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Governance, Development, and the Responsive–Repressive State in Vietnam



Written in the context of questioning a positive relationship between development and democracy, this paper argues that Vietnam’s Communist Party ruled state shows numerous signs of being responsive to a rather wide array of pressures and complaints from organised and un‐organised sectors of society. But only up to a point. The state represses individuals and groups that it deems are threats to the country’s stability or the Communist Party’s dominance of the political system. This responsive‐repressive quality of the state in Vietnam affects debates among critics of the regime who advocate a multi‐party, democratic political system. To one group of critics the responsiveness of the state is evidence that, through participation and engagement with authorities, citizens can push the political system toward democracy. Another group of critics, however, seeing the state as highly prone to repression, believes that direct confrontation against the state, not participation with it, is the only way to replace the Communist Party government with democratic institutions.
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Governance, Development, and the
Responsive–Repressive State in Vietnam
Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet a
a Emeritus Professor, The Australian National University ,
Canberra, Australia
Published online: 10 Mar 2010.
To cite this article: Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet (2010) Governance, Development, and the
Responsive–Repressive State in Vietnam, Forum for Development Studies, 37:1, 33-59, DOI:
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Vol. 37, No. 1, March 2010, 33–59
ISSN 0803-9410 print/ISSN 1891-1765 online
© 2010 Norsk Utenrikspolitiske Institutt (NUPI)
DOI: 10.1080/08039410903558251
Governance, Development, and the Responsive–Repressive
State in Vietnam
Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
Emeritus Professor, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Taylor and FrancisSFDS_A_456301.sgm10.1080/08039410903558251Forum for Development Studies0803-9410 (print)/1891-1765 (online)Original Article2010Taylor & Francis3710000002010BenedictTria
Written in the context of questioning a positive relationship between development
and democracy, this paper argues that Vietnam’s Communist Party ruled state
shows numerous signs of being responsive to a rather wide array of pressures and
complaints from organised and un-organised sectors of society. But only up to a
point. The state represses individuals and groups that it deems are threats to the
country’s stability or the Communist Party’s dominance of the political system.
This responsive-repressive quality of the state in Vietnam affects debates among
critics of the regime who advocate a multi-party, democratic political system. To
one group of critics the responsiveness of the state is evidence that, through
participation and engagement with authorities, citizens can push the political
system toward democracy. Another group of critics, however, seeing the state as
highly prone to repression, believes that direct confrontation against the state, not
participation with it, is the only way to replace the Communist Party government
with democratic institutions.
Keywords: state – society relations; political development; democratisation;
The context of this paper is the emphasis on democracy and democratisation by
Western social scientists, aid and assistance programmes, international NGOs and
governments interested in less developed countries. The conventional view since the
late 1980s has been that democracy is the form of government necessary for good
governance and development. ‘Good governance’, broadly speaking, means appropri-
ate public policies, authorities being accountable to the people and people being able
to influence policy-makers. ‘Development’ means the improvement of citizens’
economic and social welfare. And ‘democracy’, within this view about its necessity,
means free and regular elections, a multiparty political system, multiple branches of
government (legislative, executive and judicial), freedom of press and speech, and
robust civil society organisations.
For years I have been studying 2 Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines and
Vietnam. The Philippines has had democratic institutions for nearly a century, begin-
ning in the early 1900s during American colonial rule (1898–1946) with elections for
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34 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
a national legislature, many privately owned newspapers and radio stations, and
copious organisations of workers, peasants, lawyers, doctors and many other interests
in society. Only during the Second World War, when Japan imposed military rule over
the archipelago (1942–1945), and during the authoritarian government of Ferdinand
Marcos (1972–1985) were the country’s democratic form of government and civil
society organisations expunged. Today in the Philippines civil society organizations
abound, newspaper and other media reporters say pretty much whatever they want, and
regular elections with high voter turnout chose national and local government author-
ities. Vietnam, on the other hand, can scarcely be said to have a legacy of democratic
institutions. Authorities during French colonialism (late 1800s–1954) repressed nearly
all efforts to create them. After the defeat of French colonial military forces in 1954
and the temporary division of the country, Vietnamese governments in the south and
the north had few democratic features and even those had little substance. Since the
country’s reunification in 1975–1976, after a horrendous 15-year war (1960–1975), the
only authorised political party is the Communist Party, which dominates national and
local government offices, the bureaucracy, the legal system and mass media. Official
‘mass organisations’ for workers, peasants, women and other sectors of society are
closely tied to the party and its government. Only in recent years have some civil society
organisations emerged.
