Category Archives: Vietnam

What’s the Matter with Cambodia?

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 258-289:

Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.

At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.

The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]

Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.

Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.

The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”

Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.

Notes: Brinkley’s book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don’t appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don’t even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.

1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.

2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. “Cambodians” never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.

3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.


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Albright Deaf to Cambodia, 1997

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1906-1950:

Phnom Penh was growing increasingly tense. By the spring of 1997 gun battles on the streets were becoming commonplace. Senior government officials from both the CPP and Funcinpec built sandbag bunkers around their houses; guards stood behind them, their automatic-rifle muzzles pointed toward the street.

Both Hun Sen [head of CPP] and Ranariddh [head of Funcinpec] had personal bodyguard forces that now numbered in the thousands. Not infrequently the two sides exchanged fire. Some soldiers and bodyguards were routinely killed. Just outside Phnom Penh both sides reinforced encampments for large numbers of their personal militia members. “The place was stirred up,” Quinn said, and he made a practice of driving around the city in the evening to “look at the guards outside the houses. Were they slumped down, smoking a cigarette, or maybe asleep?” If so, Quinn knew he could relax for the night. “Or did they have their helmets on, standing behind the sandbag with weapons out?”

It was obvious: A war was about to begin. Diplomats from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere began arriving to talk to Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Don’t do it, they would say. Call it off. But no one was listening.

The embassy looked at all the intelligence and made an estimate of when the fighting would start. They placed the date on or about July 1. But then, out of the blue, Washington told [Ambassador Kenneth M.] Quinn that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to stop by for a visit at the end of June, as part of a larger visit to the region. The country was tumbling toward violence, but “she wanted to talk about a success story, and see Angkor Wat,” Quinn said.

Albright was an inveterate tourist. Whenever she could she would visit countries that also gave her an opportunity to see major attractions. Of course, she did plan to meet with Hun Sen and Ranariddh, as other visiting diplomats had, and warn them not to squander the advances Cambodia had made, thanks to the UN occupation and the $3 billion the world had invested in the state. So she was planning a two-day visit, one day in Phnom Penh for business and the second day at Angkor Wat.

Quinn had been sending regular cables telling the department about the deteriorating situation. But he had no way to know who actually read them. A few days earlier three influential senators—John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; William Roth, Republican of Vermont; and Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee—had written Albright a letter, saying that despite receiving almost $3.5 billion in international aid in recent years, Cambodia “has become the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world; scores of journalists, human-rights workers and political activists have been killed in political violence; the government has failed to establish critical constitutional bodies or pass some of the country’s most basic laws; and corruption has infested and overrun almost every government institution.” Was this really the nation that everyone had spent $3 billion to create?

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. Albright was coming to celebrate a new democracy—though, in Washington, she also said, “I will make very clear that it is important for them to proceed down the democratic path.” But Quinn could see that major violence was now inevitable. He told the State Department she shouldn’t come. “People will set out to embarrass her,” he wrote. “There will be violence. That will make her look weak.” He feared that a bombing, grenade attack, or some other violent act by someone trying to embarrass the government would force her to flee. He was looking out for his secretary, but the department “reacted badly,” Quinn said. The tenor was, “What’s wrong with the ambassador? He isn’t on the team. She’s already announced she is coming.”

In mid-June 1997 real fighting broke out between the two bodyguard units in Phnom Penh. Both sides fired assault rifles at each other and tossed grenades. Explosions rattled the city. Thousands of residents locked their doors, closed their shutters, and huddled together, trembling. One rocket landed in the yard just beside Quinn’s house. It happened to be Quinn’s birthday. “My family had arrived” for the celebration, he said. “They stayed in the States while I was there because there was no high school for my kids in Phnom Penh. We were watching a video, The Thin Man, when we heard a click. I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then a big boom. We threw the kids on the floor. My wife and I lay on top of them.” No one was hurt, and damage was minimal. But he called the State Department Operations Center to advise them of what had just happened.

