Vietnam is an authoritarian one-party state that looks and feels like a free country.
Local people scoff at the government publicly without fear of reprisal. I saw plenty of men in uniforms from both the police and the army, but they did not look intimidating, nor did they look like they were trying to be. They carried themselves the way uniformed security people carry themselves in countries like the US and Canada.
I didn’t worry for even a second that my hotel room might be bugged. It wasn’t, and if it had been I wouldn’t have cared. There was no need for me to keep my identity as a journalist secret as I did in Cuba and Libya. I’d have to hide my true identity in China too and—especially—in North Korea. But not in Vietnam.
Tunisia was like that before the Arab Spring started. Azerbaijan is too to this day. Taiwan and South Korea passed through such periods shortly before their transitions to democracy.
One might even—with great caution—make a case that the final days of these waning dictatorships were and are characterized by regimes that aren’t really that bad, at least compared with other authoritarian and—especially—totalitarian states.
The idea of a good dictator, in the overwhelming majority of cases, is of course ludicrous. But once in a very long while relatively decent ones will appear. Robert D. Kaplan defines such a rare creature as “one who makes his own removal less fraught with risk by preparing his people for representative government.” He cites Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew as an example.
It’s not that Lee’s government was better than a representative democracy. It wasn’t. Lee was just better than other dictators because he created the necessary conditions for a non-violent transition to something more liberal and open.
“The worse the dictator,” Kaplan writes in his book Asia’s Cauldron, “the worse the chaos left in his wake. That is because a bad dictator eviscerates intermediary institutions between the regime at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom—professional associations, community organizations, political groups, and so on—the very stuff of civil society.”
Saddam Hussein did that in Iraq. Bashar al-Assad did it in Syria. Moammar Qaddafi ruined Libya in precisely the same way, as did Pol Pot in Cambodia, Adolf Hitler in Germany, and the Kim family in North Korea.
I’m tempted to argue that communist regimes have done this in every country where they have ever seized power, but I’m not certain it’s true. Vietnam’s Communist Party reformed itself out of all recognition, first by junking Marxist economics and then by ceasing and desisting from micromanaging Vietnamese citizens’ personal lives. The government did these things voluntarily.
“The good dictator,” Kaplan continues, “by fostering economic growth, among other things, makes society more complex, leading to more civil society groupings, and to political divisions based on economic interest that are by definition more benign than divisions of tribe and sectarian ethnic group.”
Vietnam’s government meets the threshold. Just barely. But let’s be clear about what exactly that means. It does not mean that since the dictatorship is relatively “good” compared with most others that it ought to continue. It definitely ought not continue. It’s only “good” compared with most others insofar as it’s at least arguably possible to transition to a more democratic system without the violence and mayhem gripping countries like Syria, Egypt, post-communist Yugoslavia, Ukraine after the removal of Viktor Yanukovych, Somalia after the implosion of Siad Barre’s communist state in 1991, and Libya after the destruction of the Qaddafi regime.
Vietnam today more closely resembles pre-democratic Taiwan and South Korea, and it’s in better shape, economically and politically, than South Vietnam before it lost the war to the communists. The Vietnamese have no experience with democracy, but neither did the South Koreans before they finally got it in the late 1980s and made it work without many hiccups. The Taiwanese had no experience with electoral democracy either while Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang was still in place, but they transitioned fairly smoothly during the 1980s and 1990s. Tunisia’s transition has been a bit rockier, but they take two steps forward for every slip-up.
I should stress that Vietnam appears to be the kind of place where a mostly non-violent democratic transition seems possible. I could be wrong. Historical optimists are often proved wrong. It has happened to me. It has happened to everyone who thinks they know which direction events might be heading.
To visitors, Hanoi looks and feels like the capital of a free country most of the time, but one must take seriously Bill Hayton’s warning in his book Vietnam: Rising Dragon. “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. 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.”
Thich Quang Do, head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), is the most famous political dissident in the country. He won the Homo Homini Prize for human rights in 2002 and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize nine times. He’s living under house arrest inside a pagoda in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). His crime? Demanding democracy.