The point is, by almost any conventional standard, the Philippines is a democracy
and Vietnam is not.
Yet in terms of ‘development’, Vietnam is doing relatively well. Citizens’ welfare
has improved considerably. Indicative are human development index figures from the
UNDP between 1985 (the earliest available for Vietnam) and 2006 (the latest available).
Not only have life expectancy, literacy, extent of formal education and purchasing
power (the measures that compose the index) improved significantly during the past
20 years, but the improvement has been noticeably faster than in the Philippines. Indeed
Vietnam is rapidly catching up with the Philippines (see Table 1).
Governance in Vietnam has also improved and in some respects is better than in
the Philippines, an argument I have ventured elsewhere (Kerkvliet, 2005).
Wrestling with the apparent inconsistency between lack of democracy but positive
signs of development and governance, I am inclined to think that democratic institutions
are not necessarily required for improvement in people’s well-being, accountability of
authorities and citizens’ influence on policy-makers. What is important is the
Table 1. Human Development Index Trends, Philippines and Vietnam, 1985–2006.
1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2006 Change (1985–2006)
Philippines 0.649 0.694 0.711 0.725 0.743 0.745 +15%
Vietnam 0.559 0.597 0.645 0.688 0.714 0.718 +29%
Gap between 0.090 0.097 0.066 0.037 0.029 0.027 70%
VN and Phil.
Data source: UNDP, Human Development Report 2008, Table 1, pp. 26–27.
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Forum for Development Studies 35
relationship between the state and society – between governing authorities and citizens.
If state officials have little regard for the majority of citizens and/or vice versa,
economic development and governmental practices beneficial to the general population
are unlikely, with or without democratic institutions. If relations between authorities
and citizens are reasonably positive and interactive, development and governance can
improve even with little or no democracy as conventionally understood. This resonates
with arguments and analyses of Adrian Leftwich, among others, that the type of regime
per se – democratic or something else – is not what matters. What matters is politics
– how resources in society are used, produced and distributed – and the character of
the state – its competence and commitment to policy outcomes being beneficial for
society (Leftwich, 1993, 1996a).1
Now, maybe democratic institutions enhance the odds of positive and interactive
relations between state and society. I am not in a position to assess that. But the case
of Vietnam during the last few decades suggests that development and governance can
improve in non-democratic political systems.
Possibly the concept ‘developmental state’ would adequately summarize the
nature of the Vietnamese state today. The term has been applied to other non-
democratic countries in which the significant economic and political development has
occurred (Johnson, 1982; Leftwich, 1996b, Woo-Cumings 1999). I am not prepared
to use it, however, because we – at least I – do not yet know enough about the internal
operations of the state to say how well Vietnam fits the criteria for being a develop-
mental state. Research to date is inadequate to assess, for instance, the degree to which
key state bureaucracies are highly competent, powerful and sufficiently insulated from
outside pressures. These are features of a developmental state. Also, unclear for
Vietnam is the state’s connections to industrial interests in society, the content and
characteristics of which are important in a developmental state. Perhaps contemporary
Vietnam has a type of ‘embedded autonomy’ state, the chief feature of which is a
combination of coherent state institutions and robust connections to particular groups
and interests in society. The developmental state is one type, but there are several
variations (Evans, 1995).2 Identifying which one fits Vietnam, however, is beyond the
scope of this paper.
For now, I characterise the Vietnamese state as ‘responsive–repressive’. This
conforms reasonably well to what we know about how the state acts, and it adequately
captures relations between authorities and citizens. The term is borrowed from Harold
Crouch’s study of Malaysian politics, which he uses to summarise the simultaneous
authoritarian and democratic trends and tendencies in that country’s political system.