Quinn was vindicated. The next day the department announced a change in plans. Yes, Phnom Penh was a dangerous place. Perhaps Ranariddh and Hun Sen could come out to meet Secretary Albright at the airport and have their talk. Then she could fly on to Angkor.

Needless to say, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were not talking to each other. They spoke with their guns. But they did manage to agree on one thing: There was no way two heads of state were going to drive out to the airport to meet with a foreign minister—even the American secretary of state. What were they, her supplicants? Ranariddh was a prince, heir to the throne, and the head of state. Hun Sen had been the nation’s undisputed ruler for a decade—and obviously planned to assume that status again, very soon. If she wanted to see them, she would have to drive into town, come to their offices. No, they told her. We won’t do it. Ranariddh showed considerable tact when he explained the decision. “She wanted us to come to the airport,” he told reporters, “but Hun Sen and I agreed that if we just met her at the airport, we would be breaking the principles of protocol.” But then he couldn’t seem to help himself and added, “It’s insulting.”

Using the missile assault on Quinn’s house as the pretext, the department canceled Albright’s stop in Cambodia. She’d have to visit Angkor some other time. Nevertheless, the debate over her visit threw off the American Embassy’s carefully calculated time line. Rather than starting on July 1, as expected, the violence would begin five days late.

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Reassessing Blame for the Khmer Rouge

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 581-609:

Much of the scholarship on the Khmer Rouge was written in the first few years after their reign. And most of that was colored by the general disdain, endemic among journalists and authors, for Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and America’s misadventure in Vietnam. It’s hard to overstate the contempt so many people felt, especially Europeans. The more recent broad, scornful view of George W. Bush seems mild in comparison.

In this climate William Shawcross, a British journalist, wrote his seminal book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. It concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory. The liberal media (and I was a card-carrying member; I read and admired his book while flying to Cambodia in 1979) heaped adulation on Shawcross.

Now, thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong. The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread into his own country. And in 1970 the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force.

At the same time, since the late 1950s Sihanouk had spent a decade cultivating the Chinese leadership, Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai. They grew to be Sihanouk admirers and friends—at a time when China had very few friends. Mao gave Sihanouk a magnificent mansion on Anti-Imperialist Street in Beijing and feted him every time he came to town—which was often. The Chinese also happened to be the Khmer Rouge’s primary patrons and advisers. Would Mao and Zhou have authorized Pol Pot to overthrow their very good friend, Prince Norodom Sihanouk?

Lon Nol was, of course, a different animal with different motivations. He gave the Americans carte blanche to bomb wherever they pleased. In 1970, shortly after Sihanouk was thrown from office, he told an American television interviewer why he thought Lon Nol was so eager to give the United States whatever it wanted: “Some officers in our army and many deputies and many members of government want to be your allies because they want your dollars. They don’t think about the destiny or the fate of our homeland.” Even angry and embittered, his words rang true. As before, he called them “more patriots for dollars than for Cambodia.”

When Lon Nol took power, the Khmer Rouge controlled little more than the areas around their jungle redoubts. More recent scholarship has suggested that the American bombing, for all its wanton, deadly results, so disrupted the nation that it delayed the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate victory until after the B-52 campaign had ended, in August 1973.

If Lon Nol had not staged his mercenary coup, most likely the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power. That is, of course, Sihanouk’s view, but other Cambodians hold it, too. Hem Heng, the Cambodian ambassador to Washington, said, “If not for the Lon Nol coup, there would be no Khmer Rouge.” But in his view, that did not let the United States off the hook. “They supported the coup,” he said. “They supported Lon Nol.” The available evidence suggests but does not necessarily prove that theory.

Years later Sihanouk told James Garrand, an Australian television documentary maker: “We cannot remake history,” but “I don’t think I made serious mistakes. You should see Mr. Lon Nol because if we have to go back to the starting point, would he still like to destroy his country by a coup d’état against Sihanouk? Or would he like to restore Sihanouk as head of state? I think your question should be put to Mr. Lon Nol.”

