Behind Hanoi's neon lights:
Vietnam's enduring commitment to socialism
by Thalia Anthony* The vibrant retail activity on the streets of Hanoi is a mosaic of street sellers carrying fresh fruit and pho soup on their shoulders, alongside foreign enterprises that have come to characterise modern capitalism — Nokia, Nike, Coca Cola, Samsung and Konica. Any conservative cynic would dismiss the revolutionary propaganda on billboards as the state's vain attempts to hang onto the relics of socialism and the heroic Vietnamese wars against the Chinese and French colonialists and the US imperialists. Western textbooks often arrogantly proclaim that the US has ultimately won the war as their market penetrates the Vietnamese frontier. The message of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the mass organisations, and the sentiments of the people, tell a different story. Doi Moi — renewal of Lenin's NEP? Western media presents the path of Doi Moi, also known as the "renewal" process, as a capitalist fait accompli. The Party sees this policy of "market liberalisation" as critical to economic development, but only a transient part in the consolidation of their socialist state. The Assistant to the Chairman of the Party's External Affairs Commission, Mr Pham Tien Tu, likened Doi Moi to Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP), which haracterised Soviet policy from 1921-24. Like NEP, Doi Moi is a softening measure to precipitate growth in a war- devastated economy. In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War the state led the growth process with central planning. This was a vital initial step in the unification of the country, the liberation of the South and the "first chapter" in the development of socialist ideology — but was seen as limited in its growth potential. Aside from economics, one of the driving ideological forces of Doi Moi is building the Party and democratising social organisations. The Party believes that economic progress must go hand in hand with improved living standards and the establishment of a stable Vietnamese society and political environment. It perceives that the increase in foreign capital and strengthened trading relations as only valuable in so far as the results are disseminated to the people at a grass roots level. The economic successes of Doi Moi have been forthcoming, especially in opening Vietnam up to the international economy. In 1994, nine years after the policy was introduced, former US President, Bill Clinton, halted the trade embargo imposed on Vietnam. At present, Vietnam receives foreign capital inflows from over 100 countries, totalling in excess of US$ 40 million, and has trading partnerships with 167 countries. Consequently, between 1986 and 1990 growth increased at a rate of four to five per cent, and by 1991 Vietnam had become an "Asian tiger", averaging growth rates of 8.2 per cent until 1995. Despite the Southeast Asian economic slowdown and the events of September 11, its growth has plateaued at 6.8 per cent, the second highest in Asia after China. Such growth rates have brought improved living standards for the majority of people with increased access to goods and services, increased per capita income and reduced mortality rates. The number of households in poverty has been reduced from 55 per cent to 11 per cent. The Party has also reaped rewards with unprecedented numbers of Vietnamese joining the Party (60 percent increase) and the Communist Youth Union, has a membership of four million. The Chief of the International Department of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union claims that the growth of Party organisations is due to the increased confidence in the Party's policies and its tangible results for the people; the reduced bureaucracy in the Party; and observations of the repression, exploitation, and injustice of the world order that has resulted from the fall of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Unprecedented economic development, however, does not mean that foreign companies have been given unbridled reign over the Vietnamese economy. The levels of foreign investment have been assessed cautiously. Long-term investment is secure for only 20-30 years before the state can reclaim it. A large proportion of foreign capital, in addition to private enterprises and equitable shares, is in the form of joint ventures, which ensures a degree of government control. The Communist Party of Vietnam and the National Assembly are confident that Vietnam will reach its objective of becoming an industrial society by 2020. Subsequently, it will enter a new phase of state planned economy. The dark side of the market in Vietnam The Communist Party of Vietnam does not express complacency with their economic achievements. The Party recognises that further efforts are needed to safeguard the population and workers from the inevitable evils of private capital, which have already begun to seep into the Vietnamese social fabric. One of the most apparent shifts that Doi Moi has produced, according to the Party, is the shift in people's mentality towards materialism and individualism, and the cultivation of western culture and its associated values. Such a context makes it increasingly challenging for the Party to instil collective and humanitarian ideologies. It has brought to the fore the inherent contradiction between private means of production and the interests of the