Elliot Brennan is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (Sweden) and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies (US).


Late last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh. His message was for a full-scale improvement of relations between the two countries. Of course, it would make sense that two of the world's last remaining socialist countries would have strong relations.

Yet the two countries share more than just ideology.

Both are struggling to temper social tensions and curb the impact of social media, as well as longer-term battles such as stable economic growth, market reform, land disputes, and international pressure over human rights issues. Indeed, China could learn a lot from social tensions in Vietnam.

There is heated debate within the Vietnamese Communist Party and a very public debate taking place in coffee shops and on social media. The main battle is over the direction of the country — between those who are for strengthening the Party system and those who want a more democratic and pluralist system. The health of the economy is at the heart of the debate.

Vietnam's economy has stagnated, struggling to compete with low-wage labour markets such as Bangladesh and the promise of Myanmar, but it has also been stung by ham-handed reform. In October last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung apologised for his government's 'weakness' in managing the economy. And in June, the embattled prime minister, who is locked in a power battle with President Truong Tan Sang, survived a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly. Dung's battered credibility took another hit but the man who bears the brunt of the blame for the country's economic malaise remained in office.

Dung had great ambitions for Vietnam's economy, looking to South Korea's economic reforms as a guide. Yet he failed, very publicly, in his ambition to set state-owned enterprises (SOEs) along the trajectory of South Korea's private conglomerates. Instead, Vietnam's SOEs expanded into areas where they had little expertise, which has led to them shouldering huge debt. As a result, banks that loaned out money to SOEs now sit atop bad loans that estimates in May put at up to 15% of total lending. This malaise is magnified by a stagnant economy and a worsening corruption problem, which together leaves Vietnam unattractive for investment and vulnerable to social unrest.

The frequency of protests has increased in recent years. More worryingly, so has the tendency for protests to turn violent. Both sides, security forces and protesters, have upped the ante with the use of more aggressive tactics. As 20-year land lease contracts, granted by the government in 1993, have expired this year, land acquisitions have become common and evictions have been loud and violent. Home-made mines and firearms have been used by farmers against security forces. Meanwhile, the incarceration of protesters and dissidents has also increased.

Bloggers, journalists and activists continue to be locked up. Reporters Without Borders, in its annual index of press freedom, ranked Vietnam 172 out of 179 jurisdictions in 2013, slipping 7 places from 2010 — just one place above China. Yet despite the crackdown and continued censorship, a barrage of dissenting voices continue to emerge online.

The catch cry on social media has been 'Petition 72', named after a constitutional reform petition signed by 72 academics and lawyers and presented to the government in February 2013.

The petition urges the government to open a forum for public discussion on the constitution, abolish Article Four (which asserts the supremacy of the Party) and make changes towards private ownership of land. In effect, it calls for a multi-party system. The spread of the petition through blogs and social media, in an otherwise state-controlled media environment, no doubt precipitated the recent government decree against information sharing.

On 1 September, as a result of continued public protest led largely by blogs and social media, the government introduced Decree 72, which stipulates that social media websites and blogs should only be used for personal information and not used to share news articles. The vaguely worded decree has attracted the scorn of rights groups, and it will no doubt be used against bloggers and social media users. The question is how effective it will be in quieting them; given past experience, it's likely to have the opposite effect.

The key to arresting social tensions is in broader political reform and strengthening economic liberalisation, something Vietnam is trying to address through an amendment to its 1992 constitution. The amendment aims to allow changes to the economy that will provide greater benefits from Vietnam’s shift from Soviet-style central planning to a market-oriented economy. Along with the long winded debate on land reforms, the constitutional reform offers some hope for economic liberalisation.

Yet in opening this debate, the government seems to have opened a pandora's box. The government's plan for piecemeal reform has led to public calls for an upheaval of the one-party system. Despite measures by the government to appease the masses — such as a three month public consultation period on the constitution — public outcry continues to swell.

The similarities between China and Vietnam aren't hard to find. Both are struggling with restive populations and an interminable battle between growth and stability. As both countries are increasingly aware, those are not mutually exclusive concerns. 

Photo by Flickr user Jeannie Zakharov.