Tuong Vu on the Reappointment of Communist Chief Nguyen Phu Trong

Tuong Vu is professor and department head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Oregon. He has held visiting appointments at Princeton University and National University of Singapore and taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. Vu is the author or editor of five books, including The Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation-Building (Cornell, 2020), Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge, 2017), Paths to Development in Asia: South Korea, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia (Cambridge, 2010), Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture (Palgrave, 2009), and Southeast Asia in Political Science: Theory, Region, and Qualitative Analysis (Stanford, 2008). He has also authored numerous articles on the politics of nationalism, revolution, and state-building in East and Southeast Asia.
Amari Huang CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Tuong Vu on February 24, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Tuong Vu.

What are the most important outcomes of the recent national congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party? 

The most important outcome is the selection of new members of the central government and new members of the Politburo, central commissions, and departments. What do these outcomes mean though? As we see from the list of people selected, Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong, the current secretary-general is re-elected for another term, a many of his conservative associates also join the Politburo. This shows further consolidation of the conservatives in the party. Based on that, there is going to be much continuity in terms of domestic and foreign policy. There is also potential political instability due to the uncertainties around Mr. Trong’s declining health and his likely successor.  

Can you expand on the political instability concerning Nguyen Phu Trong’s declining health? 

He had a stroke two years ago. He barely walked after that, so he's clearly in declining health. He has also been in office for two terms and this is going to be his third term. It is unclear what will happen in the next few years: he might suffer from a sudden heart attack again, or he might be unable to keep up with the demands of his office. This creates some uncertainty about who will replace him if he is simply incapable of fulfilling his duties. There will likely be intense factional fighting for the most prominent jobs in the party.  

In order for Nguyen Phu Trong to be reappointed as Communist Chief, party leaders had to ignore two rules of Vietnam’s Communist Party: the chief is supposed to step down at age 65 or after two terms. What implications does the breaking of these rules have on the Communist Party?  How unified is the current regime? 

The violation of the two rules clearly is evidence of factional and personal politics, which trumped party rules and norms. This created a bad precedent for the future and generated resentment at lower levels because some of them have lost a chance to be promoted to the top positions at the Congress and now have to wait for another five years.

Overall, it suggests a crisis for the Vietnamese Communist Party in terms of its inability to break away from existing practice of being too dependent on the elderly leaders, and in terms of its failure to groom young leaders even though that has been their emphasis for a long time. There is a crisis of policy as the leaders have become old and unable or unwilling to embrace new ideas that will help the country become stronger. There is also an institutional crisis in  because  party rules were violated. These rules are supposed to help maintain stability of the party but once they are violated, in the future anyone can try to change them to serve their interests.  

What does the fact that the Central Committee could not reach a consensus about who would replace Mr. Trong mean for stability in politics for Vietnam? How does Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is known to be more pragmatic, compare and contrast with Mr. Trong? How do the other potential candidates compare to Mr. Trong? 

There are two or three people who can replace Mr. Trong if he steps down either because of ill health or at the next Party Congress in 2026, . Each of these people represents a party faction, and they are all going to try to take over Mr. Trong’s position. Mr. Phuc, the current Prime Minister, would be a possible successor. Mr. Phuc is certainly more pragmatic, than Mr Trong. He is also more friendly to the West and more friendly to businesses than Mr. Trong. Mr. Trong is known as a conservative who is mostly interested in protecting the party and the regime but not as interested in the economic policy. Their power bases are also different. For example, Mr. Phuc’s power has been built within the government and he's also from the central region, whereas Mr. Trong is from the North and has built his career in the propaganda apparatus of the party. They represent different institutional interests within the state, and different regional interests within the country. 

The second person is Vuong Dinh Hue who is currently the party secretary of Hanoi. He is from the North, an economist trained in the former Czechoslovakia, and he was formerly Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister. He is closer to Mr. Phuc in the sense that he is more technocratic than ideological. But his Northern background is more similar to Mr. Trong, so he is somewhere in between the two. The fourth person is Mr. Pham Minh Chinh who's currently the head of the Party’s Central Department of Organization. He was trained in communist Romania and is a Northerner. He also worked in the security apparatus for many years, so he represented the branch of the state that deals with security and intelligence. He shares a concern about regime security with,  Mr. Trong. He is also closer to China, which makes him more similar to Mr. Trong. The fourth person is Vo Van Thuong who is the youngest member of the Politburo. He's from the South and has worked in the propaganda apparatus. Usually, the general secretary position has been reserved for a Northerner, so it would be a long shot for Mr. Thuong to rise to that position. 