“For the past few years,” he said in an interview, “I have been living like a prisoner on a long leash. All day, I stay in my room. I eat one meal per day. The routine is exactly the same as when I was in prison. Outside my door, there is a stool. At lunchtime, around 11 am, they bring my food up from the kitchen and put it on the stool. I take the meal and eat it inside my room. When I’ve finished, I put my tray back on the stool. They come and take it away. Exactly like in prison.”
Al Jacobson at Amnesty International has been working Do’s case since 2002. “We are tenacious after we adopt a prisoner,” he told me. “Since his church is so large, the Vietnamese government considers it a threat and refuses to recognize it. There was a nominal recognition of the Catholic church a couple of years ago, but it has a smaller following than the Buddhist church.”
“Is this primarily about politics, religion, or both?” I asked.
“It’s largely a political issue,” he said. “The church has developed a large following and it’s strongly opposed to the communist government. I follow this closely and I’ve never heard anything from the government that suggests it’s opposed to the church for religious reasons.”
The UBCV wants freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and freedom of assembly. “They’re opposed to the authoritarian nature of the Vietnamese government in general,” Jacobson said.
Recently, when tensions rose over the conflict in the South China Sea, Thich Quang Do wanted to organize a Buddhist demonstration against the Chinese, but the police surrounded his pagoda and wouldn’t allow him to travel. The government worried that a large gathering of people from the Buddhist church for any reason might pose a threat to the government even if the government and the church agreed with each other on the protest agenda completely.
“The government is very astute about how they treat him,” Jacobson said. “They say look, he’s not in prison, he’s in a pagoda. But he doesn’t have rights and we at Amnesty International consider him a prisoner of conscience.”
The authorities may keep him locked in a pagoda rather than prison for astute and cynical reasons, but it’s nevertheless significant that they haven’t thrown him into a gulag like the North Koreans most certainly would have. Vietnam doesn’t even have any gulags. The re-education camps are long gone. I had plans to meet with him myself in Saigon—his people were going to sneak me in and out under cover—but I had to cut my trip short for medical reasons.
“If there were a massive public protest movement in Vietnam,” I said to Jacobson, “how do you think the government would react to it? Would they do what the Chinese government did in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and shoot hundreds of people? I get the feeling they wouldn’t. The country seems too bourgeois for that now.” But I figured Jacobson may have a better feel for it than I do.
“There’s a wide continuum between mass killings and milder forms of repression,” he said. “Freedom of speech, assembly and so on are already restricted, and these are the issues Amnesty International cares about. There are clear violations of human rights in Vietnam, not only with Thich Quang Do but also with cyber dissidents. I doubt there would be a massive violent crackdown against a huge movement, but there’s no way to know that for sure. Either way, it doesn’t change our position at all.”
Vietnam’s government still calls itself the Communist Party, but I saw more market capitalism in Vietnam than anywhere else in the world, including the United States where the economy is much more heavily regulated. It’s a little confounding.
“What does the word communist even mean anymore?” I asked a Vietnamese man named Huy in Hanoi. He calls himself Jason when talking to Americans because it’s easier to pronounce, so I’ll refer to him as Jason from here on.
“Communism today just means we're run by one political party,” he said. “Some people complain about that, but it doesn't matter to me as long as the government creates a good business and living environment, and it does. I don't want different political parties competing with each other and creating a crisis like in Thailand.”
The Thai military overthrew the elected government in May of 2014.
“If you were unhappy with the government, though, could you criticize it in public?” I said.
He laughed. “It's okay. We do it all the time. We're in a public place and I'm not keeping my voice down. You can criticize the government all you want as long as you don't take any action. Protesting the government isn't allowed, but we have had a lot of protests against China recently. We do get anti-government protests sometimes, though, even in Hanoi. It happens in Hanoi more often than in Saigon. People in the south don't give a shit, but people in Hanoi do it more often. The protests disappear quickly, though.”
“What happens to protesters?” I said. “Do they get arrested?”
“No,” he said. “They just get corrected by the authorities.”
Interesting euphemism, corrected. In the United States, correctional institution is government longhand for prison.
“What does that mean, exactly?” I said.