The state in Malaysia exercises strong authoritarian powers to ‘preserve political
stability and continued domination of the Malay elite’. But countervailing social
1 I agree with Leftwich’s view of politics as all activities of cooperation, conflict and negotiation
in the use, production, and distribution of resources in both public and private domains. I
would just add that politics also includes the values underlying these activities.
2 See Evans, 1995, especially 47–73, 234–35, and 248–50.
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36 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
forces restrain its power and regular competitive elections, although heavily biased
against opposition groups, make the Malaysian national government sensitive to
popular pressures. Thus, it often responds ‘to challenges with a combination of
repressive and responsive measures…’ (Crouch, 1996; 224)3
Vietnam does not have competitive elections, but social forces expressed in
organised and un-organised ways restrain authorities’ power and cause them to take
notice, especially if coming from workers and peasants, the constituencies on which
the Communist Party was built and on which it continues to rely for support and
approval. At the same time, the Communist Party is extremely wary of anything that
appears to threaten political stability or its dominance of the political system.
Vietnam’s government responds to challenges in responsive and repressive ways.
‘Responsive’ here means to significantly accommodate or make concessions to
concerns, criticisms or demands coming from individuals, groups or sectors of society.
‘Repressive’ means to put down, quell, forbid – through force or other methods – indi-
viduals, groups or sectors saying or doing things objectionable to authorities.
In the next 2 sections I illustrate the responsive-repressive character of the state
and its relationship with groups and sectors in society. Afterwards, I show that this
responsive-repressive quality of Vietnam’s political system poses dilemmas for
Vietnamese who are highly critical of the Communist Party government and advocate
democracy and democratisation.4
Analysts have wrestled with how best to characterise contemporary Vietnam’s
political system: a top-down system dominated by a centralised Communist Party-run
state with no room for societal influences and political activity; or an authoritarian
system that is largely a Communist Party-run state but allows some citizen participa-
tion through its official ‘mass organisations’; or a system with considerable dialogue
and negotiation between components of a somewhat decentralised state and various
interests in society, including those not in the official organisations. There are data to
support each of these 3, hence no one is entirely wrong or correct. While some
evidence of the Vietnamese state’s responsiveness to societal pressures and demands
supports the second characterisation, much of it corresponds to the third because it
often comes from unofficial, often unauthorised activities and groups.
A helpful way to cluster examples of responsiveness is according to how citizens
have conveyed their views and concerns to authorities. In one cluster are ordinary
3 See also Crouch, 1996: 5–7;
4 I am indebted to Ph m Thu Th y, a research assistant in the Department of Political and Social
Change, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University
(ANU). She collected many of the Vietnamese materials that I have used to prepare this paper.
I am also grateful to the ANU and the Australian Research Council for financial support to
my research on politics in Vietnam.
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Forum for Development Studies 37
people’s everyday activities that are out of line with what authorities and official
programs require or stipulate. Cumulatively and gradually, these subtle, unorganised,
often unintentionally political activities, which I consider forms of ‘everyday politics’,
have contributed to changes in government policies.5
One example has to do with urban residents. From 1975 (the end of the war against
the United States and to reunify the country) until the early 1990s, Hanoi city officials
tried to maintain tight control over all housing. The city government insisted on being
the planner, builder and manager of all residences, most of them in large apartment
complexes attached to state factories, offices and agencies. The underlying rationale
was to minimise inequalities in the size and condition of housing and maximise its
availability for every resident. City laws greatly discouraged privately owned housing.
Approval to build one’s own house or apartment required numerous licenses and
permits; and getting such documents required months, even years, of finding one’s
way through a maze of murky procedures.
Meanwhile, the demand for housing in the city grew far more rapidly than the
supply. By the late 1970s, the city’s economy had returned pretty much to where it
had been before the late 1960s when many factories, cottage industries, schools and
government offices were dispersed to the countryside so as to evade US military bomb-
ing raids on Hanoi and surrounding areas. As the city rebuilt after 1975, its population
grew, drawing back residents who had scattered during the war and attracting thousands
of additional people to work in new enterprises. By 1984 Hanoi had 2.6 million people,
more than double its 1965 population (Thrift and Forbes, 1986: 145–149). Government-
built housing could not keep up. During 1981–1985, according to one well-researched
estimate, housing demand outstripped supply by 71 per cent (Koh, 2006: 213).
