Mythbusting Vietnam’s Recent Leadership Change

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Mythbusting Vietnam’s Recent Leadership Change

Four major assumptions commonly made by analysts need to be challenged.

Mythbusting Vietnam’s Recent Leadership Change

Newly re-elected Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, center, leaves after a press conference at the closing ceremony of after the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, in Hanoi, Vietnam Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Minh Hoang

Recent commentary about leadership change in Vietnam features four assertions:

  1. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is emulating China’s Xi Jinping by using an anti-corruption campaign to oust his political rivals;
  2. Trong, by consolidating power, is moving Vietnam toward a system of one-man rule;
  3. The victims of Trong’s anti-corruption campaign are mainly pro-Western and pro-business, while Trong and his supporters lean toward China ideologically;
  4. Trong’s consolidation of power will lead to the party’s greater control over the economy.

Each of these assumptions is highly contestable. Taken together, they confuse more than they clarify Vietnam’s elite politics.

Assertion 1: Vietnam’s Party Leader Is Emulating China’s Xi Jinping in Ousting Rivals

The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are both in agreement that widespread corruption in their country is a major threat to the legitimacy of one-party rule. Vietnam’s formal efforts to combat corruption on a national basis predate China’s. In August 2006, Vietnam’s National Assembly established the Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption, headed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

In January 2011, at the CPV’s 11th National Congress, Nguyen Phu Trong was elected general secretary. The following year, Trong succeeded in gaining approval from the Central Committee to transfer responsibility for the anti-corruption campaign from the prime minister to the Communist Party. The reason for this is that Dung’s anti-corruption campaign was lackluster.

When Trong launched his anti-corruption campaign, there were allegations that he was specifically targeting allies and supporters of Dung after his retirement in 2016. In retrospect, however, it appears there was very little distinction between corrupt officials who supported Dung because they benefitted and other corrupt officials who took advantage of lax law enforcement.

Recently, some analysts and journalists have characterized former President Nguyen Xuan Phuc as a political rival of Trong. The basis for this allegation is that Phuc challenged or stood against Trong for election as party leader after the Central Committee unexpectedly failed to ratify Tran Quoc Vuong, Trong’s chosen successor.

The full account of what happened at this time is not known. Trong picked a successor and showed every sign that he would retire at the expiration of his second term as general secretary. The Central Committee’s action produced an unprecedented situation at the eleventh hour before the 13th National Party Congress. There appears to have been no Plan B, and Central Committee members were left to identify a suitable candidate.

Did members of the Central Committee insist on a choice, as they had in the past? Was Trong persuaded to seek a third term, or did he throw his hat in the ring at the urging of his supporters? Was Phuc drafted to satisfy the call for a choice of candidates, or did he actually move to block Trong from a third term? In sum, until more details become known, it is misleading to argue Phuc’s nomination was evidence of a power struggle between rival factions – or, by extension, that his resignation was due to political rivalry.

In addition, Trong’s anti-corruption campaign has been so wide-ranging as to defy being classed as simply aimed at alleged political opponents. In 2022, for example, investigations were carried out in 2,474 cases involving at least 4,646 persons for alleged corruption, abuse of power, and economic misconduct. An estimated 70 party officials, including five ministers or former ministers, were disciplined since 2021.

Assertion 2: Trong Seeks a System of One-Man Rule

Xi Jinping was elected CCP general secretary in 2012 and president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013. After Xi’s re-election to both positions in 2017 and 2018, respectively, he changed the rules to lift all restrictions on his term in office.

Vietnam has a long political tradition of collective leadership and power sharing among its most senior party leaders. Nguyen Phu Trong was elected as CPV general secretary in 2011 and again in 2016. In October 2018, on the death in office of President Tran Dai Quang, Trong assumed the concurrent office of president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. However, Trong made no move to amend the state constitution to merge the positions of general secretary and president. Also, Trong, showed every sign of stepping down as party leader at the 13th Party Congress. When Trong was given an unprecedented third term as general secretary, he stepped down as state president at the expiration of his term in office in April 2021.

The assertion that the general secretary is seeking to consolidate his power needs to be unpacked and examined critically.

CPV regulations stipulate that one of the duties of the general secretary is to groom a successor, but the party leader isn’t given a free pass. The general secretary needs a majority of members to support his initiatives. As noted above, the Central Committee can override decisions made by the general secretary.

Trong was dealt his hand when the Central Committee elected at the 13th Party Congress elected an 18-member Politburo, instead of 19 members as planned, out of some 20 to 23 candidates. The resignation of Phuc as president and the election of Vo Van Thuong does not change this electoral calculus. Trong still needs a majority of the current  16-member Politburo to support his initiatives.

The president of Vietnam is not just a ceremonial role. The president is vested with considerable power under the state constitution to appoint and dismiss government officials. But all of these powers are subject to ratification by the National Assembly.

The president does not have any special powers as a member of the Politburo, even while he may be one of the four pillars of leadership. In sum, the elevation of Vo Van Thuong to state president does not ipso facto enhance the powers of the general secretary. Assuming Thuong was a protégé of Trong before March 2023, he still remains a protégé with only one vote.

