obscure Marxist texts while the Communist Review, as it’s known in English, has retained a rather good translator. And it’s important to read if one wants to understand the VCP. Nguyen Phu Trong, the Party’s general secretary since 2011, was a staffer and editor at the journal for decades and he’s spent a good deal of his time in office trying to improve the publication’s current output. Give ear to a speech he made to its staff in 2012 and which the journal thought decent enough to republish as an article in August 2020: “The Communist Review must be the flag of political theorizing on the Party’s ideological frontline,” he stated, quoting a former communist grandee.

And, under Trong, the Communist Party has made ideology a frontline. Read, for instance, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s essay on Ho Chi Minh thought and morality if one wants to understand what is going on with the Party’s anti-corruption campaign. If one sifts through the Communist Review, what becomes obvious at first glance is that the corollary “morality campaign,” which also began in 2016, plays a far more important role in the Party’s thinking than its attempts to jail or dismiss apparatchiks accused of graft.

That might not be obvious, though, if one focuses on the material. Some assert that the Party is cracking down on graft in order to improve its international image and attract more foreign investors, so it’s essentially an economic matter. For others, it’s either about Trong wanting to rid the Party of rivals (who he can label corrupt) or to assert the Party’s power over the growing private sector, much as the Chinese Communist Party has done. There is, indeed, something material; the morality and anti-corruption campaigns require more centralized power for the VCP. One has to commend Trong for eating and having his cake; he can claim corruption exists but that only the Party has the authority to rectify it. Not just that: individual morality is to blame, he says, not the communist structure itself.

This has been correctly critiqued – and, indeed, these critiques make short shrift of explaining why the anti-corruption campaign will essentially fail. “Much of the [VCP’s] rhetoric has focused on the need for ‘morality and ethics’ on the part of government officials,” wrote the journalist and researcher Tran Le Thuy. “But it would be better to accept that self-interest is a powerful and inescapable human trait. By simply enjoining government officials to behave honestly out of a sense of public duty, the Party risks missing the opportunity to establish stronger and more rational corruption-monitoring mechanisms.”

Cu Huy Ha Vu, a dissident who warrants that title, takes a similar view. “Involvement by the whole society is required instead of relying solely on the political will of the non-corrupt persons, including Trong, within the Party and State apparatus,” he has written. “For the time being,” he has added, “the prestige of the Vietnamese government is due to the widely perceived integrity of the president and [VCP] general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong. We cannot exclude the possibility that corruption could rise again, even with stronger intensity than before, after Trong has retired.” Indeed, and that explains why Trong took an unprecedented third term as party chief last year.

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Still, the anti-corruption campaign is of secondary importance to the Party. That is clearly what Trong thinks. “Corruption is threatening the survival of the regime,” he said in 2018, but “political decadence is even more dangerous.” Why, because it is the immaterial that now most concerns the Party hierarchy. Rana Mitter, the Oxford professor, once suggested (if my interpretation is correct) that nationalism and reinterpretation of the Second World War in China have become something of an “ethically constitutive story,” a narrative that moves the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy beyond pure economics, security, and the status-quo. That, in many ways, is what the VCP is trying to achieve with its morality campaign: it allows the Party an attempt to form a new ethical legitimacy for itself. Indeed, it re-interprets Party members as the moral vanguard of the country, as they were during the decades of struggle.

As Trong said in a recent public speech: “each party cadre and member needs to shoulder the responsibility of being a role model. The higher the position and rank, the more responsibility one must take.” He doesn’t want the Party to only be feared by the people or only accepted as the easy, status-quo choice because it provides economic growth. He wants it to be respected and admired. Phuc, the president, was selective in his quoting of Ho Chi Minh in his aforementioned essay in the Communist Review, but here’s one he chose: “In front of the masses, it’s not because of the word ‘communist’ that we write on our forehead, but our morality that makes them love us,” Uncle Ho reportedly once said.

It’s easy to laugh at the morality campaign. In August 2017 the Politburo issued, “for the first time,” a list of what characteristics future leaders should have. This included not being tainted by “corruption or opportunism,” being “determined to push back against the degeneration in political ideology,” as well as having “absolutely no ambition for power” and not letting “relatives and acquaintances benefit from their positions.” And employing adjectives mostly reserved for Trong’s hagiography, future leaders should lead “an honest, modest, sincere, transparent, simple and generous life.” The analyst Nguyen Manh Hung rightly commented: “It is difficult to believe that such an ideal model of officials could be achieved.”

Yet, there seems good reason why the VCP should consider the incorporeal. By the late 1990s, the Party no longer really spoke about socialism. By the middle of the 2000s, it had also lost its status as the arbitrator of Vietnamese nationalism, in part because of its role in accepting harmful Chinese investment (such as with the bauxite mine protests) and as the Vietnamese people themselves demanded far tougher action on Chinese incursions in the South China Sea. The Party apparatus was losing power to the government apparatus, filled largely with bureaucrats, not ideologues, as was the case under the powerful prime ministership of Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016). And people were joining the communist ranks mainly for patronage and social advancement. If you wanted to get a decent loan or start a business, it was best to be a Party member.

As socialism and nationalism faded for the Party, it was left claiming its legitimacy from economic growth. That’s fine when growth is good, as it is today, but the VCP surely knows the day will come when it can no longer sustain its political chokehold through economic growth alone. One day, perhaps by the end of this decade, Vietnam will face a middle-income trap and its own aging population. What then, if growth slows and the alternative to the status quo (an attempt at political plurality, which today for many obviously doesn’t seem to justify the costs) becomes more appealing?