Monday, June 26, 2006

These Three Go

I should mention the resignations of the following men:

They are, or were, all important men, but not to the same degree. The Presidency is mostly a "ceremonial" duty, and the National Assembly had a reputation as a "rubber stamp" sort of place - a reputation I think is a little out of date. Mr. Khải, by contrast, was head of government, head of cabinet, and had the powers to approve and remove ministers. Accordingly, most international attention has been paid to his departure. Let the Daily Terror tell the story:

Mr Khai, a Soviet-trained economist from southern Vietnam who grew up during the French and American wars, pushed forward doi moi (renewal) market reforms and last July became Vietnam's first post-war premier to visit Washington. His likely successor, long-time deputy Nguyen Tan Dung, will reap the benefits achieved on Mr Khai's watch when Vietnam, now Southeast Asia's fastest growing economy, likely joins the World Trade Organisation this year.

Mr Khai was the man in charge as the government came under increasing fire from a usually pliant press and national assembly in recent months for failing to tackle corruption and fix infrastructure and other pressing problems. Observers say, however, that Mr Khai will be best remembered for pushing economic reform, earning him praise from the foreign investment community but attacks from the party's ideological old guard. One of the driving forces behind key US trade deals reached in 2000 and earlier this year, Mr Khai visited the United States in July 2005, when he also met Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"Khai put Vietnam back into the world in terms of the economy, and that's quite an achievement," said Jonathan Pincus, chief economist of the UN Development Programme in Vietnam. "I do sincerely believe that he wanted to go faster than he actually did but he had to really resolve the internal political resistance to reintegration with the world economy."

A party veteran, Mr Khai has played by the rules of a system that stresses political control over all aspects of society and tolerates little dissent, while portraying unity and avoiding personality politics. "He does these dry stand-up speeches when you see him on TV that are not terribly inspiring," said one Western observer. "But I think, one-on-one, he has a vision of where he wants the country to go."

"Not terribly inspiring" is an understatement. I have heard him speak. It was last year: April 30th, 2005, I believe. That date was the 30th anniversary of "liberation", and he was giving a televised speech with an English translator. As I remember, he was talking about the festivities that night - about the acts and songs before... and that there was going to be a "laser show" later that night. But I listened in vain for any words about "vision". What did that fateful day, 31 years (now) mean for Việt Nam? What did it signify? What sand goes through the hourglass of the days of our lives? Let's just say that he makes my PM quite the life of the party in comparison. Or as I remarked to a cousin-in-law that night: quan liêu (bureaucratic). He agreed with a smile.

On the other hand, I cannot think of a time where Việt Nam's economy has been healthier. Can you? Let's look at the facts: no war at the moment, 7% annual growth, a fairly stable đồng against the U.S. dollar these days (unlike the hyperinflatory 80s), poverty reduced dramatically, and no sign of a return to the imbecilic collectivization policies of the Lê Duẩn period. Or you can listen to long-term expats. One running thread in conversation is how Việt Nam" has changed in the last 10 years. A decade ago there were cyclos and bicycles, but now there are lots more motorbikes, and even a few private cars. My intuition is telling me that much of this change is due to Mr. Khải's "back room" efforts to free up the economy. Well, good on him, and I tip my hat to him.

It's not all wine and roses. Corruption is way up; I suspect that this is the main reason why Mr. Khải is stepping down. Fortunately, the powers-that-be are allowing journalists to do their jobs and report corruption scandals. (Check the link; it's not one article, but the results of searching for "corruption" at the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Niên. There's more than 200 results coming back.) Industrial strikes are up, "over 90 percent of them caused by employers violating laws and fanned by the authorities’ poor management". Pollution is up, and traffic is revolting, if not down to Bangkok substandards. Yes, this place could be better. but in some ways, Việt Nam looks a lot better when compared to the other "Free Market Socialist Economy", China, up next door. Here, you don't have armies of thugs to evict villagers in land disputes, yet. You don't have thousands of students rioting and vandalizing over the status of their diploma, yet. Industrial strikes, yes - but mass riots, a lot less in this place. Growth here is indeed slower, but income inequality is still a lot less, and in metrics such as literacy and infant mortality, Việt Nam surpasses its northern neighbour. There may be less to blog about here, but it makes for a more peaceful stay.

It's not a complete political shakeup. That would have happened if Nông Đức Mạnh had resigned as well. He's the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Việt Nam. That's the same position once held by Lê Duẩn and Hồ Chí Minh himself. But since he was reappointed for a second 5 year term in 2006, I suppose he's staying for now.

And how will the 80 million people living here react to the departure of Misters Khải, Lương and An? Going by my wife, I'd say mass indifference.