The History Place - Points of View

Vietnam Today
by Zachary Abuza

Although the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) retains political legitimacy, it has squandered much of it through economic mismanagement and corruption. On the other hand, individual freedoms (especially in the economic sector), the rule of law, and the role of the national assembly have grown consistently since the mid-1980s. Autonomous civic organizations and civil society, though nascent, are beginning to coalesce. The country’s leadership is committed to turning Vietnam into a law-governed society, and the national assembly has codified many new laws since the late 1980s. The national assembly has also seized every bit of power and authority that it has been allowed and sought to stake out a meaningful position for itself in the policymaking process.

Despite the steady progress that has been made, a number of issues remain highly troubling with respect to freedom, democracy, and human rights in Vietnam. The country remains a one-party state that tolerates no opposition to its rule and deals harshly with dissidents. The Vietnamese government places the highest degree of importance on maintaining political stability; it has a number of laws and decrees on the books to cope with large-scale peasant unrest, which it sees as one of the greatest threats to its survival. Although women do not experience official discrimination and are legally entitled to opportunities generally equal with those of men, culturally based chauvinism remains. Lingering mistrust over whether ethnic minorities are loyal to the regime leads to routine discrimination against them. They tend to endure the lowest levels of human development in the country. Although Vietnamese enjoy freedom of worship in theory, there is no freedom of religion, as the regime fears the development of independent churches and has cracked down harshly on religious leaders who do not subject themselves to the authority of the state. The government is very concerned about the growth of autonomous civil society and civic organizations. There are a number of such organizations, but they tend to be small, local, apolitical, unable to form networks and alliances, and unable to articulate their demands to the government.

Although the regime is committed to the development of the rule of law, the laws serve the interests of the state. The judiciary is not independent; it takes its lead from Communist Party directives. People brought before the courts are presumed guilty and must prove their innocence, which rarely happens. Although defendants have legal counsel, their primary role is to make the case for reduced sentences. The court system works in a timely manner, but cases are often rushed through at dizzying speed, suggesting that the outcome was predetermined. On the other hand, property rights are more or less protected through the implementation of long-term leases. There are vast differences in the implementation of the rule of law across the country; compliance is greater in the countryside and in the south, while less enforced in the mountainous hinterland.

Endemic corruption and the lack of government transparency have become major issues that threaten economic development, the regime’s legitimacy, and political stability. The regime is unable to police party members, who are often above the law, and the lack of a free press is a major impediment to curbing corrupt practices. The government, while nontransparent, is nevertheless effective and able to implement its policies.

Although there are national elections for the parliament, and independent candidates run, the election process is stage-managed by the regime, remaining dominated by Communist Party members. The press is one of the most restrained in the world, as the state owns or controls all print and broadcast media and uses a host of indirect censorship measures.

Civil Liberties

Vietnam is a one-party Communist state. The Communist Party maintains a monopoly of power and countenances no political challenges. Although a parliament exists in which a certain number of independent candidates can stand for election, the Communist Party constrains its power and elections are tightly controlled. Advocates of political reform are systematically persecuted. Although Vietnam is an authoritarian state, it is not a police state and does not rely on coercive force to rule. It is perceived by the vast majority of the population as a legitimate regime, owing to its leadership role in the independence and anti-colonial wars as well as its handling of the economy.

Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention without trial, there have been a number of party decrees and directives to circumvent this. Under Directive 31/CP, issued in April 1997, the ministry of public security is authorized to detain people without trial or formal charges for up to two years, often in the form of house arrest. There is no appeal process, nor has the Vietnamese Supreme Court ever challenged the legality of this ruling. The Vietnamese government became aware that high profile court cases of political dissidents tend to generate international media attention and invite foreign pressure and interference, and so-called administrative detention generates far less media attention and criticism by foreign governments. Most dissidents, including the religious leaders, are currently held under administrative detention, while only a handful are ever brought to trial. These are generally younger dissidents who have no great international profiles.

The regime asserts that it has no political or religious prisoners but simply common criminals, and the exact number of political prisoners in Vietnam is unknown. The Vietnamese government reported that some 75 persons in 2001 and 9 in 2002 were tried on charges of crimes against national security, often a euphemism for political prisoners. The U.S. Department of State estimated that there are 150 political prisoners, but the number of confirmed cases is much lower.