Illegal, unlicensed housing in the city had occurred before, but it increased with a
vengeance during the 1980s.6 Some residents in government apartments converted
balconies into tiny bedrooms and bathrooms, or extended exterior walls to protrude
beyond a building’s original ones so as to create a bit of additional space to accom-
modate an enlarged family or relatives who had recently arrived in Hanoi from the
countryside. On open areas between apartment blocks, people erected makeshift
structures. Sometimes local officials quickly destroyed those flimsy constructions.
5 Everyday politics involves people embracing, complying with, adjusting, or contesting norms
and rules regarding authority over, production of, or allocation of resources and doing so in
quiet, mundane, and subtle expressions and acts that are rarely organised or direct. Everyday
politics has little or no organisation, is usually low profile and private behaviour, and is done
by people who probably do not regard their actions as political. It can occur in organisations,
but everyday politics itself is not organised. It can occur where people live and work. Often
it is entwined with individuals and small groups’ activities while making a living, raising their
families, wrestling with daily problems, and interacting with others like themselves and with
superiors and subordinates. Everyday politics also includes production and distribution within
households and families and within small communities in ways that rely primarily on local
people’s own resources with little involvement from formal organisations.
6This and the next 2 paragraphs draw from Koh, 2006: 204, 223–39.
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38 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
But when they did not, residents became more gutsy and built homes made of wood,
bricks and other durable materials. Within a few years, the illegal construction boom
had overwhelmed authorities’ enforcement abilities. Not only were families doing
their own building, they were hiring groups of carpenters, electricians and plumbers
who had emerged to meet the growing illicit construction demand. People also began
to buy and sell residences, marking the start of an illegal real estate market.
Of course city officials were aware of these unauthorised activities, and they took
measures to stop them, sometimes using brute force. In some parts of the city they
succeeded. But, generally speaking, enforcement agencies had only sufficient
resources to interrupt, not halt, the process. Also impairing enforcement efforts were
the numerous local authorities who turned a blind eye to the transgressions out of
empathy for people in their neighbourhoods desperate for a roof over their heads or in
return for money or other favours.
Gradually, officials changed policies to accommodate people’s spontaneous
activities. In late 1987, the city announced that houses built illegally on vacant public
land could remain provided the residents paid property taxes and promised to vacate
should the government later need the land. In 1990, the city reduced the number of
permits required to erect privately built housing. Soon thereafter it streamlined the
process for obtaining permits. Meanwhile, the national government was revamping its
entire economic policy and replacing the state-centered economic system with a
market economy in which private enterprise, including building contractors, could
operate legally. Hence, by the mid-1990s, Hanoi city officials no longer even
attempted to dominate the housing industry. Their struggles regarding residential
areas shifted from trying to stop private housing to insisting that families and
construction firms comply with new building codes.
A second example of responsiveness to everyday deviations from official expec-
tations comes from the countryside, where about 75 per cent of Vietnamese live.7
During the 1960s–1970s, the Communist Party government required local officials to
create collective farming cooperatives. These cooperatives encompassed virtually all
peasants and agricultural land in northern Vietnam and, after 1975, much of the rural
population and land in the south. Cooperative members were supposed to follow
prescribed rules and procedures for every step in the farming process – plowing,
sowing, weeding, irrigating, harvesting, etc. – and in related activities such as raising
and caring for draft animals, acquiring and maintaining machinery and implements,
and accumulating and distributing rice and other produce. Views and stances of
peasants toward collective farming varied from place to place and over time. Some
villagers were enthusiastic, at least initially. Generally speaking, however, a large
proportion of rural people became unenthusiastic. But given the Communist Party
7 Mostly this discussion draws on my own research (Kerkvliet, 2005b), but other studies have
indicated that local deviations created bottom-up pressures that influenced policy change. See
Ch , et al., 1992: 52, 78–79; Fforde, 1989: 80–81, 85–86, 205; and Lê, 1985: 14.
