Vietnam’s Quiet New Autocrat Is Consolidating Power

President Nguyen Phu Trong is drawing from Xi Jinping's playbook.

Vietnam communist party chief Nguyen Phu Trong takes the presidential oath at the National Assembly hall in Hanoi on October 23, 2018.(/AFP/Getty Images)
Vietnam communist party chief Nguyen Phu Trong takes the presidential oath at the National Assembly hall in Hanoi on October 23, 2018.(/AFP/Getty Images)

When Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong took the presidential oath on Oct. 23, after receiving only a single dissenting vote in the National Assembly, comparisons with Chinese President Xi Jinping were inevitable. For the first time since Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s boss, who for decades has been the country’s de facto top leader, also holds the ceremonial position of head of state. No individual party boss has consolidated as much power as Trong since Le Duan, the wartime leader who took power from an ailing Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s and proceeded to govern until his death in 1986. Xi is China’s most powerful single leader since Mao.

But while both leaders have a grip that their predecessors must envy, Trong’s approach has been subtler than Xi’s. In contrast with the personality cult growing in China, Trong has accumulated quiet power, balancing factions against each other.

Political life in the 1990s and 2000s in both countries was largely defined by low-key, collective leadership. With the rises of Xi and Trong, both countries, for the first time, have 21st-century counterparts to their Cold War strongmen predecessors.

Both consolidated power through the use of purges framed as anti-corruption campaigns. Much as Bo Xilai was unceremoniously sacked as Chongqing party chief, booted from the Politburo, and jailed for life on corruption charges, ex-Ho Chi Minh City party chief Dinh La Thang, in the space of one year, went from being a rising star on the Vietnamese Politburo to serving a 13-year sentence on multiple graft charges.

Smaller fry, from state-owned business executives to security personnel, have been swept up in the net in both countries, with both Xi and Trong receiving praise from supporters, who claim they are cleaning house, and criticism from detractors, who argue that the crackdowns are cynical, insincere ploys to go after opponents.

But while the two leaders may be on parallel trajectories, their personalities and governing styles are, in many respects, polar opposites. Trong’s public persona—what there is of it—is bookish and unassuming. He spent decades crafting “party building” ideology, according to his official resume, behind the scenes as an editor of party journals before entering the political arena in the 1990s.

While little is known about Trong’s personal life, he has a reputation within Hanoi power circles for humility, with rumors claiming that he forbids his children from invoking the family name and that he even does his own laundry. He lives in a modestly sized house painted in dull colors in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung district that does absolutely nothing to stand out from the adjacent, shabby-looking government office buildings. Yet even these tidbits are not well-advertised, with state media treating Trong as dry, boring, and exceptionally competent.

Where Trong does his best to blend into the party’s woodwork, Xi appears larger than life. While little is known of Trong’s earlier years—his official biography merely describes his family background as “poor peasants”—Xi’s origin story as the teenage son during the Cultural Revolution of one of the original national leaders has become part of his personal hagiography. And unlike Trong, who spent most of his career as a party policy wonk, Xi was an ambitious politician from the start, working his way up from lowly county postings until he was the boss of Shanghai before joining the Politburo. Trong sticks to civil service housing; Xi lives in the former imperial palace of Zhongnanhai, and his family are multimillionaires.

And while Xi, nine years younger than Trong, seems determined to be president for life, it is unclear what the aging Vietnamese leader has in mind for himself. At 74, party rules say he technically should have retired nine years ago. And while the rules also state he is supposed to retire from the general secretary posting when the party holds his next congress in 2021, he will theoretically be allowed to serve another presidential term lasting until 2026, thus keeping him in power until he is 82—if his body and will hold out. In his speeches, he makes references to old age and deteriorating health, giving the air of an elder statesman making the best of his dotage as opposed to Xi’s energetic embrace of power. (Xi did suffer what’s believed to have been a possible health crisis at one point, disappearing for weeks—but there was no mention of it in the Chinese press, which goes to great lengths to hide the aging of leaders.)

Trong has no personality cult to speak of—Vietnamese party leaders have always preferred glorifying their deceased comrades while doing their best to stay out of the limelight, and Trong is showing no intention of bucking the tradition. Trong’s likeness is almost invisible in party propaganda. And, despite his decades as a professional writer and editor, Trong’s work is not widely circulated, nor is hagiographical literature seen in Vietnamese bookstores. Xi’s face, in contrast, is all over China; at a recent book export fair, the only works on sale were his, and his thoughts have been officially inscribed in the constitution. His growing personality cult has alarmed many of the older generation of leaders, who mutter private concerns; Trong’s approach may be smarter.

Both men share a commitment to reshaping their parties, and thus their whole countries, in their own images. Xi is asserting his own dominance in a country trying to match ideological rigidity with 21st-century demands. Trong, who embraces slow but steady economic reform, is aiming to strike the right balance between fraternity with the Chinese Communist Party, whose success lends legitimacy to its Leninist brothers in Hanoi, and warmness toward Washington, which Vietnam hopes will help counter what both countries see as excessive Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.

Not since the 1980s has any individual in either country been in such a strong position to leave indelible marks on their parties. At stake are the future and legitimacy of single-party communist rule—with market elements—in the 21st century, a model of governance that could be attractive not only to a younger generation of communists in Cuba and North Korea eager for reform, but also to other authoritarian-leaning states frustrated with keeping up the appearances of liberal democracy. Whether that system appeals to potential autocrats across the world depends on what Xi, at the helm of the world’s largest nation, and Trong, whose country’s smaller size may provide a more practical model to emulate, do next.

Bennett Murray is an American journalist based in Hanoi where he serves as bureau chief for the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (German Press Agency

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