According to Article 71 of the constitution, torture is illegal. However, torture is not codified as a specific offense in the Penal Code. Political prisoners are subject to harsh prison conditions that include long periods of solitary confinement and severe labor conditions, as well as deprivation of adequate amounts of food and medical care. Nearly every released prisoner returns to society with chronic health problems. However, there are no reports of physical torture of defendants or political prisoners beyond beatings, which are frequent during interrogations and while prisoners are in custody. There are no reports of agents of the state killing political opponents, although several have been forced into exile.

In order to contend with outbreaks of rural unrest and large-scale demonstrations, the Communist Party issued Directive 89/CP in 1989, which authorizes troops under both the ministry of public security and the ministry of defense to establish short-term detention centers to deal with people threatening peace and security until civil order is restored and the appropriate legal bodies can take over. The Communist Party views the outbreak of rural unrest as one of the greatest threats to its survival. In recent years, the government has responded to two major demonstrations with overwhelming force—in Thai Binh province in 1998 and in the Central Highlands in February 2001. Although there were some differences between the two events (the Central Highlands involved ethnic minorities), both uprisings centered on the issues of land rights and corruption. Both events involved more than 1,000 protesters, and nearly twice as many security forces.

Constitutionally speaking, there is no discrimination against women. The state views gender equality fairly seriously and has taken numerous steps to repeal discriminatory laws, while applying new laws that rescind regulations and prohibit customs that discriminate against women. However, the law has been applied unevenly. Moreover, a high degree of cultural and historical male chauvinism has restricted the rise of women to the top echelons of Vietnamese politics. Only one woman has served on the VCP’s Politburo, and women currently comprise only 20 percent of VCP membership. Women have been more successful in the economic realm. Although sexual discrimination in the workforce is illegal, charges are rarely pressed, both because of cultural pressure on women not to press charges and because of an ill-equipped legal system. Although the constitution stipulates that women and men must receive equal pay for equal work, this is not often enforced. The trafficking of women is increasingly a problem due to the rapid explosion in the number of sex workers—which, according to the Vietnam Women’s Union, now number over 300,000—and also because, owing to China’s one-child policy and skewed birth rates, there is a shortage of women in China as eligible brides. Vietnam has outlawed the trafficking of women and appears to be working closely with the International Organization for Migration, yet the problem persists.

Minorities—including Hmong, Montagnards, Tay, and Khmers—have faced systematic discrimination. Traditionally, ethnic Kinh Vietnamese tended to display an arrogant and patronizing attitude toward the minority tribes. For that reason, many minorities supported the French and Americans in the independence and anti-colonial wars. After the reunification of the country in 1976, the Vietnamese government systematically repressed minorities. Minority-dominated regions were denied resources and development funds, and today remain the poorest and most underdeveloped parts of the country. By almost every measure of human development (lifespan, infant mortality, caloric intake, literacy) they lag behind ethnic kin. In addition, ethnic minorities are taught in the Vietnamese language, and significant efforts are made to reinforce their Vietnamese identity and allegiance to the state. Minority cultural identity tends to be protected for the sake of tourism only.

Government policies toward minorities improved in the 1990s, yet there was still considerable mistrust of minorities’ loyalty to the regime. Most ethnic minorities had been converted by missionaries to evangelical Christianity, which until late 2001 was an unofficial religion. In February 2001 violent demonstrations erupted in the Central Highlands protesting the lack of freedom of religion, corruption, and the rapid influx of ethnic Vietnamese into the region, which meant that the Montagnards were no longer the majority of the population. The government responded to the demonstrations harshly, sending in more than 1,000 troops, imposing a news blackout, pressuring the Cambodian government to turn over some 100 suspects who had fled into Cambodia, and sentencing some 38 leaders to long prison terms.

It should be noted that at the VCP’s Ninth Congress in April 2002, Nong Duc Manh, an ethnic Tay, won election as the party’s general secretary, the first time that a minority was ever elected to the nation’s highest position. His election was most likely in response to the need to come up with a better strategy for dealing with minority issues. Manh, however, is an exception, and discrimination against minorities continues.

