Sunday, September 17, 2006

Communist Party resolves to stay on socialist path - 2001

VIETNAM: Communist Party resolves to stay on socialist path


(originally published in Green Left Weekly

HANOI — Vietnam will stay firmly on a socialist path as it confronts the daunting challenges of economic reform and equitable development. This was the prevailing theme of the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, held in Hanoi April 19-22.

Representing 2.4 million CPV members, the 1068 delegates to the congress debated and voted on the party Central Committee’s political report, the economic development strategy for the coming decade, party statutes and its leadership.

A change in leadership was seen as the most prominent outcome of the congress. Nong Duc Manh, previously chairperson of the National Assembly, was elected as CPV general secretary, regarded as the country's highest political post. Outgoing leader, 69-year-old Le Kha Phieu, officially stepped down due to age. From a Tay ethnic minority farming family, Manh is the first person from one of the country’s ethnic minorities to be elected as party leader.

Sixty-year-old Manh represents a “rejuvenation” of the leadership and, according to many reports, a compromise choice between the differing “tendencies” within the party, not clearly aligned with what the Western media calls the “reformers” or the “conservatives” in the Vietnamese context, particularly with regard to the pace and depth of economic liberalisation.

According to the April 22 Washington Post, Le Kha Phieu “has been reluctant to push through aggressive economic reforms urged by younger officials ... foreign business and political leaders have been disappointed that this nation has not moved faster to inject free-market policies into its moribund economy, dashing hopes that it would become Asia's next economic force”.

If the party's political resolution is anything to go by, the Post's plea that open capitalism will turn Vietnam into an “economic force” like the collapsed Asian “tiger” economies will fall on deaf ears. While cautiously welcoming the leadership change, the article noted that “political analysts and diplomats say they do not expect Manh to move radically away from a socialist economy”.

Following the release of the draft political report in January, literally tens of thousands of comments on this document flooded in from throughout the country and abroad, offering opinions on the country's priorities and political direction, which were aired nightly on television and printed in newspapers.

Many, like that from Phung Ngoc Dien of Hanoi, stressed that, “while it strives for global integration, Vietnam must remain true to its traditional goals of preserving national independence and sovereignty”, and urged the CPV to defend the gains of the revolution. As Michael Mann, the Australian ambassador to Vietnam, commenting on the formality of the congress noted, “they've debated these issues for so long now, they're sick of it”.

Le Kha Phieu opened the congress with the political report, noting the achievements of the past decade and highlighting the challenges ahead.

Phieu noted that the country's GDP doubled in the past 10 years, at an average yearly growth rate of 7.6%; food production has doubled since the Doi Moi (renovation) policies were launched in 1986, converting Vietnam from a rice importer to the world's second largest exporter of rice; last year's industrial production was almost five times that of 1985; and the number of people living below the poverty line has declined sharply from 55% to 11% during the past decade.

While the list of achievements is long and quite impressive, particularly given the Asian financial crisis, most of the report and subsequent discussions focussed on the obstacles and challenges at hand — including the difficult road to socialism, corruption within the party and discontent among ethnic minorities.

With Vietnam's imminent accession to the World Trade Organisation, and its cautious but ongoing liberalisation of the economy, the CPV is well aware that its proposed “path towards socialism” is a risky one. This path involves “bypassing the establishment of the dominating position of capitalist production relations and superstructure, but acquiring and inheriting the achievements recorded by mankind under the capitalist regime”.

This path “requires a long period of transition with many transitional stages and forms of socio-economic organisation... In the period of transition, there are many forms of ownership of the means of production, many different economic sectors, classes and social strata... therefore there inevitably remain class contradictions and class struggle.”

Manifestations of these contradictions include growing inequalities, particularly between rural and urban areas, and the subsequent rise in discontent in some sectors, notably ethnic minorities, who represent the country's poorest sector.

While the political report urged “extensive development of the private capitalist economic sector in those production and business branches not forbidden by law”, it stressed that “the state-run sector plays the dominant role”.

The party’s socio-economic development strategy document calls for building “state corporations sufficiently strong to operate as the core of major economic groups, such as in petroleum, electricity, coal, aviation, railways, high sea transport, telecommunications, mechanical engineering, metallurgy, chemicals, building materials, import-export, banking, insurance, auditing, etc”.

“Public ownership of the key means of production”, it states, “is the outcome of a developed economy with highly socialised, modern productive forces; it is to be established gradually and will hold absolute superiority once socialism has been built... Our party and state stand for the consistent and long-term exercise of the policy of developing a multi-sectoral economy operating under market mechanisms, with state management and along socialist lines: in short a socialist-oriented market economy.”

While the state will maintain its dominant role in the economy, shares or other forms of private ownership will be introduced for “enterprises where the state does not need to hold 100% of capital”.

Phan Dien, delegate from Danang, stressed that “the party must strongly reaffirm its intention that equitisation will not — whether intentionally or unwittingly — ever lead to privatisation”.

