The Coronavirus Loosens Lips in Hanoi

Vietnam’s repressive politics have opened up to handle the crisis. Will it last?

Residents wearing face masks practice social distancing as they wait in line for free rice in Hanoi on April 11.
Residents wearing face masks practice social distancing as they wait in line for free rice in Hanoi on April 11. MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images

When Vietnam’s Communist government attempted to cover up a major toxic spill in 2016—a disaster that decimated farming and fishing sectors across several provinces—it looked to some as Vietnam’s Chernobyl moment. The ruling Communist Party had become so secretive, and the public so distrusting of what officials said, that rare large-scale public protests erupted across central Vietnam. Two years later, large demonstrations broke out again over special economic zones. The protests were against Chinese incursion but directed at a government viewed as corrupt and secretive. That view has spread more quietly across the internet, where pro-democracy bloggers have gained widespread prominence—and drawn harsh punishment—for exploring the failings of Hanoi.

So, few might have predicted that the Communist Party could mount such a successful fight against the coronavirus—let alone one marked by openness. Hanoi’s uncharacteristically transparent and proactive response to the coronavirus pandemic has earned it international and domestic praise. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Communist Party hasn’t been this popular since the Vietnam War. But will Hanoi’s newfound awareness of the benefits of transparent government endure once the crisis is over?

Though it has not received the international attention paid to Canada, South Korea, or Taiwan, Vietnam has emerged as one of the major success stories in battling the coronavirus pandemic. As of April 15, the country has recorded just 267 cases—even as it has tested far more people than most other Southeast Asian nations. (For instance, Vietnam has tested some 122,000 people, while the more populous Philippines has conducted 45,000 tests and has more than 5,400 confirmed cases.) When the outbreak first occurred in neighboring China in January, the Vietnamese government responded quickly and efficiently—becoming the first country in the region to shut down travel to and from China. When the epicenter shifted to Europe in March, the government ordered a nationwide shutdown and began one of the world’s largest quarantine programs for those returning from abroad. Hanoi has also been swift in closing schools and nonessential business activity, and the impact shows. Vietnam is a middle-income country with a fraction of the health care budget of the other successful countries, yet its health services don’t appear stretched, and Hanoi has even donated medical supplies to Europe.

Even more surprising for a one-party state and one of the most repressive countries in Asia, Vietnam’s Communist government has been deeply transparent with the public during the crisis. Ministers give daily press briefings, often broadcast on state television; telecommunications providers send regular text message updates to users; and the government’s health warnings are even translated for expatriates. “Clear communication and government-citizen cooperation that leveraged technology are the main reasons why the country has had relatively few cases,” wrote Hong Kong Nguyen, a researcher at the A.I. for Social Data Lab in Hanoi, last week.

Vietnamese are usually skeptical of the government’s intentions, but official actions have won public applause this time round. Military personnel are once again being hailed as “uncle soldiers,” as it was during the Vietnam War. Patriotic poems are spreading virally on social media. The Communist Party is busy ramping up the warlike rhetoric, which is clearly in tune with the public’s “all in it together” sprit.

As Mai Truong, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Arizona, wrote recently in the Diplomat, the coronavirus crisis has provided the Communist Party with a “unique opportunity to regain its people’s trust and strengthen its legitimacy in the midst of criticism toward how the party handled several issues in late 2019 and early 2020.”

This is now more important than ever.

For years, the party has been losing its sources of legitimacy as the unifier of Vietnam after decades of war and separation, the sole prolocutor of nationalism, and the representative of the common man. By the 2010s, it no longer had a monopoly on nationalist sentiment. At nationwide protests in 2016 and 2018, demonstrators rebuked the Communist Party as a lackey of China, the bête noire of Vietnamese jingoism. The rise of the private sector, especially private health care and education, has also weakened the party’s monopoly on public services. The vast majority of Vietnamese are now employed in the private sector, not by the state.

The only real source of legitimacy the Communist Party has left is as the guarantor of a fast-growing economy. Indeed, growth rates have been kept at around 7 percent, ensuring ordinary people grew a little richer each year. Now that is in doubt. Because of the global recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam is set to experience its worst economy in decades. The World Bank’s latest forecasts suggest 4.9 percent growth at best, and 1.5 percent at worst, this year. Poverty rates could double for households linked to the vital manufacturing sectors, the World Bank warns.

In the coming months, the Communist Party’s legitimacy is going to be tested in ways not known in decades. If it is to survive this crisis, it needs to win back public trust, just as it has done during the past three months. But is change possible with the current leadership? Since 2016, domestic politics have moved away from the reform-minded leadership of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, a powerful leader of the civilian government, who was in office between 2006 and 2016. Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, an aging ideologue from the old Hanoi elite, has orchestrated purges of nonideological officials through an extensive anti-corruption campaign and plans to remake the party in his own image through a new generation of morally pure and ideologically committed “strategic cadre.” In late 2018, he became state president at the same time as serving as party chief, ending an informal separation of powers pact that had lasted since the 1980s. He has also overseen the most sweeping crackdown on free speech in decades.

Next January at the 13th National Congress—a quinquennial event when the party reshuffles its leaders and officials—Trong must step down as party chief after serving his two-term limit, though he could remain as president for another five years. If he politicks well this year, he will get his protégés into positions of power next year, securing his traditionalist faction dominance over moderates and reformers.

But that’s not certain. Rival factions remain. Not all senior officials agree with Trong’s revanchist style of ideological politics, let alone his anti-corruption campaign, which has left officials fearful and out of pocket. And many moderates, like Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a current front-runner to fill the party chief post, will come out of this coronavirus crisis in high esteem. Indeed, it has been technocrats (such as Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who heads the government’s steering committee managing the pandemic), not ideologues, who have won the most praise from the public during the coronavirus crisis. Trong, meanwhile, has been relatively quiet throughout.

Vietnam needs technocrats and experienced administrators who can steer the economy through the coming global recession and guide the country through the increasingly fraught geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China. (In fact, a Vietnamese fishing vessel was sunk this month in the South China Sea by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel, a reminder that Beijing is taking advantage of the world’s engrossment in the pandemic.)

At the moment, the public remains unified and supportive of the government. But that may not last for much longer. Once today’s “rally around the flag” sentiment wanes and the public starts to feel the real implications of a faltering economy, the government can either return to its secretive leadership and ramp up repression or realize that more transparency might be the only thing that can keep the public onside during the coming lean years.

David Hutt is a political journalist who was based in Cambodia between 2014 and 2019. He is the Southeast Asia columnist for the Diplomat.