Freedom of worship is enshrined in the constitution. Individuals, by and large, have considerable freedom concerning routine religious ceremonies and rites. Vietnam’s 1992 constitution does not guarantee “freedom of religion” in the fullest sense, but “the freedom to believe or not believe in a religious faith” (Article 70). However, the same article warns that “no one can violate the freedom of faith or exploit it in a way that is at variance with the law and state policies.”

There are more religious worshipers in Vietnam today than ever before; of the country’s 86 million people, 80 percent are nominally Buddhist, more than 8 million are Catholic, nearly 3.5 million belong to the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, and 800,000 people in the northwest and Central Highlands are Protestants. Ancestor worship, Buddhist festivals, folk religions, and cults around historical figures are commonplace. Church membership is growing at high rates. The VCP is deeply concerned about the growth of organized religion and while promising freedom of religion for individuals, it has gone out of its way to control religions and prohibit any autonomous religious activity. With their nationwide network of churches and adherents, hierarchical authority structure, and charismatic and morally upright leadership able to disseminate information and mobilize their congregations, religions pose a potential challenge to the VCP’s monopoly of power. The VCP fears that foreign forces, through a process of peaceful evolution, are trying to undermine it. It sees religion as a primary way for foreigners to continue interfering in Vietnam’s internal affairs, whether through direct control of church organization and scripture or by proselytizing.

Apart from the 1992 constitution and penal code, two key documents currently regulate official church activities: the 1998 Politburo Directive on Religion and the government’s 1999 Decree Concerning Religious Activities. These two documents embody the inherent contradiction in the official attitude toward religion: On the one hand, they guarantee individuals’ right to freedom of worship; on the other hand, they clearly regulate the activities of the church, ensuring that the church remain accountable to the party. Religious leaders who circumvent party control are systematically persecuted and imprisoned.

The VCP tried to co-opt the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) after reunification in 1976. When the leaders of the church refused to submit to party control, the UBCV was banned and an official church, the Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC), was established under the party’s umbrella organization, the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF). The UBCV has requested official recognition since 1981 but has been rebuffed. It is the same for other religions; each church has an officially sanctioned and elected ruling body. In general these organizations do the state’s bidding, but there is sometimes dissent. The Bishops’ Council of the Vietnam Catholic Church has been critical of the government’s slowness in appointing new bishops and priests. Similarly, the VBC’s executive committee has voiced concern over educational facilities and monasteries. Many monks in VBC-controlled temples tacitly sympathize with the UBCV leadership.

As officials of organs of the state, the clergy are considered agents of the state. Since the state controls all religion, it controls seminaries, and it maintains sole responsibility for the ordination, appointment, and promotion of clergymen. Thus, the state is able to apply a political litmus test at every level, to ensure that clergymen remain loyal to the Communist regime that they serve. Leadership selection remains one of the most controversial issues. The Vatican is constantly at odds with Hanoi over who has the right to appoint bishops, a right that each side believes is exclusively its own. Although an ad hoc agreement in 1998 saw the ordination of five bishops, a modus vivendi has remained elusive and as a result Hanoi and the Vatican still do not extend diplomatic recognition to one another.

All church publications, from texts to prayer books to the writings of monks and priests, must receive official approval; in addition, the state has broad interpretive powers regarding church publications. Churches have only infrequently received permission to open schools or orphanages or to offer any other social services that might threaten the monopoly of provision by the state. Hence, the party and government have vehemently lashed out at the UBCV for trying to provide social services: schooling, orphanages, welfare, relief efforts, and poverty eradication. In the fall of 2000, the United Buddhist Church attempted to distribute relief aid to the victims of the worst flooding in 40 years but was stopped. The Catholic Church has been slightly more successful and is now running an AIDS hospice and an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City.