“They're told that protesting is bad,” Jason said, “that it's not allowed, and if they do it again they'll be punished. People hear that and they get scared, so they quit. That's it. Someone who is extremely radical will get one warning, their name will go on a list, and if they do it again they'll be in trouble. But if they go home and don't do it again, they'll be fine. Nothing will happen. Vietnam is not North Korea.”
No, Vietnam is definitely not North Korea. Nor is it Syria under Bashar al-Assad or Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Nor is it as strongly repressive as China. It’s less repressive than Burma (Myanmar) was recently, and the regime in that particular country is beginning to reform itself out of existence. The process isn’t complete and it might backslide, but it’s happening.
“How much has Vietnam changed during your lifetime?” I asked Jason.
“It’s growing very fast,” he said, “especially Saigon. The south is growing faster than the north.”
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
“Why is that?” I said.
“Because the capital is in the north,” he said. “Everything is more restricted here and controlled by the government, but the south is more open. The government let the south open up so the economy could grow, and the money flows from the south to the north. That’s how it works.”
I was surprised to hear that Hanoi is more restricted and closed than Saigon. It doesn’t appear to be restricted or controlled. Looks can be deceiving, of course. Repression isn’t always out in the open. But I have a keen nose for subtle political repression and can say honestly that I didn’t feel any. One of the reasons I’m aware that it does exist is because Vietnamese people were willing to tell me about it in public. The country does not meet the definition of what Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky famously called a “fear society,” where citizens will not say what they truly believe if other people can hear.
“What does the government control here?” I asked Jason. “When I look around it doesn’t look very controlled. What am I not seeing?”
“Bars are forced to close earlier in Hanoi,” he said. “There can be no entertainment here after midnight. In Saigon they can stay open 24/7. Here we have to go home and sleep. We can be out on the street after midnight, but we can’t gather together or the police will come and tell us to go home.”
“What’s that about?” I said.
“That’s what we call the capital law,” he said. “It’s only in Hanoi. We have to disband after midnight.”
There is no getting around it: my Vietnamese colleagues in the media cannot write whatever they want.
I asked a local journalist about how the censorship system works and she seemed to answer me honesty. I will not print her name here because I don’t want to get her in trouble. Vietnam is not North Korea, but it’s not Canada either.
“The government technically owns everything but no longer controls it directly,” she said. “I’m honestly not sure how much press freedom I have or how much self-censorship I engage in because I’m so used to it.”
Fish don’t feel the water.
“No one tells me what I can and can’t write. I just instinctively know the things I shouldn’t say because I grew up here. The rules are not written down, but they change. In the past, for instance, we couldn’t print the word democracy in any context whatsoever, but now we can. Criticism of China used to be over the line, but now it’s okay.”
“What would happen if you broke the rules?” I said.
“The story wouldn’t make it past the editors,” she said. Of course it wouldn’t. News editors have to meet with the Propaganda Department once a week to hear what can and cannot be covered. “If it did somehow get past the editors, they’d get a call from the government and they’d have to fix it.”
Corruption gets covered in the media, but only low level people are named, she said, never ministers or high officials. “When corruption at the higher levels is mentioned by the press, the government in general is blamed rather than anyone in particular in the government.”
Social media sites are no longer banned, but they’re monitored. If you complain about the government on Facebook it’s sort of “okay,” apparently, although the state will be watching. If you make a complaint group on Facebook, things might get a little iffy for you. And if you make a complaint group on Facebook and take it offline and into the street, the rubber is going to meet the road.
Despite all this, Vietnam feels less repressive to me than any other one-party state I’ve ever visited. It’s a lot less repressive than Cuba, its supposed communist brother. The Castro regime strangles everything whereas the Vietnamese government only does what it must to stay in power which, somewhat paradoxically, has led to less control over everyday people’s lives rather than more.
Tunisia looked and felt similar when Ben Ali was still around before the Arab Spring started, when Christopher Hitchens astutely pointed out that “its system of government is fractionally less intelligent and risktaking than the majority of its citizens.” Aside from the regime, things were going rather well in Tunisia the first time I visited in 2004. The state was a pain in the ass, but the society itself was open, tolerant, prosperous, and complex. It’s no surprise—not to me anyway—that Tunisia’s transition from authoritarian rule went smoothly for the most part and did not degenerate into civil war or an authoritarian counter-reaction as in Syria, Libya, or Egypt.