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Forum for Development Studies 39
government’s tight surveillance and discouragement of contrary views and its
prohibitions against organised opposition, villagers were unable to wiggle out of the
cooperatives or openly criticise them.
Only in some cooperatives did virtually all members comply with what collective
farming procedures required. In many cooperatives, most members did as they were
supposed to some of the time but not all of the time. And over the years, a large
proportion of members in about 70 per cent of the cooperatives farmed in ways out of
line with prescribed rules and procedures for collective farming. The deviations
emerged as people ‘cut corners’ so as to make their work easier or because they saw
fellow cooperative members straying from prescribed methods. Sometimes deviations
were more than that – they were forms of everyday resistance because villagers were
angry with dishonest, self-serving or abusive cooperative managers and other local
officials or, especially by the late 1970s – early 1980s, had grown disgusted with the
whole collective farming system.
A few illustrations of deviations: Unless a work team assigned to fertilise planted
fields was closely supervised, many members did the work sloppily, such as dumping
fertiliser in only few spots, so as to complete the task quickly and easily, rather than
spreading it evenly, which would take more time and effort. Whether they did the job
diligently or not, people reasoned, they received the same number of ‘work points’.
Another illustration is that peasants, when preparing manure from their pig pens to
meet a quota each household had to contribute to collectively farmed fields, sometimes
mixed it with banana stems and sand to add weight, thus satisfying their quota while
retaining as much manure for themselves to use on their own garden plots. Frequently
people did such acts because they figured that putting the manure in their own gardens
would be a better use for it than letting work teams dump it in collectively farmed
fields. Such reasoning came from not trusting fellow villagers’ diligence rather than
opposing officials or the government’s collectivisation policy. During late 1960s and
1970s, individual households in numerous cooperatives often secretly used as their
own some portions of fields that were supposed to be farmed collectively. Sometimes
such encroachments were acts of defiance against local and higher officials. At other
times people took land for themselves out of a conviction that they could farm it better
individually than collectively. In numerous cooperatives, members also stealthily
harvested rice from collective fields. In some instances, they did so to quietly oppose
egregiously bad officials – acts of everyday resistance. Sometimes they did it as
preemptive measures – to get grain that they presumed other members would steal
because people did not trust one another or were continuing longstanding hostilities
and rivalries between neighbouring villages even though they were now all in one
collective farming cooperative and supposed to be working together.
On numerous occasions between the early 1960s and mid-1980s, national, provin-
cial and subprovincial authorities attempted to stop the deviations from prescribed
production methods, land use, produce distribution, livestock handling, manure use,
etc. They reorganised the cooperatives, reconfigured work teams, revamped work
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40 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
point systems, imposed penalties, punished corrupt officials and took scores of other
actions, which typically were effective only briefly. Short of using draconian, violent
measures, which probably would not have achieved the desired results anyway,
authorities ran out of options. Instead, they essentially gave in, incrementally at first
– authorising some of the adjustments cooperative members had initiated – but then
fully by endorsing household farming. Collective farming was no longer policy and it
vanished from Vietnam. Although peasants’ everyday modifications of and resistance
to collective farming were not the only reasons for this major policy change, they were
significant influences.
Large public protests are another way citizens have conveyed views and concerns
to which authorities have been responsive. Illustrative are 2 cases, one involving peas-
ants and the other involving workers.
In the mid-1990s, a few years after the end of collective farming and the redistri-
bution of agricultural land to individual farming households, villagers in various parts
of the country started to complain publicly that local government and Communist
Party officials were imposing illegal taxes, stealing money from community funds,
building fancy houses with their ill-gotten wealth, showing excessive favouritism to
close relatives and friends, and in other ways abusing their power. The situation was
especially bad in Thái Bình, a province at the southeastern end of the Red River delta,
where villagers were inundating provincial offices with petitions and letters that
detailed abuses and corruption of subdistrict and district officials. People wanted
higher authorities to punish the culprits, but they received little or no response.