Sihanouk is partially correct: Lon Nol does share responsibility for what was to come. But it is beyond question that after the prince was thrown from office, by allying himself with the Khmer Rouge and urging his countrymen to join, Sihanouk condemned his people to damnation.

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How the South Saved the North in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4187-4227:

The Vietnamese combatants in the Vietnam-American War were not fighting because they hated ‘northerners’ or ‘southerners’. Both sides were heirs to nationalist movements which stressed their attachment to national unity. Their divisions were over ideology, the role of the state in society, religion and many other political issues.

In this long view of Vietnamese history, the 21 years between the division of the country into capitalist and communist in 1954 and its reunification under communism in 1975 seem less important than what went before and after. But those 21 years meant there was continuity in the south between the freewheeling capitalism of French Cochinchina and that of the ‘American’ Republic of Viet Nam (RVN), which was never truly suppressed after reunification before economic reforms began in socialist Vietnam in 1979. Capitalism is a relatively recent introduction in the north but it has been southern Vietnam’s default position for almost all of the past 150 years.

When the communist People’s Army crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in April 1975, it seemed, in the minds of the northern leadership, to confirm Hanoi’s superiority: militarily, ideologically and historically. The north had beaten the Americans. Triumphalism reigned. Hanoi sent another army to the south, an army of northern bureaucrats which tried to remould it into an image of the north without regard to its very different economic situation. But bureaucratic ideology met its match: capitalism was never truly eradicated. More humiliatingly for the ideologues, in those parts of the country where socialism prevailed, hardship endured. Gradually they had to face up to the reality that Hanoi communism couldn’t solve all the country’s problems. Hubris would soon be humbled.

Even now, the extent to which Hanoi’s rule was saved by the south is unacknowledged in public discourse: the ‘Official History’ of Hanoi’s supremacy endures. But if it hadn’t been for that legacy of southern entrepreneurialism, Vietnam might have collapsed. Despite Hanoi’s draconian campaigns in favour of collectivisation and against ‘comprador capitalists’ (mainly ethnic Chinese), old trading arrangements survived. In 1979, when the failure of Hanoi’s policies had become obvious, southern leaders, such as the then Party boss of Ho Chi Minh City, Vo Van Kiet, authorised ‘pragmatic’ steps to make ends meet. The city authorities bought rice from farmers at market prices and allowed those Chinese entrepreneurs who hadn’t fled the country to make contact with traders in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan to keep imports and exports flowing. Such fence-breaking broke the rules imposed by Hanoi, but kept the economy alive.

When, eventually, the failure to make state socialism pay the bills forced Hanoi to open up the economy, the south was ready to take full advantage. The first foreign investors to arrive were the trading contacts of the Chinese community. They found the south more conducive to business: less rule-bound, less ideological. In addition the south had the benefit of roads and ports paid for during the war years by American taxpayers. Between 1990 and 1994, 60 per cent of all foreign direct investment went to Ho Chi Minh City and three of its neighbouring provinces: Binh Duong, Dong Nai and the ‘oil province’ of Ba Ria-Vung Tau. These advantages for the southern provinces were multiplied by a curious arrangement, initially begun as an incentive to encourage economic growth.

The Vietnamese government allowed (and still allows now) provinces to retain any revenue they earn above a set target. In the north, most provinces tried to boost their income by developing the state sector. But leaders from those four southern provinces – more open-minded, less suspicious of foreigners – looked abroad for investment. It worked. Labour-intensive industries such as textiles, garments and food processing flocked in and the taxes and tariffs they paid made their host provinces rich. The surplus (after deductions for kickbacks and patronage) was reinvested in better infrastructure and services, which encouraged other investors to locate there, creating a virtuous circle of growth. Southern leaders, who had been largely excluded from the pinnacles of power since reunification, knew they were unlikely to make it to the top of national politics. Instead, they concentrated on keeping their own constituents happy, untroubled by the need to break national rules to keep the income flowing.

