Why Vietnam’s Escalating Anti-Corruption Campaign Might Backfire

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Why Vietnam’s Escalating Anti-Corruption Campaign Might Backfire

By drawing public attention to high-level graft, the “blazing furnace” campaign could inadvertently prompt more searching questions about the nature of communist rule.

Why Vietnam’s Escalating Anti-Corruption Campaign Might Backfire

Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) addresses the media after a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the headquarters of the CPV Central Committee in Hanoi, Vietnam, Sunday, September 10, 2023.

Credit: Luong Thai Linh/Pool Photo via AP

Similar to other authoritarian regimes worldwide, the survival of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) hinges on the support of ordinary citizens. Initially, the CPV sought widespread legitimacy and support through a combination of nationalism and communism. However, the near collapse of the economy in the 1980s led to disillusionment regarding ideology-based legitimacy, prompting the CPV to embrace a capitalist economy. Since then, the CPV has gradually shifted from ideology-based legitimacy to performance-based legitimacy.

Sustained economic growth has indeed bolstered public support and trust in Communist Party rule. However, corruption, while not new to Vietnam’s one-party system, poses a significant threat to the contemporary CPV regime. This is because widespread corruption can lead to inefficiency in the economy, placing the Party’s performance-based legitimacy under pressure.

Recognizing that corruption poses a great threat to public trust and support for the CPV, which could ultimately endanger its survival, party chief Nguyen Phu Trong has spearheaded an aggressive anti-corruption campaign nicknamed “blazing furnace” (dot lo) since 2016. Since then, approximately 200,000 party members across all levels of government have been sacked, dismissed from the party, or jailed for graft.

Initially, this campaign was welcomed by the public and contributed to increased confidence in the CPV leadership. However, as with any endeavor, excessive zeal can lead to adverse consequences. The recent intensification of the anti-corruption campaign risks backfiring, eroding public trust and confidence in the Party’s leadership. Below I analyze three risks that the intensified anti-corruption campaign may pose to the CPV.

First, the escalating anti-corruption campaign may politicize citizens. Put simply, this campaign has the potential to raise political awareness among ordinary citizens who might otherwise be disengaged from politics. In his insightful book, “The Two Logics of Autocratic Rule,” Johannes Gerschewski convincingly argues that Vietnam, like other authoritarian regimes that legitimize their rule through economic performance, implicitly establishes a social contract of reciprocity between the regime and its citizens. Within this contract, economic satisfaction is exchanged for political acquiescence. When citizens’ economic needs are met, they agree to become “passive, apathetic, and indifferent” to politics. To perpetuate this political passivity, the regime frequently resorts to apolitical distractions, such as football, celebrity scandals, music, and various entertainment channels, which divert the attention of its citizens.

While the CPV is often criticized for its lack of transparency, it surprisingly allows open discussions about corruption cases. State media frequently provides detailed information about each corruption case, aiming to convey the message that the Party is actively working to cleanse itself and maintain its legitimacy as the ruling party. The CPV even launched a widespread public awareness campaign about corruption. However, this newfound “transparency” has unexpectedly drawn ordinary people’s attention to politics, contrary to the Party’s intentions of maintaining political passivity among its citizens.

For example, in my own conversations with residents of a small suburban neighborhood in a northern province, the topic of corruption arises frequently, overshadowing discussions about apolitical distractions such as celebrities, sports, and other scandals. Notably, the CPV not only permits open discussions about corruption but also encourages citizens to actively participate in combating it. For instance, the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee offers rewards of up to VND10 million ($410) to individuals who report corruption, provided “their information is accurate and helps the competent agencies verify and handle corruption and negative acts.”

One significant implication of stimulating citizens’ interest in corruption is that it may extend to other issues the regime aims to conceal while also fostering a general curiosity about politics among the populace. Once this curiosity is sparked, it becomes difficult for the government to contain or predict its trajectory. As citizens become more engaged in uncovering or discussing corruption, they may develop a heightened awareness of governmental activities and start questioning other aspects of governance, potentially leading to unforeseen consequences for the regime. As corruption becomes a dominant topic of discussion, it can fuel discontent and challenge the narrative of the Party’s legitimacy.

Second, Trong’s anti-corruption campaign may inadvertently expose to the public the divisions among the country’s political elite. The CPV traditionally employs state propaganda to project an image of unity, solidarity, and strength, particularly among the Central Committee, Politburo, Secretariat, and other key central organizations. Maintaining the perception of elite cohesion at the central level is crucial for regime survival, as any perceived split among the ruling elites could galvanize opposition from dissatisfied citizens. Indeed, Vietnamese citizens have learned to exploit signs of elite division to voice their discontent, as seen in protests that target local officials they perceive as deviating from central policies.

Surprisingly, the recent anti-corruption efforts have taken an unprecedented turn by directly targeting top-tier officials at the central level. For instance, last year, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, and State President Nguyen Xuan Phuc were all compelled to resign. During the Lunar New Year in 2024, numerous high-ranking officials from the ministries of Health, Science and Technology, and Industry and Trade were arrested. This represents a departure from the narrative of central cohesion. Such a perception of division at the central level could be perilous for the CPV, especially during periods of external shocks that have the potential to amplify public dissatisfaction, such as economic downturns and natural disasters.

It is noteworthy that while scholars, observers, and politically informed citizens are cognizant of internal factions within the one-party rule, the average citizen may not be. The anti-corruption campaign abruptly exposes the reality that the CPV is not as unified as it claims to be, potentially undermining its legitimacy and providing opportunities for dissent among aggrieved citizens.

Finally, Trong’s anti-corruption campaign focuses on individual cases of corruption without tackling the underlying structural issues that allow corruption to flourish within the system. This strategy serves to deflect attention from systemic flaws, reinforcing the narrative that the regime’s policies and leadership are fundamentally sound and that corruption is merely the result of a few party members’ purported “ideological and moral degradation.” However, this narrative can be a double-edged sword. By neglecting to acknowledge or engage with key factors contributing to corruption, such as the absence of accountability and transparency within the system, the regime runs the risk of disillusioning the populace over time. Eventually, people may come to realize that corruption is deeply embedded in the very fabric of the system.

Presently, Trong’s leadership appears strong, but there is a danger that under a future leader who is more lenient towards corruption, the situation could regress to its previous state. This poses a significant risk, as it may prompt people to question why corruption continues despite the ongoing anti-corruption efforts. Without addressing the systemic issues that enable corruption, the regime’s attempts to combat it may ultimately prove ineffective.