Thái Bình villagers then began to step outside the formal channels to express their
discontent in public protests.8 Between late 1996 and the early months of 1997, nearly
half of the province’s 260 subdistricts had peasant demonstrations; at least 40 more
occurred in the provincial capital as well.9 Often the protests had hundreds of people;
some had thousands. Still there were no satisfactory responses from high up. Then in
May 1997 thousands of villagers gathered in the main town of Qu nh Ph district and
proceeded on foot and bicycle to the provincial capital some 30 kilometers away. As
word spread, villagers from elsewhere in the province also converged on the capital,
bringing the total to about 10,000 demonstrators.
Up to this point, the demonstrations had consisted mostly of people peacefully
sitting or walking in front of government offices while pleading for investigations into
abuses. But the huge May protest became violent. It included demonstrators throwing
bricks and stones, smashing office windows and wrecking a fire truck that had been
8 Unless otherwise indicated, the following account relies on a report commissioned by the
prime minister and written by T ng Lai, head of the Sociology Institute of the National
Center for Social Sciences and Humanities (T ng Lai, 1997); a serialised story published in
the newspaper Tiên Phong [Vanguard], 2, 4, 7, and 9 October 1997; an article in newspaper
[Dstrok] i [Dstrok] oàn K t [Great Unity], 23 February 1998: 6; and from Luong, 2005.
9 A subdistrict encompasses a few villages and is the smallest government administrative unit
in rural Vietnam.
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Forum for Development Studies 41
sent to the scene; meanwhile police threw tear gas canisters at the crowds and clubbed
and chased protesters. Although this clash soon subsided, others occurred elsewhere
in the province. In some areas, villagers overwhelmed policemen, held several of them
hostage and set fire to local officials’ homes.
Now national authorities acted. They did not, however, send in the army. National
officials, according to most available accounts, used limited force to restore order.
Their approach emphasised dialogue with the demonstrators and extensive investiga-
tions into what had happened and why. From their studies, national authorities
concluded that many of the villagers’ complaints about corruption and other abuses
by local authorities were justified. They also found that numerous provincial, district
and subdistrict authorities were negligent for not responding promptly and thoroughly
when villagers first began to complain; and they said some villagers were provocateurs
who made matters worse. In the aftermath, nearly 2000 officials in the province were
disciplined, removed from office or imprisoned. Some protesters were also imprisoned
for destroying property and other offenses, most receiving suspended or short prison
The most significant policy response was a May 1998 government decree aimed
at making subdistrict officials accountable, their decisions transparent and citizens
participants in the planning, budgeting and implementation of local projects. This
began numerous government-directed ‘grass roots democracy’ activities across the
country. The outcomes thus far have been mixed, to say the least. Nevertheless, the
policy to promote local democracy is now a standard to which officials are supposed
to aspire and to which citizens can try to hold them.
Workers’ protests, unlike most of those by peasants, have rarely been aimed at
government and Communist Party authorities. Nevertheless, their public displays of
discontent and anger have provoked government and party responses. The primary
form of workers’ protests is strikes against employers that have ranged from a few
dozen to several thousand people each. Beginning with a few dozen strikes per year
during the late 1980s as the market economy began to widen, the average number per
year rose to 67 during 1995–2001, then to 127 in 2001–2005, and leaped to 551 in
2006–2008.11 The increasing frequency of strikes is broadly in line with the rising
number of factories owned entirely or partly by foreign corporations. Even though
these enterprises employ less than 8 per cent of the Vietnamese working in non-
10 The information about punishments comes from the Associated Press, 11 November 1997;
AFP, 25 August 1998; Vietnam Economic News, 23 September 1999; South China Morning
Post, 25 September 1999; and San Jose Mercury News, 31 October 1999. One source,
Dng Thu H ng, a writer in Hanoi, claims that authorities later used common criminals
to kill numerous villagers who had joined the 1997 demonstrations (D ng Thu H ng,
11 The averages are based on annual figures for strikes as reported in Vietnamese newspapers
and the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL; T ng Liên [Dstrok] oàn Lao [Dstrok] ng). For
details, see the table in Kerkvliet (forthcoming, 2010).