collective. It has threatened the previous situation when the social and economic objectives were compatible as there was state and cooperative ownership of the means of production. In addition, the discrepancy between the richest and poorest echelons of society has increased from three fold to eight fold since the introduction of Doi Moi in 1986. But even this inflated figure mocks the capitalist world, which experiences an average rate of inequality at 80 fold. Diminished strength of trade unions One section of society that has fared poorly from increased private ownership is the trade union movement. There are four million members of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, the national trade union body which has a cooperative relationship with the Party and whose members occupy 11 of 119 seats in the National Assembly. These members are overwhelmingly from state-run factories, ranging between 90-95 per cent of the aggregate. The remainder of the members are mainly involved in joint ventures. Since most private enterprises operate on a small scale such as family-run workshops, only four to five per cent are unionised and this number is falling. The Vietnamese Confederation of Labour has been active in advocating the rights of street sellers and small shops, referred to as the "informal sector". Representatives from the Confederation dedicate much of their energies to visiting factories to encourage workers to join their union, and enter into dialogue with employers to persuade them that unions improve industrial relations, especially in avoiding spontaneous strikes. Such an approach has seen many successes. In Vietnam's 11 Nike factories 43 per cent of workers are currently unionised. Consequently, the number of labour disputes has substantially fallen after their peak in 1997-98. One achievement of the Nike trade union is that it has persuaded Nike to employ many disabled people as factory workers. By and large, however, the increased privatisation of the means of production is a threat to the strength in membership and ideology of trade unions. This is of substantial concern as most labour accidents occur in the non- state sector where the priority is profit rather than safety. Joint ventures, for example, do not pass on workers' insurance to a fund — leaving many vulnerable in the case of accidents. Another consequence of Doi Moi has been the increase in unemployment to a rate of five to six per cent nationally, and 10-11 per cent in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city as displaced farmers come to the cities in search of work. The Confederation has waged a nation-wide struggle involving many strikes to force the government to increase employment which it could previously guarantee. Increased threat to women's rights The Vietnamese Women's Union has had to increasingly generate their own funding, as is the case with many mass organisations and newspapers, as government subsidisation has been cut. At a more basic level, the security that was guaranteed under government subsidies and pensions for women is no longer assured. Women with children who lost their husbands during the Vietnam War and are victims of Agent Orange, are among the poorest segment of society and are referred to as an underclass. They receive some remuneration, but levels are inadequate. Women are more likely to receive lower wages in the workforce, especially in the private sector, as they are less mobile and flexible due to family commitments. Currently women's income is less than 70 per cent of male earnings. There has also been an increase in the level of prostitution. Women constitute 60-80 per cent of those living in poverty. However there are very few female beggars because of the minimum income the government guarantees and increased living standards produced by Doi Moi. Many of the rights mothers previously received in state enterprises, such as one hour a day set aside for breast feeding and six months full-paid maternity leave, are not guaranteed in private enterprises. Often private firms refuse to employ women because of the associated maternity costs or refuse to provide maternity concessions. In order to be competitive and maximise "efficiency", the government sector is beginning to follow suit. For example, maternity leave is being reduced to four months. Doi Moi has also seen a decrease in subsidisation for workplace childcare, and an increase in expensive private childcare. The party maintains control over capital Affirming its ideological commitment to Marxism-Leninism, the Communist Party of Vietnam states that its overriding principle is the abolition of class exploitation. The Party has identified a number of challenges which it must work towards in order to ensure economic development takes places in accordance with socialist ideals. Firstly, maintaining a strong state sector is paramount. Secondly, the renewal process must exist in the framework of national unity and an independent socialist state. Thus, the building of the country must be for and by the people. Part of this objective involves minimising Party corruption, extravagance and bureaucracy so it can be closer to the people. Lastly and most critically, maintaining Party leadership is recognised as intrinsic to economic success. Without this, the Party believes socialism in Vietnam would lose its character.
* * ** Thalia is a student who has just returned from a 10-day visit to Vietnam.