The freedom to associate is constitutionally recognized yet routinely ignored. There are unions, such as the Vietnam Confederation of Trade Unions, the Vietnam Women’s Union, Vietnam Peasant Association, and the Ho Chi Minh Youth league, yet all are directly beneath the VFF. No independent labor unions are legal, nor are they likely to be in the near future. There are no independent political parties, although independent candidates can run for parliament after going through a vetting process controlled by the VFF. On the other hand, no citizen is forced to belong to any type of organization, including the Communist party—which, at only 2 percent of the population, is an elitist organization.

One of the genuine bright spots in Vietnam’s political development has been the slow but steady development of civic associations. Most are small and single-issue organizations, registered and deemed politically non-threatening. They operate in a complex web of arbitrary administrative rulings and contradictory regulations. Currently there are some 800 environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The development of chambers of commerce and the Vietnamese Bar Association are likewise very encouraging. These organizations, because of their technical expertise, have a high degree of autonomy, and have been called upon by state leaders for technical advice in policy-making. One of the more interesting political developments in the late 1980s was the Club of Former Resistance Fighters, members of the National Liberation Front (NLF, Viet Cong) who wished to articulate their demands and pressure the government to reform. The group was quickly shut down, its leaders arrested or placed under house arrest, and its members told to join the official Vietnam Veterans’ Organization.


Although individuals have more freedom since market reforms were introduced in 1986, the Vietnamese government needs to stop impeding the development of civil society, which it sees as the greatest threat to its monopoly of power; in particular, it needs to cease interference with the operations of independent churches. International donors can also help facilitate the development of civil society, for example by withholding humanitarian aid to Vietnam if the government prohibits monks and other religious leaders from independently distributing aid. The policy of administrative detention under 31/CP needs to be changed, as it is a real danger to the development of human rights.

Rule of Law

The Vietnamese judiciary, which remains an organ of the state and a tool of the VCP, has never ruled against the interests of the state. Judges are almost uniformly VCP members, chosen for their political loyalty to the regime, and have little or no legal training. Although the education of personnel is improving through training overseas and by foreign donors, the shortfall in educated officials will hinder legal reform and implementation in the near term. The court system budget, which is set by the state, is used as an instrument of state control and political pressure.

When cases are brought to trial, justice is often all too swift. Trials are speedy, with even major cases lasting no more than a few days. Often several defendants are tried together. The trials of political prisoners are just as rapid and are almost always held behind closed doors. Yet there is a commitment to legal procedure, in which the prosecution must provide evidence and make a case, while the defense is allowed to refute the charges; courts are not an ad hoc system of arbitrary justice. Once rulings are made, there is broad acceptance and compliance, simply because rulings are used to reinforce party directives to begin with. There is no set procedure for judicial review.

Vietnam is genuinely trying to move toward becoming what its leaders call a law-governed society; and there has been a rapid pace of legal codification since the late 1980s. (Prior to 1986, the country was ruled by Communist Party decree and by laws written in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1964 and 1986, almost no new pieces of legislation were passed; the national assembly was effectively dormant.) The national assembly has reviewed and passed several major pieces of legislation each year since 1986. New laws include a new civil code and a new criminal code, which have helped regularize the judicial process throughout the country. Increasingly, public and Communist Party officials are being put on trial for abuse of power; although the vast majority are junior or mid-level officials, several senior officials have also been disciplined.

When people are brought before the courts, they are presumed guilty, and the onus is on those accused to prove their innocence. Defense lawyers, provided by the state, are not advocates who can actively provide a defense and who can question and cross-examine witnesses. Instead, they often see their job as fighting for a lighter sentence for their client. Nevertheless, in the recent high profile corruption case of Nam Cam, the defense lawyers were allowed to pursue the most vigorous defense and cross-examination in Vietnam’s modern history. While no official explanation has been given as to why this was the case, it most likely was because the trial was open to the media (thus subjecting the government to external scrutiny) and because the case involved corruption of senior political figures, which the government wanted to probe as far as possible.