While some in Hanoi disapproved, they couldn’t stop the fence-breaking because the country needed the cash. In the 1980s provinces had depended upon the central government for the allocation of subsidies from the Soviet Union. By the early 1990s the central government was dependent upon the surplus being generated in the south. The quid pro quo was a strong policy of redistribution. Southern surplus still funds government spending across the country, lifting the standard of living in northern and central areas closer to the national average and helping to preserve national unity and the Party’s hold on power.


Filed under economics, nationalism, U.S., Vietnam, war

Vintage Year for Vietnamese Dissidents: 2006

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2486-2519:

2006 was a unique opportunity for Vietnamese dissidents. The country was in the final stages of joining the World Trade Organisation. Negotiations with individual WTO members were followed by drawn-out multilateral talks and then an equally drawn-out process in the US Congress to award Vietnam Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) status, an adjunct to WTO membership. In addition, Vietnam held the rotating chair of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group, during 2006, and was due to host its annual summit in November. Twenty-one leaders had been invited, including the presidents of the USA, Russia and China and the prime ministers of Australia and Japan. Vietnam was also seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. All of this meant the Communist Party was vulnerable to criticism from abroad and therefore less able to crack down on dissent with its usual efficiency.

There was another factor too. By 2006, broadband had fully penetrated Vietnam; internet shops were available on most city streets. Through the net, dissidents managed to surmount the physical barriers the state had erected around them and bridge the gaps of physical distance, of ideology and – at least as important – of ego, which, until then, had kept them divided. Services originally intended to allow teenagers to flirt with each other provided invigorating links with Vietnamese exiles in the United States and elsewhere. Websites such as PalTalk host chat rooms in which hundreds of people can type messages to each other and simultaneously listen to an audiostream or watch video. In effect, each chat room is an interactive radio ‘narrowcast’. Narrowcasters can give out information, make speeches, discuss developments and take questions and comment from the other participants. Suddenly dissidents in Vietnam had access to a new world of ideas and to a reservoir of supporters. Until then many people had been reluctant to trust each other, never knowing who was an informer; but a few overseas activists acted as ‘brokers’ – in effect vetting the dissidents who contacted them and putting them in touch with one another. They also began to provide cash.

With the cost of living so cheap in Vietnam, relatively small amounts of money raised abroad could go a long way. Supporters groups sprang up in Australia (Bloc 1–7–06), the US (Bloc 1–9–06) and the UK (Bloc 10–12–06) and sent in money for dissidents’ living expenses and equipment. With hundreds of thousands of overseas Vietnamese remitting money to relatives each month it was easy to disguise the transfers. They weren’t particularly clandestine; most went via Western Union. Once inside Vietnam, the money was moved by couriers to where it was needed. When police stopped the car of one dissident, Nguyen Phuong Anh, on 15 December 2006, they confiscated 4.5 million Vietnamese dong, the equivalent of about $300, about six months’ wages for the average worker. He told them he had planned to buy clothes for needy paper boys. The money was crucial. It paid for computers, dozens of mobile phones, and hundreds of SIM cards to enable the dissidents to stay in touch even as the security services tried to disconnect them.

But useful as the internet was to the dissidents as an organising and discussion tool, it was much less effective as a proselytising force. The national firewall prevents the casual web-surfer accessing dissident websites and intercepts unwelcome emails. That didn’t stop one middle-aged Ho Chi Minh City-based activist, though. At night, after his family had gone to bed, he would trawl Vietnamese discussion sites and blogs harvesting the email addresses of anyone making critical comments. Then, with his harvest complete, he would send out two or three hundred emails with details of dissidents’ activities. He would tell them about strikes and how to form trade unions and about lobbying activities in the United States. But he couldn’t send all the messages from one email address because he feared the security services would soon track him down. So instead, he laboriously maintained dozens of different accounts and sent just a few messages from each one. It worked, and he managed to stay below the police’s radar. But even this very direct mailing had limited success; the phantom spammer estimated his response rate was less than 1 per cent. So even with all these technological innovations the number of active dissidents remained small.

