The Guardian February 6, 2002


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.

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