Punitive Social Work in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1379-1432:

The official response to public prostitution, public drug use and public vagrancy is the same: first of all try to persuade the offender to change their uncivilised lifestyle and then, if they fail to reform, remove them from the city. Control of what the authorities still call ‘social evil’ falls, not to the police, but to the local People’s Committee. Party cadres will visit uncivilised households, Women’s Union activists will try to persuade prostitutes to give up their trade and local neighbourhood wardens will try to organise neighbours to fight antisocial behaviour. But if they fail then the People’s Committee – not the court – will order detention. The campaign to promote civilised living has co-opted the old ways of dealing with social problems: exclusion and re-education.

From political dissidents in the 1950s, to army officers from the defeated south in the 1970s, to prostitutes and drug users now, the Party has long treated ‘deviants’ on the premise that it can change their minds and make them ‘better’ citizens. Re-education is an unsettling combination of liberalism and totalitarianism. On the one hand the regime believes that most of those with unacceptable behaviour can be ‘reformed’, but on the other it has a very rigid definition of acceptable behaviour. In practice, re-education has been far from liberal. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former southern soldiers, officials and dissidents died from abuse and neglect in re-education camps after the war and these days the centres set up to reform cases of ‘social evil’ more often harm their inmates than help them.

Male drug users are sent to ‘06 centres’. Female sex workers, who may also be drug users, are sent to ‘05 centres’ and street children to social protection centres. These are usually in remote places and although they are managed by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) rather than the Ministry of Public Security, in practice they are run like prisons. There are more than 80 state-run 06 centres in the country, each holding around a thousand inmates. There are few, if any, trained drugs counsellors or social workers in the centres; staff are simply allocated to work there by the Ministry. Inmates are all treated the same; little attempt is made to understand individuals or why they might have become involved with drugs or sex work. Re-education isn’t exactly stimulating. Half the day is spent memorising Party positions and the laws on crime, and chanting slogans such as: ‘The whole nation condemns social evil’. The rest is spent performing manual labour. The inmates wear blue striped pyjamas, conditions are hard and they are frequently beaten.

Unsurprisingly, the centres usually fail. They keep people off the streets for two or three years but then return them to the same neighbourhood and the same social problems, and the result is almost always the same. They’re then likely to be picked up again and sent away for another spell in the camp. While the centres may give the authorities the impression that they’re in control of the problem, in many ways they’ve made it worse. Surveys suggest that 60 per cent of the inmates of 06 centres are now HIV-positive. Though the authorities deny it, intravenous drug use is rampant and there is plenty of unsafe sex between inmates. Given that neither problem is supposed to exist, MoLISA refuses to provide them with clean needles or condoms. Maintaining the Party line has failed to change inmates’ behaviour. Instead it’s just increased the prevalence of HIV.

Party experts and government officials are struggling to find new ideas for ways to cope with the problems of the new society they are building. The top of the hierarchy clings to the utopian idea that socialism can solve everything. Theoreticians still argue over the legacies of social thinkers like Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim and their implications for solving the country’s problems. The lower levels try to cope using whatever resources are to hand. Social work – once abolished on the grounds that it was unnecessary under socialism – is being encouraged again. Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, are being allowed to provide social care; ‘empathy groups’ of families of people with HIV are being allowed to organise autonomously of the Party; and international experts from the UN and other agencies are being invited to advise on new strategies. Western-trained practitioners are turning local NGOs into agencies to try to treat the problems directly.

The problems are tying the Party’s ideologues up in ideological knots. For decades they argued that social evils were the result of foreign and capitalist influence, starting under the French and continuing under the Americans. Trying to explain why they have surged now, under Party leadership, has pitted theorists who hold the line that socialism has the answers against practitioners who work on the assumption that it hasn’t. It seems unlikely that the old line can be held for much longer but it still has powerful supporters. They don’t understand the new world they have created – they still announce strategies calling for a 90 per cent reduction in crime, for example – and for the time being it’s easier to fall back on traditional ideas than seek out new ones. Other arguments are familiar from other countries. Why should money be spent on those who’ve abused the Party, state and nation’s generosity when loyal citizens get by with less? Many people, addicts’ families included, see the re-education camps as a good solution to the problem. Families have been known to imprison their own children at home or bribe the army to send them to bases on remote islands to prevent them using drugs – why should they be opposed to sending them away to an 06 centre?

Similar dilemmas exist over street children. There are few sights which offend urbanites – Vietnamese and foreign – more than seeing children living on the street. Compared with most cities in Asia, the number of visible street children in Vietnam is relatively small, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The authorities in the two big cities take dramatically contrasting approaches. Hanoi tends to be more hard line, regularly rounding up apparently vagrant children. In Ho Chi Minh City they are more tolerant. In Hanoi shoe-shine boys have learnt not to carry the tools of their trade openly. Instead they buy a school uniform and carry the brushes and polish in a rucksack so that the police don’t spot them. They also take less visible jobs, working in the markets rather than selling postcards in the tourist areas. In Ho Chi Minh City, tolerance has allowed well-organised trafficking rings to flourish. They ‘rent’ children from poor families, particularly in the centre of the country, promising to take care of their accommodation and employment. They tell the families the children will be trained and well looked after but the kids are usually put to work as cheap labour; selling flowers, cutting cloth and working in restaurants or as domestic servants. Sixteen-hour days, minimal wages and Dickensian accommodation are the norm.

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Filed under democracy, disease, drugs, economics, education, Vietnam

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