Police and military forces are firmly under state control. The military, though constitutionally bound to defend the Vietnamese state, is also constitutionally bound to defend the VCP and the socialist system. The majority of the officer corps are party cadres, and Vietnam maintains the soviet system of attaching a political commissar to every military unit. The military is guaranteed block representation on the ruling Central Committee (currently 13 percent of the seats), and the Politburo always includes at least one military officer. The minister of defense is never a civilian but is the most senior military officer. He is technically a state official, nominated by the prime minister and approved by the national assembly, yet the civilian state apparatus has little control over the military, which maintains operational autonomy. The police are part of the ministry of public security, whose minister is also always a Politburo member. Although the national assembly technically controls their budgets, it has not wielded this power, and the defense budget remains an official secret. The police and the military have a political function and important leadership roles, but they do not undermine the political process. Both institutions accept Communist Party control.

The Vietnamese constitution endorses the principle of equality under the law, yet a major obstacle for proponents of political reform in Vietnam is the inclusion of Article 2 in the constitution, which enshrines the primacy of the VCP. Many dissidents contend that this article alone puts the party and its members on a different legal footing. Those whose ideology or political opinion is counter to the regime’s, or whose religious affiliation transcends what the state deems the lawful bounds of worship, have their rights stripped. Formerly, party members were immune from prosecution. Yet, as public outrage over official corruption has begun to undermine the party’s legitimacy, it has made a show of prosecuting and disciplining corrupt party members.

The issue of property rights is very complex in Vietnam. It is technically a socialist state, but it has implemented many important market reforms. Most important among these were rural reforms: Collective farms were broken down and contracts were approved. Household units were given long-term leases on the land. Although technically the land remains the state’s, individual households have the right to employ the land in whatever manner they see fit, according to local laws and regulations.


The judiciary, which continues to serve the interests of the state, is the weakest link in Vietnam’s effort to become a law-based society. Vietnam needs to undertake extensive legal reform and legal training given the lack of qualified personnel. It should also support the professionalization of the national assembly. Article 2 of the constitution should be removed. It gives the Communist Party a separate legal standing, which undermines the otherwise positive progress toward the rule of law. As long as the Communist Party is recognized in law as the leading force in society, there can be no substantive political reform.

Anticorruption and Transparency

Nearly every independent analysis finds that Vietnam is one of the most corrupt countries in Southeast Asia, even though Vietnamese history and culture are not replete with graft. The cause lies in incomplete economic reforms, which have left Vietnam stuck between a socially planned economy and a full-fledged capitalist system. The state still maintains a vast interest in the economy, including 5,000 enterprises, energy and other critical sectors of the economy, and also some price controls. Government bureaucrats have been the most resistant to market reforms and privatization. There is still far too much state interference in the economy and too many regulations. Some of the most egregious instances of corruption have come from members of the Communist elite themselves. With the marketization of the economy, the political elite and their friends and families were in the best position to take title and appropriate public property. Although the Vietnamese leadership understands that conflict of interest is a real threat and that it is leading to public outrage, the party has proven unable to police itself effectively. Without independent media or watchdog groups, officials will continue to abuse their positions and use their control over public goods to enrich themselves.

Both public laws and Communist Party statutes address corruption, but all seem ineffective. Public outrage over official corruption has soared, often appearing at the top of the list of individual grievances in public polls. The party leadership is clearly concerned with corruption within the party and the devastating effects it is having on the regime’s legitimacy. The VCP launched a two-year so-called regeneration drive of criticism and self-criticism in May 1999, disciplining thousands of members. The party encouraged the press to report on several high profile corruption trials involving state officials or state-linked firms. For example, the recent trial of a gang leader Nam Cam was the largest criminal/corruption case in the country’s history, reaching to the most senior levels of the party and state. Among the 152 people who stood trial were 19 government officials, 14 police officers, 3 prosecutors, and 2 journalists. Fifty police officers were suspended from duty, while two Central Committee members were expelled from their positions and the party in July 2002. The official attitude seems to be based in the proverb, “kill a monkey to scare the chickens” — that is, they will hold a high profile trial that draws massive media attention, with harsh results (the death penalty), to try to deter other officials from engaging in corrupt practices. Yet despite these high profile cases corruption continues unabated.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai announced new regulations in the fall of 1998 requiring officials to disclose their assets annually, but, not surprisingly, the regulations contained a loophole. Although officials are told to disclose their assets of over 50 million dong (US $4,500), they do not have to reveal their sources of income unless there was a radical difference from one year to the next. The regulation also bans the relatives of senior officials from holding certain positions, in addition to banning senior officials from establishing or having a stake in private enterprises. These laws are not implemented consistently.

