Since its adoption of a market economy in the last 1980s, Vietnam has become what some have referred to as a new “Asian Tiger.” Over the last 25 years, Vietnam’s economy has enjoyed an average annual growth rate of more than 6 percent. Between 1994 and 2014, 40 million people were lifted out of poverty, lowering the poverty rate from nearly 60 percent to 14 percent. These results have allowed the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to enjoy significant domestic legitimacy.
However, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP)’s performance-based legitimacy has recently been challenged. Economic development has given rise to a large swath of people, especially among the young, who are increasingly vocal about post-materialist values. For the last 15 years, the VCP has been confronted by several regime-challenging protests related to various causes. These protests have occurred partly because of the public’s discontent with the perceived failure of the government to protect rights formally guaranteed in the Constitution and in government policies.
In particular, growing numbers of Vietnamese are concerned about environmental issues. In 2019, people in Ho Chi Minh City joined a Climate Strike for the first time to demand serious and urgent climate action from the authorities. Massive fish deaths in coastal provinces in 2016 led to many small and large protests throughout the country up to 2018. This came after a coalition of students, artists, intellectuals, and residents successfully opposed Hanoi’s decision to cut down 6,700 trees in the capital in 2015. Participation in environmental activism has made many realize that resolving environmental issues requires the central government to uphold citizens’ rights, such as the right to be informed and the right to participate in the policy-making process.
Many Vietnamese citizens are also demanding the right to speak out and express themselves freely. As an illustration, in 2018, thousands of citizens throughout the country protested a Draft Law on Cybersecurity, which granted authorities wide discretion to censor online content. Although Vietnamese legislators approved the law, the fact that many citizens protested against it suggests that people have become aware of and discontented with the extent of state censorship.
With the rise of the internet and Vietnam’s deep integration into the global economy, the VCP cannot completely ignore people’s demands for more rights. Indeed, recent efforts show that in the face of its waning performance-based legitimacy, the VCP is trying to enhance its legitimacy by promoting – or by being seen to be promoting – human rights. However, this requires the VCP to balance between the needs of citizens and those of the various interest groups critical to the Party’s survival. As a result, the VCP has focused on promoting rights in areas that are not politically sensitive. Being strategic in choosing which rights to protect (and which to ignore) ensures that key interest groups are not adversely affected, while sending the message that the VCP cares about citizens’ rights.
This logic may explain why regime leaders have taken a significant step toward recognizing LGBT rights while, at the same time, increasing their repression of environmental activists. The former is not politically sensitive, while the latter poses a potential challenge to the Party’s rule.
In August of this year, the Ministry of Health, heeding campaigns by local advocacy groups, took a major step toward recognizing LGBT rights. The ministry published a document urging health clinics throughout the country not to try to “cure” homosexuality and to respect different sexual orientations. Back in 2013, using rights-based arguments, the ministry even advocated for the legalization of same-sex marriages.
These steps have led to a certain softening of foreign criticism about the human rights situation in Vietnam. For instance, U.S. Ambassador Marc Knapper, praised the Ministry of Health’s document, saying, “We welcome this step forward and will work together with the LGBTQ+ community and the Vietnamese government on this issue.” This step may have partly helped Vietnam win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2023-2025.
Despite traditionally being a socially conservative country, LGBT rights are not politically controversial and do not divide regime elites. LGBT people are not organized or represented by any particular faction of the VCP or government. In Vietnam, unlike in a theist state, LGBT rights are not challenged by religious beliefs and groups. This means that recognizing LGBT rights does not harm any elite groups, nor threaten the power of the regime.
While the LGBT community is enjoying more protections from the regime, environmentalists are lagging far behind. Legal repression is typically used to harass environmentalists who cross the hazy lines between what is legal and what is not. For example, in 2021, Vietnam arrested several environmental activists, including Nguy Thi Khanh, the director of the Green Innovation and Development Centre, for tax evasion.
Unlike LGBT rights, environmental issues are politically contentious. It is incredibly challenging for regime leaders to accommodate environmental advocates’ demands because such demands could hurt interest groups critical to the regime’s survival. For example, Khanh and other civil society activists have been demanding that the government stop funding coal-fired power plants because of their adverse effects on the environment. However, reducing the reliance on coal could hurt the interests of the three big state enterprises, including Vinacomin (coal), EVN (electricity), and PetroVietnam (oil and gas), whose senior leaders dislike dramatic changes to the nation’s energy policies.
In short, in the face of its waning performance-based legitimacy, the VCP has made attempts to promote citizens’ rights. However, regime leaders must balance the interests of citizens and key political constituencies. This seems to have prompted the elites to focus on promoting certain rights that are not politically sensitive while repressing demands that could hurt elite groups.