The Communist Party of Vietnam have helped bring economic prosperity to Vietnam through market reforms and foreign investment. Now those very successes have created the very conditions that could bring about their demise.
By Oliver Ward
The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) now faces the single biggest threat to its existence: the fallout of their own economic success. The country has maintained socio-economic growth and development since the introduction of the “Đổi Mới” economic policy in 1986. The policy was based on market reforms and opened the country up to foreign investment. But this is not enough to deliver growth anymore. As the country has prospered and grown economically, it has stagnated politically and the CPV find themselves attached to archaic policies and risking their future political survival.
The party remain committed to outdated principles
Throughout the 1980s the CPV constructed a system of “performance based legitimacy”. The construction meant that providing the Đổi Mới reforms continued to deliver growth, the CPV could ensure their continued relevance and survival.
The result is that without continuing to deliver economic results, the CPV’s legitimacy will be in ruins. The country has moved on from 1976 when the party were able to unite the country under the cloak of military legitimacy. If the CPV fail to deliver economic growth now, they will become redundant and their very existence will be under threat.
Foreign investment alone is not enough to drive Vietnam’s economy anymore
The Vietnamese economy is undergoing a transitional period. The pursuit of Đổi Mới policies are no longer sufficient to generate economic growth. Foreign investment, development assistance and international credit cannot guarantee increasing national prosperity and a higher standard of living anymore.
The Vietnamese economy could benefit from several economic reforms. They need to expand into new foreign markets, modernise an ageing industry to expand the hi-tech sector, aid local businesses to increase competition and deal with an ineffective public sector.
The new middle class will want a political voice
The economic reforms since 1986 have created a new urban middle class in Vietnam, which is expanding at the fastest rate in Southeast Asia. In 2012 there were 12 million middle class citizens, in 2020 this number is expected to reach 33 million. This growing middle class have money to spend on consumer goods and holidays. Tam Nguyen, a 36-year-old office worker in Ho Chi Minh city, spoke about how she likes “to spend money on travelling and tourism”. She added “when you have money you think more about it”.
This increasingly large social group is yet to develop a sense of social maturity and unity. However, once they do, they are likely to desire political representation and end the political monopoly held by the CPV.
Half the country’s workforce is employed by small and medium sized companies; these companies make up around 97% of Vietnams 500,000 registered enterprises. This is the group the CPV needs to appease. They are still not popular among this sizeable demographic. Businesses want more competitive policies, better access to credit and secure property rights. The Communist Party of Vietnam will have to modernise and transform to the socio-economic demands of modern Vietnam or they risk becoming obsolete.
The party have adapted and evolved in the past
The CPV have evolved to meet the changing political needs of their population before and can do it again. Their initial Marxist-Leninist ideology yielded to a more pragmatic “Ho Chi Minh” style of thought, which applies socialism to the Vietnamese mentality and demands. The ideology itself is deliberately vague and seems to allow for a broad interpretation of socialism within the Ho Chi Minh banner, but it has worked for the CPV and allowed them to apply a capitalist economy to a one-party state.
The party have also begun to embrace Western style party politics. Openness to criticism and scrutiny have seeped into the Vietnamese political system. Several high-profile PR stunts have also played out in the media, including high profile officials swimming in the sea in Da Nang to ease public fears over pollution.
As the political demands of the nation evolved, so too did government officials. Officials are no longer just party representatives. They have personalities and are presented as capable technocrats and managers. If the party can evolve once again to cope with the shifting political needs of the Vietnamese population, they may be able to hold on to power.
The CPV can evolve again
The new Politburo and Central Committee contain a younger generation of technocrats, willing to embrace new economic requirement and willing to lead the party in their progression. Rising stars like Bui Quang Vinh are calling for the party to make political and economic reforms. They want to see the party brought in line with modern Vietnam and represent the new social interest groups that have emerged within the country.
The Vision 2035 plan was also drawn up in 2016. The plan aspires to bring a higher standard of living, continued economic prosperity, improved environmental protection and sustainability and social equality. The government plan to realise this through economic reform, through the promotion of a level playing field for domestic businesses and strengthening the market economy, and through the modernisation of Vietnam’s industries.
These measures are still currently only words and plans, but for the Communist Party of Vietnam to stand a chance at securing a political future, these words and plans must be turned into actions. The growing middle class and the increasing pressures of delivering economic growth have created a crisis for the CPV. As the voice of the middle class matures, it will begin to sing the song of change. If the government are unable to respond with political endowment and deliver growth through the Vision 2035 plan, heads will roll. The first one to roll will be that of the Communist Party itself.