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42 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
agriculture and non-fishing industries, they have been the sites of about 70 per cent of
reported strikes between 1995 and mid-2007.
One of the 2 major reasons for strikes has been low wages. Workers protest that
wages fail to keep pace with rising costs of living and do not cover basic needs. Often
workers accuse employers of paying even less than the amounts promised to them.
Piecework employees also often object to managers increasing daily production
quotas without increasing payments to them. Another frequent complaint is that
employers refuse, for weeks and sometimes months at a time, to pay the wages
employees have already earned. Employers also fail to turn over to Vietnam’s social
security system the money deducted from workers’ wages for that purpose. Another
common contentious issue is the annual bonus workers expect each New Year but
which employers, especially foreign ones, often try to avoid or pay trifling amounts.
The second major cause of strikes is abusive treatment. Factory supervisors and
managers kick, slap and punch labourers, sometimes causing injuries requiring hospi-
talisation. Many company authorities swear at and insult employees. Often employers
dismiss workers for simply talking to each other on the shop floor or other reasons that
employees deem unjustifiable.12 Frequently enterprises even regulate how many
times workers may go to the toilet and impose fines on violators.13 Another sore point
is the horrible food in company canteens. Yet several enterprises prohibit workers
taking meal breaks anywhere else or even bringing their own food.14 A final common
objection to their treatment is the long hours workers must labour. Although laws say
a work day is 8 hours, many factories require employees to work 12–14 hours, even
longer, for 6, sometimes 7 days a week with little or no additional pay.
Government repression against striking workers seems to be rare. Nor have
authorities criminalised strikes and strikers.15 This is remarkable considering that all
strikes to date have been unlawful. None has followed the process prescribed by law
through which aggrieved workers are permitted to strike. In particular, strikes occur
before negotiations between employees and employers reach an impasse (Pháp Lu t
[Law], 2006; Tr ng Giang Long, 2007). Indeed, most occur before such negotiations
have even commenced.
12 For example, see VietNamNet, 2007; and Lao [Dstrok] ng [Labour], 2006a.
13 See Báo [Dstrok] ng Nai [[Dstrok] ng Nai provincial newspaper], 25 July 2007; Lao [Dstrok] ng, 21 July 2006;
and Lao [Dstrok] ng, 12 April 2007.
14 Two enterprising journalists, after investigating food issues regarding several factories in
and around Ho Chi Minh City, found that the money employers spent on food provided to
workers was well below what nutritious meals would cost. The journalists also estimated
that a quarter of the nearly 40 strikes in the city during the first half of 2007 were related to
food issues (Ng i Lao [Dstrok] ng [Worker], 2007). Also, see Angie Ngoc Tran’s account of
workers refusing to eat bad meals that a South Korean owned factory served (Ngoc Tran
2006: 16).
15 Tellingly, officials rarely say, at least in public, that the strikes are ‘illegal’ [không h p pháp,
không h p l , or bt hp pháp]. Instead they describe the strikes as ‘spontaneous’ [t phát].
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Forum for Development Studies 43
Some authorities have sympathised with companies, suggesting for instance that
workers who strike illegally should compensate their employers for lost production.16
A more prominent response from both national and local authorities, however, has
been toleration, even support for aggrieved workers and to blame strikes primarily on
companies, especially foreign-invested ones, that violate labour laws and workers’
rights. As several National Assembly delegates have said, strikes resulting from
employer violations of the law should not be deemed illegal.17 Many other national
and local authorities, including several officials in the state-authorised labour organi-
sation (VGCL, Vietnam General Confederation of Labour), put the onus on company
managers and owners. They argue that employers should adhere to the labour code,
particularly provisions concerning wages, work hours per week, treatment of employ-
ees, and workers’ contributions to social security and health programmes.18
Officials have also deliberated ways to bring labour code provisions regarding
strikes more in line with, as the Minister for Labour and others reportedly put it,
‘reality’ and ‘life’ (th c ti n, cu c s ng).19 Rather than trying to get workers to
comply with existing laws, authorities modified the Labour Code in 1995 and 2006 to
better conform with the conditions workers face.20 Put another way, workers’ public
criticisms, especially their strikes, have significantly influenced national policy and
the law-making processes.21
A third way for citizens to convey their views and concerns to authorities is
through lawful channels, such as writing petitions and letters of complaints, meeting
with officials, lobbying decision-makers, and sending authorities ideas and informa-
tion. Usually people do these things on their own initiative. Sometimes authorities
invite particular individuals and groups to submit comments and research findings
about proposed policies and laws.