I could be wrong, but I get the strong sense that Vietnam will fare similarly when the trigger point is finally reached. It’s more prosperous and more free than at any time in its history. Things are getting better, and that is what often precipitates successful democratic transitions. When a sizeable middle class first emerges from poverty amidst a slackening of repression it tends to heave a sigh of relief and count its hard-won blessings and live content with its progress so far. But when a new generation is born with no personal experience of a more difficult past, the lack of political freedom is vastly more aggravating. Even older middle class citizens begin feeling secure enough to demand more after a while.
Whatever happens later, it’s clear what’s happening now. Vietnam’s citizens and government have achieved a temporary modus vivendi: if you won’t screw with us, we won’t screw with you. It’s a dismal state of affairs for anyone who’s politically minded, and it’s especially dismal for people like me who write about politics for a living, but most Vietnamese are staunchly apolitical—partly, I suppose, because they have to be, but also because the culture right now is primarily concerned with commerce and economic development.
Arguing about politics is a national pastime in most Middle Eastern countries despite the fact that few are politically free. Citizens can't always talk about their own governments, but they certainly can and do talk regional politics if not both. In the Middle East I always feel like I am in the middle of history as it’s unfolding. In Vietnam that feeling is less. The present is certainly a time of transformation, but there is much less daily intrigue, fewer things happening out in the open. There is no war, no revolution, and no terrorism.
But history is hardly over in Southeast Asia. China is bullying the region. Thailand’s military overthrew an elected government. Burma (Myanmar) is finally moving away from unspeakable repression. How much longer before something similar happens in Vietnam? It’s surprising that Burma is pulling ahead since its starting point was drastically lower, but if it can happen there it can certainly take root in Hanoi and Saigon.
The lack of horrible things happening or getting ready to blow in Vietnam makes my job harder, but the part of me that isn't a journalist, the part of me that's just a regular person, finds it refreshing. The Middle East could use a break from history like Vietnam is getting right now. But that's what it is: a break. The break will end. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.
Washington pressures Hanoi to make specific improvement rather than harping on human rights in general, which is more likely to get results. Generic complaints can be dismissed out of hand, but it’s harder to bat away targeted criticism from friends. Recent progress is modest, but improvements from the 1970s and 1980s have been dramatic.
“My family tried to leave in the 1970s and couldn’t,” Tuong Vi Lam told me. She grew up in Saigon during the war, and her family faced hell when the communists won. “My father and grandfather worked for the old government, so we had no chance there after the communists came. My father had to go to a re-education camp. He was forced to do hard labor in the fields. The camp was supposed to be for re-education, but it was really all about labor. He wasn’t abused, but many were and some were even killed.”
The only reason he was sent to a camp was because he worked for the old South Vietnamese government. He didn’t commit any actual crime. The communists had a list with everyone’s name on it. He got a notice in the mail telling him to report on a certain date.
“They didn’t arrest him?” I said.
“They arrested some people when those who were ordered to report didn’t return home,” she said.
“How bad was it in the south when the north took over?” I said.
“Very bad,” she said. “All the schools were shut down. My aunts and uncles were in college and they had to quit. They just couldn’t get there. Property was confiscated and given to northerners. Communist propaganda was even put in our math books. We had questions like this: ‘Yesterday a soldier killed three Americans and today he killed five. How many Americans did he kill total?’ The books don’t have those kinds of questions anymore, but they did for five or ten years.”
Her father eventually escaped the re-education camp and her family tried to flee on a small boat to a larger boat. The larger boat was so crowded that people had to cram themselves together on the deck. And they got caught.
“Where were you trying to get to?” I said.
“Either the Philippines or Thailand,” she said. “They had refugee camps there. But America was always the end goal.”
She eventually did make it out and lives now in Oregon.
“Why did the government even care that you were trying to leave?” I said.
“Because we were trying to escape the country,” she said.
