Saturday, July 01, 2006

Meet the new bosses, almost the same as the old bosses

The old guard go, and the new guard come. The Asian Times has the story: Vietnam's south takes leadership wheel. Read it all.

HO CHI MINH CITY - Conventional wisdom has long held that Vietnam's communist north may have won the war 30 years ago, but the capitalist-friendly south has won the peace. Recent changes in the makeup of the ruling Communist Party's leadership dramatically underscore that point.

The party reshuffle reflects the growing prominence of southerners in Vietnam's national politics. If all the new leadership is ratified, as expected, two of the three top leaders will be from the south, a departure from the past convention of having one person from each region - north, center and south - represented in the senior leadership.

This represents a significant change, indicating that commercially savvy southerners are now rising faster than northerners inside the party. The average age of the new Politburo is five years younger than the outgoing one, and seven of the 14 newly announced members are from the country's more entrepreneurial south.

I'm not sure I like this change. More commercially savvy government is good. But changing the "North, Center and South" troika is bad symbolism, even if only symbolism. The geography of Việt Nam does not encourages centralized government, unlike France, a Paris-centred place, or Indonesia (where the densely populated island of Java makes a natural core). You have a 2000 km long country, with two big cities at either end: Hà Nội and HCMC, respectfully. That gives the country two areas of natural development. The problem is that the geographical centre area is in danger of becoming the new periphery. That includes highland provinces like Kon Tum, and the impoverished location of the old DMZ, Quảng Trị. The centre can and should not be left behind. There are ways of providing development.

Unfortunately, moving a oil refinery away from the gas and oil rich areas around Vũng Tàu is not one of them.

There are still some indications that communist leaders in Hanoi have not completely gotten with the reform program. In January, Hanoi abruptly decreed that the minimum wage paid at foreign-owned factories would rise by 40%, a move designed to end mass strikes by garment workers in the south. Similar government interference has plagued the development of the country's first oil refinery, which has been snagged in red tape for about seven years.

Moreover, two major foreign investors have pulled out of the $1.5 billion project because government officials insist the refinery be located not in the south, near existing ports and oilfields, but in the center of the country, in the hope of aiding that region's development. And the specter of corruption, particularly in massive infrastructure projects, still casts a long shadow over the party after a scandal that saw the resignation and arrest of high-ranking Transport Ministry officials.

On the other hand, I do agree with the wage raise. No, foreign investors do not like wage raises, nor do certain investment consultants acting as journalists writing from their comfortable desks. The problem is that the existing wages were appalling. $40 a month, or 640,000 đồng a month, is subsidence level, even here. It is urban poverty. It will get you a boarding house, and a minimum of nutritious food, but you probably won't get to spend too much time with your family, because you'll probably be working weekends as well. The current wages aren't too good either: $55 if you are living in the big cities. The problem is that if you raise the wages, then investors turn off, which means you end up with less cash in the country. What to do... what to do... Well, killing corruption would be a good step forward, rather than the current S.O.P of just stinging it. That would give some more cash to redistribute to the deserving.

Returning to the Asian Times, one stanza stands out:

After the northern and southern parts of Vietnam were reunited after the war with the US ended 1975, communist authorities made it policy that the northern capital city Hanoi should develop faster and grow more prosperous than the southern Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

Yep. That's what I always suspected. But it didn't work too well, did it?