Improving the tax collection system and internal auditing have been a major focus of the Vietnamese government and multilateral lenders, and internal auditing mechanisms have greatly improved. Although there is still high-level corruption, it is infrequent that the national tax authorities are implicated. Still, there is no independent auditor or ombudsman.

The issue of whistle-blowers against government corruption is unclear. Although the government usually acknowledges that whistle-blowers’ grievances are legitimate, it discourages them from pursuing legal redress through the court system. On the one hand, it is significant that the Vietnamese can petition leaders with their grievances through a written appeals process. This practice has increased in frequency as people have grown more confident that the government will take their grievances seriously, investigate the matter, and punish the perpetrators, not the whistle-blowers. But this is not always the case. For example, in the case of the Thai Binh demonstrations in 1997–98, although the party dismissed 50 cadres and punished 100 more, a larger number of peasant protesters, whose grievances central party officials recognized as legitimate, were nevertheless arrested for threatening peace and stability.

Corruption in higher education is a growing problem that is receiving more media attention. Tertiary education in Vietnam is limited to the elite, with only 3 percent of the population having access to universities, so competition for entrance is fierce Several high profile cheating scandals have taken place in connection with the national university exam. There is also corruption within the university system regarding entrance and grading. However, the most corruption in the educational system is at the primary school level. Vietnamese schools are overcrowded, and as such, they often run three shifts. Parents must pay for their children to sit in the front row and receive the attention of the teacher. Then, after the shift is over, parents can pay the teachers to take students home with them for intensive tutoring.

The use of the media to publicize corruption is a very sensitive issue. Although the media are state controlled, letters to the editors by individuals identifying corrupt officials are encouraged. The trial of Nam Cam was a veritable media feeding frenzy as journalists took advantage of having an unprecedented free hand in covering the trial. This led to some very irresponsible and sensational reporting. When it is politically expedient for the government, the media has relative freedom, yet if corruption allegations involve senior leaders, the press is totally constrained.

The Communist Party does have its own internal watchdog and disciplinary body. Overworked and understaffed, it has shown an inability to police the party with any degree of effectiveness. The government has its own inspection committee, but it is politically constrained. There are no, nor are there provisions for, independent investigative and auditing bodies.

The hallmark of Vietnamese politics, policy making, and judicial proceedings is a complete lack of transparency. People have very little access to government policies, regulations, or information. The national assembly has the constitutional authority to oversee the budget, but in reality it has tended to rubber-stamp it. Still, this is changing, and the national assembly is increasingly reviewing the annual budgets, questioning certain lines. The government is getting better at publishing some financial figures, but the entire state budget remains an official secret. The Vietnamese government has had to become more forthcoming with financial figures as foreign donors have demanded them. But there is little transparency in the awarding of government contracts, including those for foreign investors.


Corruption has become so endemic in Vietnam that it is has the potential to undermine both economic growth and the Communist Party’s political legitimacy. In short, corruption could cause mass political instability and, therefore, must be addressed immediately. The Communist Party needs police itself more effectively. To rectify this situation, greater transparency is needed, as well as a free press. The realization of full economic reforms—such as the complete marketization of the economy, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and the further development of the private sector, including the elimination of laws and regulations that inhibit the ability of the private sector to compete on an equal footing—would also help curb corruption.

Accountability and Public Voice

Vietnam is a one-party state in which the Communist Party monopolizes power and countenances no dissent to its rule. The system is known as interlocking directorates, in which senior government officials are also senior party members. The Communist Party makes most decisions (at least the policy directions) and the unelected government then implements them.

There are national elections for the national assembly; laws were amended in 1997 to outline electoral procedures clearly. Until the 1990s most candidates were hand-selected party members, but the ratio of candidates to seats increased from 1 to 1 in the 1980s to nearly 2 to 1 in 2002, when there were 969 candidates for the 500 seats. Most candidates remain party members; although independent and self-nominated candidates are technically eligible, they are still subject to vetting by the Communist Party, and independents currently comprise a minority of the delegates. In the 2002 elections, 85 percent of the candidates were party members, and 90 percent of those elected were members of the party. However, the vetting process is conducted by the VFF, which can weed out candidates based on minor technicalities; thus, even independent candidates must get party approval.