Conscious of the challenges and possible contradictions of a “socialist-oriented market economy”, the congress adopted changes to the party statutes aimed at limiting these potential conflicts. One such change prohibits party members from “exploiting” others by owning private businesses.

The most forceful and even emotional interventions of the congress addressed the issue of corruption, which became a central theme. Apparent among all delegates was an awareness of the fact that “ideological, political, ethical and lifestyle degradation, as well as corruption and bureaucratisation among a not-small segment of party officials and members have become very serious”, and is “hindering the implementation of party guidelines, decisions and policies, causing resentment among the population and eroding their trust”.

In addition to the passionate plea to stamp out “individualism, opportunism, ambition for authority, fame and profit, localism and sectionalism”, delegates adopted concrete amendments to the party statutes, aimed at achieving these ends. Key personnel at district levels and higher can only serve a maximum of two terms; retirement age limits for party leadership will be strictly adhered to; political and professional training for cadres at all levels will be stepped up; leading and management personnel are to be regularly rotated among agencies and localities; and regulations will be enacted to improve direct democracy and ensure greater responsiveness from public officials.

In his acceptance speech, Manh praised Phieu for “leading a simple life and remaining close to the people”, and Manh is well-known to be of the same calibre. For all the antipathy towards Phieu among Western circles due to his military background and “conservatism”, few deny that his campaign against corruption was genuine.

Since 1998 Phieu has acted strangely for a political “conservative”, continually calling on grassroots party members throughout the country to “supervise, identify and denounce” state and party leaders who were corrupt or dictatorial, as he forcefully repeated to the congress. During his term, 3000 members were expelled and 16,000 disciplined for corrupt practices, including some very high officials.

Clearly associated with the concerns about growing inequalities and corruption, were the discussions on ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities in Vietnam constitute 14% of the population, some 12 million people in 54 ethnic groups, nine million of whom are regarded as poor.

In February this year, the country's leadership was alarmed by ethnic minority protests in the Central Highlands. Reportedly, some 5000 people from the Ede and Giarai ethnic groups gathered in the Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces to protest against the loss of land related to the ongoing influx of immigrants to their region. The growth in large-scale coffee and rubber plantations, at the expense of traditional land ownership and cultivation, have been promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Phieu addressed this issue at length: “The ethnic issue is very significant for the cause of national unity and the revolution. We will implement policies on equality, unity, mutual assistance and joint development among all ethnic groups; develop socio-economic infrastructure, increase production, attend to their material and spiritual livelihoods; eradicate hunger and alleviate poverty; improve education levels, preserve, enrich and promote the cultural identities and fine traditions of all ethnic groups; bring about social equity among ethnic groups and between the lowland and the highland people; and reserve special treatment for areas in greatest difficulties, and in former revolutionary and resistance bases.”

The degree of the party's concern was revealed during a recent visit to the Central Highlands by Pham The Duyet, permanent member of the Politburo Standing Board, who pressed provincial state and party leaders to be more “down to earth” and establish closer relations with ethnic minority people to better understand and respond to their needs and problems. The party is now drawing up a specific socio-economic development plan for the Central Highlands.

Frequent interventions from congress delegates addressed the issue. Cu Hoa Van, head of the party's nationalities commission, stressed that economic development in minority regions must be higher than the national average; that the cultural identity, including language and writing systems, literature and art, of each minority must be preserved; that education and training of minorities for cadre development must be stepped up; and that democracy and transparency in socio-economic development programs must be enhanced, with minorities and local people participating more decisively in framing and developing such projects.

This last theme has of late been strongly promoted in the media. “Poor should have final say in poverty alleviation” read the headline on the front of Vietnam News the day before the congress. Under the 1998 Grassroots Democracy Decree, international funding bodies deal directly with people at the commune level, bypassing various levels of state administration and hence undercutting opportunities for corruption.

The ethnic issue may have even boosted Nong Duc Manh's leadership prospects, as his ethnicity is likely to be perceived by party members as a “unifying factor”. Minorities currently make up 17% of the National Assembly, 18% of provincial People's Council chairpersons and 22% of heads at the village level.

The congress also elected a new 15-member (all male) Politburo and the 150-strong Central Committee, the decision-making body of the party between Congresses. The new CC also has considerably less women than the outgoing one, but there has been an increase in ethnic minority members. The highly influential position of “party advisors”, held by aging and respected former party leaders, Do Muoi, Le Duc Anh and Vo Van Kiet, was abolished.

Addressing the media after the congress, Manh emphasised that economic development was the party's central task, and that while growth was important, so was equity. He promised a “democratic working style” and expressed the firm determination of the party and the state to take drastic measures against bureaucracy and corruption. Rumoured to be the “illegitimate” son of Ho Chi Minh, Manh responded to the inevitable question on this topic with, “Yes, we are all children of Ho Chi Minh”.

The new party leader also praised international delegations of Communist and workers' parties from some 30 countries “for their participation in the congress and their comradely sentiments to the party and people of Vietnam”. From Australia, two members of the Democratic Socialist Party (the authors of this article) attended as invited international delegates

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