“Yes, but why did they care? What was the reason they gave?”
“They just said we were trying to leave the country,” she said.
So that was it. Jailed for trying to leave. The entire country was turned into a prison. Jail was just a jail inside a jail.
“They didn’t come up with some other excuse,” I said, “like accusing you of smuggling? They just brazenly said leaving the country was a crime?”
“If you tried to leave the country you went to jail, even the children. Once a month family members were allowed to visit and bring us food and medicine. My father was sent to a camp and sentenced to stay there forever. But he escaped.”
“How?” I said.
“Everyone had to work in the fields in the morning and go back to jail at night,” she said. “One day they were working near a river, and he’s a very good swimmer. When the guards weren’t paying attention he threw a large rock into the water and hid in some bushes. They thought he had jumped into the river. He stayed hidden while they were yelling and shooting. And after four hours when it was dark and no one was around he jumped in, swam seven miles, and ran to my mom’s relatives. They gave him some money and he took a bus to Saigon. He couldn’t go back to the province, but he could hide in plain sight in a city of millions of people. We finally escaped to America and he didn’t return to Vietnam for twenty years.”
The Vietnamese government’s respect for human rights is hardly ideal and would be intolerable if ported over to the United States, but it is improving and it is currently better than at any time previously. That’s something, isn’t it? Surely it’s at least worth pointing out.
The country enjoys no freedom of the press, but foreign newspapers and magazines are available. So is the Internet, which includes information from everywhere about almost everything. That’s not enough—foreign newspapers and websites rarely cover local Vietnamese issues—but it’s also not nothing. At least people have a decent idea what’s going on beyond their borders, unlike the poor souls slaving away in North Korea with nary a clue.
Demonstrations are against the law, but some people go out in the streets and demonstrate anyway. At some point—it’s all but inevitable, really—so many people will demand change simultaneously that fear of doing so will be vaporized.
Impossible to say for sure, but the country could be one screw-up, reform, or mass protest away from blowing wide open. The timing of historical hinge moments is always unpredictable. No one could have predicted that Tunisia’s Mohammad Bouazizi would set himself on fire and trigger the Arab Spring, but it happened and something like it was bound to happen eventually. Authoritarian regimes can only achieve stasis and stability until they can’t. They always fail in the end.
The human rights record of every country on earth must be judged by the same standard. At the same time, it’s only fair to give a nation points for improvement if the improvement is genuine. One should not expect an authoritarian regime, let alone a totalitarian one, to snap its fingers and transform itself instantly into a Jeffersonian democracy. That’s not how history moves.
Pete Peterson—former prisoner of war in Vietnam, former Democratic Congressman from Florida, and the first US Ambassador to Vietnam after the war—agrees.
“When I was ambassador,” he told me, “I wanted to measure progress rather than compare the country to a 100-percent ideal. It did get better, and it’s still getting better. If you were to graph it, you’d definitely see the progress.”
Citizens aren’t fleeing the country by the millions anymore. Re-education camps no longer exist. Landlords are no longer executed. Facebook is no longer banned. Local people aren’t prohibited from speaking with foreigners anymore. Uncensored foreign newspapers and Web sites are available to everyone.
“There are still abuses, though,” Peterson said. “The government doesn’t tolerate opposition and dissidents are nipped in the bud at once. There is a lot of censorship, including self-censorship. Nobody wants to be the tall poppy that gets smacked down.”
The United States nevertheless had friendly relations with Vietnam, as it should. The war is long over. Our two countries share the same strategic vision for Southeast Asia, and our two peoples, despite a terrible history several decades ago, genuinely like each other.
I asked Peterson what he thinks is the biggest misconception Americans have about Vietnam, and I wholeheartedly agree with his answer.
“Not just Americans,” he said, “but people all over the world have no idea how huge Vietnam is. It’s not a wide spot in the road we can ignore. It’s the 13th largest country on earth and it has an enormous military, economic, and strategic capacity. It should not be ignored, but it is. And our blind spot—if we aren’t careful—could create a vacuum that’s filled by someone or something that we do not like.”
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Also, I have a brand-new book out now. Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.