Communist control and capitalist cake

Friday, 4 May, 2012

Until the authorities told him to leave in 2008, Bill Hayton reported for the BBC from Hanoi. The things that made Vietnam, with its almost 92 million inhabitants, so intriguing for him were: “The contradictions inherent in simultaneously having communist control and eating capitalist cake.” The paradoxes of the place, its people, its history and its dynamism make up Hayton’s Vietnam, Rising Dragon, one of the best books written about a Southeast Asian country in recent times. Snippet:

“Many people have assumed that, with billions of dollars of foreign investment piling into Vietnam, political change will inevitably follow. But liberalisation only began because of the need to feed and employ a burgeoning population and even now its limits are rigorously policed. The trappings of freedom are apparent on every city street but, from the economy to the media, the Communist Party is determined to remain the sole source of authority. Rising Dragon Beneath the great transformation lurks a paranoid and deeply authoritarian political system. Vietnam’s prospects are not as clear as they might first appear to outsiders. The risks of economic mismanagement, of popular dissatisfaction and environmental damage — made more dangerous by an intolerance of public criticism — mean the country’s prospects are far from assured. Everything depends upon the Communist Party maintaining coherence and discipline at a time when challenges to stability are growing by the day.

The problem for the Party leadership is how to stay in control. The Party has never been a monolithic organisation; its rule depends on balancing the competing interests of a range of factions — from the army, to the bosses of state-owned enterprises and its rank and file members. In the past this gave it the flexibility to adapt and survive but now seems to prevent it from confronting the new elite who are twisting the country’s development in their own favour and laying the ground for future crisis. As well-connected businesspeople build top-heavy empires with cosy links to cheap money and influence, people at the bottom are being squeezed by increases in the cost of living.”

The visitor to Vietnam is struck by its air of ambition. The race is on to keep step with China and the popularity of English classes suggests that the country sees the world as its oyster. The crowds of hip teens vroooming around the cities at weekends on their motorbikes and filling the cybercafés with their chatter are up for a party, but perhaps not for the Party.

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