Once candidates are deemed eligible to run, there is not really a process of open campaigning. Posters and paid advertisements in the media are prohibited, and candidates cannot freely campaign. Instead, the VFF organizes a number of forums in which the candidates simply lay out their positions and take a few questions. Candidates are not permitted to use their own resources or solicit outside funds for their campaign.

At the March 2002 session, the national assembly passed a law requiring that at least 25 percent of the deputies become full-time parliamentarians, acknowledging the need for more professional and skilled lawmakers. The law also increases educational requirements for deputies. The national assembly has the legal authority to appoint and dismiss all government officials, and in several instances over the past few years the assembly refused to ratify the appointment of individuals hand selected by the Politburo.

Roughly every five years, the Communist Party holds a national congress at which a new Central Committee and Politburo are elected. The most powerful leader in the country is the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He is elected by the approximately 150-person Central Committee and is not accountable to the electorate or the national assembly. The president (head of state) and the prime minister (head of government) are both members of the Communist Party Politburo and derive their true power from that membership. The appointments to both positions, however, must be approved by the national assembly.

The civil service tends to be based on patronage, and many positions (especially at upper levels of the hierarchy) are held by Communist Party members. There is no meritocratic system, nor is entry to the civil service based on an objective examination system.

Draft legislation is now routinely circulated and publicized in the media. The government solicits comment and feedback from the public through letters to the editor or group discussion. This is a genuine bright mark in Vietnamese political reform. Still, although individuals may comment on draft legislation, interest groups or civic associations may not.

Although freedom of expression is constitutionally protected, the state controls all media, print and broadcast, and tolerates no independent media. There have been periods in which there was considerable media and literary freedom, but these have been relatively brief and ultimately always met with a harsh government crackdown. The party’s official position on the media remains driven by the tenets of socialist realism: The purpose of the media and the arts is to serve the party and people. The Vietnamese government no longer engages in direct censorship of its media, but it is actively engaged in indirect censorship. For example, editors of the various media, all state employees, meet on a regular basis with party propaganda officials and receive criticism and directives on their coverage. This leads to a tendency to engage in self-censorship.

The party and state own all media organs and thus control the budgets for all media, giving them additional leverage. Foreign publications are still subject to direct censorship if they are critical of the Vietnamese government, and some foreign journalists have not been able to renew their visas. The Vietnamese government has been studying the use of libel laws in Singapore and elsewhere. Opposition figures and social critics are not given access to the official media and have no legal forum in which they can articulate their views. As such, they rely on samizdat publications and the Internet. Those who try to express their views freely are often thrown in jail. Of late, the government has been very harsh with those who post critical views or articles on the Internet. At the time of writing, there were a number of “cyber-dissidents” on trial or recently handed sentences of up to 13 years for using the Internet for political purposes. Under Article 80 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code, one can be prosecuted for sending information critical of the Vietnamese government via the Internet. Additional Internet regulations that the government is considering are requiring Vietnam-based Web sites to obtain licenses and seek approval for any content change.


One of the most pressing issues for Vietnam is the lack of a free press, as the free press would be a vital forum in which different economic and social policies could be articulated and debated, leading to better policy making. The national assembly needs strengthening; the average Vietnamese sees it as the most legitimate organ of state, and most analysts of Vietnamese politics concur that, were the Communist Party to collapse tomorrow, the national assembly would seamlessly fill the void. To that end, Vietnam needs assistance in professionalizing its national assembly, in particular to bring in more full-time parliamentarians and to educate its members and staff. The rapid development of civil society, especially environmental and development-oriented NGOs, is very encouraging, but more politically oriented NGOs are needed.

Zachary Abuza is associate professor of political science and international relations at Simmons College, where he teaches Southeast Asian politics. He is the author of Renovating Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner, 2001) and numerous other studies on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. The above article was excerpted from "Countries at the Crossroads 2004" published by Freedom House.

Copyright © 2004 Freedom House

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