For the previous two years, Vietnam’s GDP had grown 7%, and this year Vietnam’s GDP has grown almost 3% despite COVID-19. Additionally, Vietnam has been successful in battling COVID-19 with only 1,837 reported cases 37 deaths. How does Vietnam’s success affect the party’s legitimacy?  Are there any vulnerabilities the party is worried about? 

Success in controlling COVID-19 has boosted the Vietnamese government’s legitimacy, especially in the urban areas because many urban people travel abroad, and even if not, are likelier to know what is going on in other countries. They appreciate the Vietnamese government’s success. On the other hand, people in the countryside,  do not care very much. The government’s strong-arm tactics of tracking people down and closing down entire communes or neighborhoods have hurt lower classes and rural communities a lot. The impact of COVID-19 success on lower classes is not significant or may even have created resentment.  

The main concern for Vietnamese leaders at this point is that, even if the country is not affected by the pandemic, the economy still suffers from declining exports. If the US and European economies continue to be in recession, they will not buy as many Vietnamese products as they used to. This lack of a need for market for their exports might even have brought Vietnam closer to China during this last year.  

Many people regard Nguyen Phu Trong as a symbol for balancing Chinese and American interests. What impact will change in leadership with the election of President Biden in the U.S. have on Vietnam’s relationship with these two countries?  

Mr. Trong prefers a close relationship with China because it is communist, but he understands that Vietnam needs the US market for its exports. Economic growth provides legitimacy for the Vietnamese Communist Party. The dilemma is that, he wants to take advantage of the US economically but at the same time, he is suspicious of the US’ intention to subvert communist rule in Vietnam. The US frequently and publicly criticizes Vietnam’s violations of human rights and its repression of democracy activists. In the last five years, the Vietnamese government has sentenced many activists and journalists to 10 to 15 years in prison. President Trump largely ignored human rights issues and mostly focused on trade, but President Biden is more like Obama before him. He is also concerned about human rights, so I would expect the relationship between Vietnam and the US to become less friendly in the next four years.  

Why do you think Vietnam has long played a balancing act between the U.S. and China? How has it contributed to their growth?  

The security of communist rule in Vietnam dictates that the party must maintain a close relationship with China because China has a similar communist system and is not expected to try to overthrow the Vietnamese communist system. On the other hand, the US has supported various activist groups that demand democratization of Vietnam. The security of their regime, then, depends on a close relationship with China and on access to the US market. Due to conflict between Vietnam and China over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea during the last decade, Vietnam increasingly depends on the US in limiting China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. However, unless China were to act more aggressively in the South China Sea, Vietnam would not move closer to the US because they believe that the US is too politically and culturally dangerous.  

This relationship with the US has contributed to Vietnam’s economic growth. Vietnam enjoys a huge trade surplus with the US right now. Vietnam is number four on the US list of countries that are engaging in unfair currency manipulation and trade practices to have a huge trade surplus with the US. More recently Vietnam has become a transit country for Chinese firms to move their products through to avoid higher taxes from the US for goods made in China. Vietnam has benefited from the middle position, but I would argue that the Vietnamese would benefit a lot more if they move closer to the US and not depend on China economically. This is because if Vietnam wants to industrialize like Japan or Singapore, then they would need to have a closer relationship with the US as Japan and Singapore do. Currently, Vietnam mainly relies on low-skilled labor to produce cheap goods for exports. This growth can only lead them to a middle-income level but not to industrialization.  

Do you see Vietnam’s close relationship with China continue given China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea? 

This is a problem that has created division within the Vietnamese communist party and the loss of the party’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Vietnamese. There has been immense popular domestic pressure on the Vietnamese government to defend Vietnamese sovereignty in the South China Sea more forcefully. This pressure has been manifest in numerous protests in the last decade against China. The Vietnamese government has been caught in the dilemma because they don't want to create problems in their relationship with China nor can they afford losing legitimacy. They thus cracked down on protesters but at the same time allowed some criticism of China to be voiced. They also have responded positively to US offers for cooperation. The US wants to use Vietnam as check on China’s power, and Vietnam has been more and more open to the US overtures. As the trend continues, Vietnam will be forced to move closer and closer to the US, one inch at a time. But the fundamental policy is to prevent war with China because they expect to lose politically and militarily. 

Amari Huang CMC '23Student Journalist

Ron Przysucha / U.S. Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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