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Changing Role of Media in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Locs. 2931-2947, 3019-3044:

Right from the beginning of doi moi, Party leaders wanted the media to act as an agent of reform. The Politburo knew that hundreds of thousands of people had grievances about corruption and mismanagement by local officials and that it didn’t have the capacity to address them all. So, in effect, it delegated some of the power of inspection and exposure to the media. A new Press Law, formally approved in 1990, specifically gave journalists the right to gather their own information and made it an offence to obstruct their work. Simultaneously the end of Soviet aid meant the end of subsidies. Newspapers and magazines had to actively sell their product – and therefore offer something readers actually wanted to buy. Just as in every country with a freer press, editors discovered that the best thing for selling papers was crime. And who better to publish crime stories than a newspaper owned by the police themselves? Readers of Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Police) are treated to a diet of sex and murder – with reportage straight from the horse’s mouth. The editorial line of the paper both terrifies the audience and reassures it that the police are on hand to catch the bad guys and keep the streets safe. It’s a successful mix, making it easily one of the country’s biggest selling papers.

The once near-monopolistic Nhan Dan, on the other hand, is kept afloat by the obligation placed upon every Party and government office to buy a copy. If it were left to survive on its street sales it would have gone bust long ago – it’s almost impossible to find in newspaper kiosks. The people don’t want to buy ‘The People’. Nhan Dan is not alone. Quan Doi Nhan Dan (the army newspaper) and Hanoi Moi – published by the Hanoi City Communist Party branch – are also kept going by compulsory purchase arrangements. Instead consumers have turned to papers which have built a reputation for uncovering corruption, exposing malpractice and widening the boundaries of what it’s acceptable to print.

The search for profit usually tops almost all other considerations – including, from time to time, ideological instructions. It’s sometimes a major battle for the Party to keep control. The local TV networks in Hanoi, and particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, now make so much money from advertising that they don’t need state subsidies – and if they don’t need the money why should they take the state’s instructions? The answer so far is that Party discipline has been stronger than the lure of cash but such divided loyalties are becoming more and more difficult to manage. So much so that the Prime Minister was forced to issue his December 2006 directive ordering tighter control over the press, in which he said Vietnam would never allow privately owned media.

But one media outlet is already almost entirely privately owned. The hugely popular online site,, started life as a project of FPT, the Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology, wholly owned by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Under its highly entrepreneurial management (led by Dr Truong Gia Binh, former son-in-law of General Giap: see Chapter 1) FPT has grown from its original 13 employees into an employer of several thousand, with a series of IT outsourcing contracts for companies in Japan and Europe. It is also one of Vietnam’s largest internet service providers and telecoms companies. In 2001 it set up its own online news site – and just like VietNamNet-TV it did so without a government licence. Initially was classified as an ‘internet content provider’, meaning that it could only publish material that had already been published elsewhere. By selecting the stories which the site’s editors thought would most interest readers and by focusing on information rather than ideological comment it rapidly reached a huge audience. Its business plan required it to reach 200,000 users within a year and a half. It achieved this within four months. But by the end of its first year in business it had already made profits from advertising of $70,000. It was the only unsubsidised website in the country. After more than a year of lobbying, eventually received its licence from the Ministry of Culture. It was surprisingly easy. At the time it seemed to the leadership of that the Ministry didn’t really see the point of an online newspaper or understand its potential significance.

As it has evolved, the parent company of, FPT, has grown far away from its roots. Just 8 per cent of its stock is still owned by the state, around 80 per cent by its employees and foreign investors (including the venture capital arm of the US chip-maker Intel), with the remainder held by investment houses based in Vietnam. Thus one of the most important Vietnamese news outlets is almost wholly owned by private interests in contradiction of government policy. Its survival rests less on the law than on the balance of relationships between the company’s patrons and potentially hostile forces in other parts of the Party and government. FPT has become one of Vietnam’s biggest companies and its connections run deep into the Party leadership and into the boardrooms of some of the biggest global corporations. It has no shortage of allies to call upon if it’s ever put in a difficult position. For the time being, its most controversial subsidiary, exists in a curious legal limbo.