In sum, the evidence is lacking to assert that Nguyen Phu Trong is seeking to stay on in power like Xi Jinping. Vietnam’s system of collective leadership, in which the general secretary is primus inter pares, is not about to be replaced with a system of one-man rule.

Trong’s drive against anti-corruption and negative phenomena should be viewed as his legacy to the CPV following a life-long commitment to party-building. It is not part of a consolidation of his power and a shift to one-man rule in Vietnam.

Assertion 3: Ousted Officials Are Pro-Western and Pro-Business; Trong and His Supporters Lean Toward China

The basis for the claim that the victims of Trong’s anti-corruption campaign are pro-Western and pro-business is misguided. This claim is based on the two cases involving Deputy Prime Ministers Pham Binh Minh and Vo Duc Dam, who were educated in the United States and Belgium, respectively.

Vietnam has 17 strategic partners, including seven Western countries (the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand) and two close U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea. The other strategic partners include Russia, China, India, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Minh served two terms as foreign minister and had carriage over foreign affairs as first deputy prime minister and a member of the Politburo. Dam’s portfolio as deputy prime minister included science, technology, information, and communication. In short, the two deputy prime ministers were only doing their jobs by interacting with the “Western countries” that collectively make up over half of Vietnam’s strategic partners. In addition, these countries also include major world economies that are members of the G-7 and G-20.

Similarly, the argument that the victims of Trong’s so-called “consolidation of power” are pro-business doesn’t hold water. In 2022, investigative officials attached to the anti-corruption campaign uncovered evidence of alleged fraud by executives involved in corporate bond issuance, equity trading, and stock price manipulation. In sum, Vietnam’s weak regulatory system over the economic sector, including the private sector, created an environment for corruption and evasion of the law and legal regulations.

The fact that Vietnam, under Trong, is tackling corruption of all varieties in including corporate crime should not be read as anti-business. Under Trong, Vietnam has improved its ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, but Vietnam still has a long way to go as it ranked 77th out of 180 countries in 2022. Nonetheless, the reduction of corruption contributes to a better business environment for foreign investment.

The high-profile resignations of two deputy prime ministers were not because they were pro-business. They resigned because they failed to supervise subordinates who were heavily involved in highly emotive COVID-related corruption cases.

The assertion that Trong and his supporters lean toward China is also spurious. Vietnam consistently pursues a foreign policy of diversifying and multi-lateralizing its external relations through a network of 17 strategic partnerships and an additional number of comprehensive partnerships. Vietnam seeks a balance in its external relations, not alignment with any major power.

Vietnam, with a population of nearly 100 million, is comparable to a middle size province in China. The two countries share land and maritime borders. China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner. Both are one-party states led by their respective communist parties. Both follow their own brand of socialist ideology. The latter two factors provide a special conduit for bilateral relations that is not available in dealing with other foreign countries. Xi Jinping is both general secretary of the party and president of state and this factor largely explains the role of Trong, Vietnam’s party general secretary, in relations with China. Trong outranks Vietnam’s state president and this gives him unique access to Xi.

Vietnam’s leaders are committed to pursuing relations with China (and other countries) based on Vietnam’s national interests and protecting Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Maritime disputes in the South China Sea are the main irritant in bilateral relations. Both party leaders appear to agree that South China Sea disputes should not hold hostage to the development of their broader bilateral relationship.

The fact that Vietnam’s leaders continually engage with their northern neighbor should not be taken as an indication they are leaning toward China at the expense of their relations with the United States and other Western countries. In sum, Vietnam’s engagement with China should not be viewed as leaning toward China but as practical everyday realpolitik.

Assertion 4: Trong Seeks Greater Party Control Over the Economy

This assertion begs the question: Who is in control of the economy today, if not the Communist Party of Vietnam?

The key day-to-day locus of economic decision-making rests with the prime minister and relevant ministers in the Cabinet. The prime minister is invariably a member of the CPV’s Politburo and several ministers are members of the Central Committee. There are party committees in all of Vietnam’s ministries or equivalent organizations as well as state-owned enterprises and private sector businesses.

In March 2019, the CPV Secretariat issued Instruction No 33-CT/TW that underscored the importance of party and government policies “to make private economic entities into a driving force for the country’s socialist-oriented market economy.”

Instruction No 33-CT/TW called for the creation of party cells and mass organizations in all economic entities operating in Vietnam. Instruction No 33-CT/TW also decreed that “party cells in private economic entities should adopt their own operational agenda in line with the conditions and characteristics of each type of enterprise. They must coordinate closely with the enterprises’ management boards…”

The 13th National Party Congress set the long-term economic objectives of the CPV. Subsequent Politburo meetings and Central Committee executive sessions operationalized this guidance by developing annual and five-year socioeconomic development plans. The Central Committee is advised by the Central Economic Commission and other bodies. The National Assembly revises or adopts new legislation to enact these plans according to directions from the CPV.

In sum, it is difficult to see how the CPV could assume more power over the economy than it already has.

The CPV has long been committed to developing a socialist market economy through domestic reform (privatization of state-owned enterprises), attracting foreign direct investment, and proactive international economic integration. But it makes little sense to say the CPV is trying to regain control over Vietnam’s economy when it never lost that control in the first place.