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Methods of Social Control in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1550-88:

Since the 1990s, the ‘Cultured Families’ [gia đình văn hóa < 家庭 Ch. jiating, Jp. katei ‘family’ + 文化 Ch. wenhua, Jp. bunka ’culture’] campaign has become more prominent, mainly because of the failure of a more heavy-handed system. From the earliest days of communist Vietnam, the cornerstone of social control was a system of household registration called the ho khau [= hộ khẩu 户口 < Ch. hukou, like Jp. 户籍 koseki]. It still exists. Every person has to be registered in a specific place at birth. If they want to move, they need the consent of the authorities both where they’re registered and where they want to go. Borrowed from China, the system was initially intended to control anti-communist resistance. Over subsequent decades, even though the central state lacked the resources to ensure it was fully implemented everywhere, it became the basis for economic planning, the provision of social services and the distribution of food and goods.

As the economy liberalised, however, it became easier for people to evade the system. The distribution of state-supplied jobs, food and housing had once been largely dependent on holding a valid ho khau, but as more goods and services became available on the open market, its power was reduced. Villagers left their villages without permission, unregistered housing sprang up in the cities and illegal traders tramped the streets. Daily life could, to a larger extent, bypass the authorities. (Hence the need to augment the ho khau with the ‘Cultured Families’ campaign.) The ho khau survives, however, because it continues to be a useful tool for the state: it reduces migration, provides useful economic data and, above all, helps the police to keep tabs on people. It’s another lever in the official tool kit. Anyone without a valid ho khau is permanently at the authorities’ mercy. Unregistered households have to build a life’s worth of corrupt relationships simply to keep living and working in a particular place. If they misbehave, life can get very difficult.

The consequence for the unregistered can be severe. If an unregistered couple wants to get married, register the birth of their child or even be buried in the cemetery they will find it difficult, sometimes even impossible. They could return to the place where their official ho khau was registered, but if they have been absent for more than six months, they may find that their name has been removed from the register. As a result they will be officially beyond the law. Often the only way to survive is through bribery – paying local officials either to grant them a ho khau or to turn a blind eye whenever they need to do something which requires it. Their births won’t be registered or their marriages licensed, their housing will be illegal and their living conditions precarious. They’re not included in population statistics, poverty calculations or social services provision. More than a quarter of the babies born in 2000 weren’t registered. In just one year that implies 250,000 undocumented children. As a result, the government was forced to adjust the rules to fit reality. New laws and regulations were introduced from 2004 allowing children to be registered where they are born, not where their parents’ ho khau was issued. But local authorities are reluctant to regularise so many new inhabitants whom they would then be obliged to take care of. Consequently communities are growing up across Vietnam, perhaps a few million people in all, who do not officially exist.

In spite of this, and other, clear evidence of the failure of the ho khau system, there’s no sign of it being abandoned. In part, this is because it continues to perform its original function, allowing surveillance of the population. In addition to its more general roles in controlling movement and guiding economic planning, the ho khau is the basis of the Public Security Ministry’s system of political records, known as the ly lich [< 履歴 Ch. lüli, Jp. rireki, as in rirekisho ‘curriculum vitae’]. The ly lich has a long history. In its original incarnation, in the 1950s, individuals were obliged to write their life histories for the police. Those who had worked for the French, been members of non-communist political parties or were part of the landlord class, or whose parents or grandparents did so, could then be kept out of important positions or pushed down the queue for goods and services.

Today the legacies of those old ly lich continue to blight the lives of descendants, particularly among former officials of the old Saigon regime and their children. And new ly lich are still being written. The essay format continues to be used for most people applying for jobs in the public sector and for anyone wanting to join the Communist Party. But the police also compile their own ly lich on those they consider subversive or worth watching – journalists, foreigners, those who have contact with journalists and foreigners, and so on. It may no longer be a universal requirement and it’s no longer such a public procedure but it continues to exist in the processes of the Ministry of Public Security. From secret police files and residency permits to neighbourhood wardens and cultured family campaigns, Vietnam has built a low-tech but effective system of near-total surveillance.


Filed under education, family, migration, philosophy, Vietnam