A user of several lawful avenues is the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry
(VCCI) (Phòng Th ng M i và Công Nghi p Vi t Nam), a registered organisation that
the government recognises as a representative of Vietnamese business interests. It
began in the 1960s as an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Trade to promote Vietnam’s
economic interests around the world. In the early 1990s, VCCI declared its indepen-
dence from the state and its commitment to represent its members, which included
entrepreneurs, private and state enterprises, and numerous business associations. In
16 See discussions about a communiqué from the Ministry of Labour regarding such
compensation (Radio Free Asia, 2008b)
17 See, for example, the report of comments by delegate Nguy n [Dstrok] ình Xuân of Tây Ninh
province during a National Assembly debate in June 2006 about revising the labour code
(Nhân Dân [The People, a newspaper], 2006b).
18 See, for example, Lao [Dstrok] ng, 2006c, and Tu i Tr [Youth, a newspaper], 2006. For an
interview with the government’s chief inspector for industrial relations, see Lao [Dstrok] ông, 2006b.
19 Nhân Dân, 2006.
20 For evidence, see Stromseth, 1998: 207–226; and Kerkvliet, forthcoming, 2010.
21 Saying essentially this is a statement from the VGCL’s Legal Department (Ban Pháp Lu t
Tng Liên [Dstrok] oàn, 2006).
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44 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
1994 the National Assembly invited the VCCI to submit views on domestic investment
legislation then being considered. This was the first of several occasions that the VCCI
has been involved in legislation and policy deliberations, sometimes at the invitation
of state authorities and often at the urging of its members. VCCI gathers comments,
experiences and data from its members; hosts workshops on topics pertinent to pending
or existing rules and regulations concerning businesses; prepares reports for members,
government ministries and the National Assembly; and works with private and govern-
ment institutes doing research on economic trends and policies.
In 1994–1995, the organisation influenced national government deliberations
concerning the domestic investment law and subsequent implementing regulations.
One of the issues of great concern to the organisation was that economic ventures
entitled to privileges from the state should include investors in labour-intensive
projects and in research on and applications of new science and technology. Bolster-
ing its arguments were other voices as well; and the final legislation included both
areas of investment. Another issue was tax incentives. Initial drafts of the legislation,
observed the VCCI, denied domestic investors tax privileges that an earlier law had
guaranteed to foreign investors. VCCI argued that domestic investors should have tax
breaks at least equal to, if not more than, those allowed to non-Vietnamese investors.
This view had other supporters, including several National Assembly delegates. But
objections came from other delegates and some strong interests outside the assembly.
The VCCI’s position did not carry the day. It did, however, make some impact.
Provisions on tax incentives for domestic investors were better in the final legislation
than they had been in various drafts. On some other provisions, too, the results for
VCCI’s positions were mixed. Still, overall, the VCCI proved to be an advocate for
the business community and had ‘articulated tough demands … over a wide range of
In 2000, the VCCI again participated in the legislative process.23 This time, a
VCCI representative was a member of a steering committee established by the
national government to make recommendations on a legal framework for the expand-
ing private sector of the economy. The VCCI also had a representative on a committee
that drafted possible language for what, after much debate within the National Assem-
bly and elsewhere in the government, became the Enterprise Law. The VCCI wanted
new legislation to make conditions easier for private enterprises to start and thrive.
Particular provisions it advocated included streamlining the process for licensing
enterprises, simplifying procedures that businesses had to follow when reporting to
the government, and allowing entrepreneurs to do any business not prohibited by law
rather than limiting businesses to what the law permits. While pressing these views,
VCCI had some allies within the Communist Party and government, so it was not
22 Stromseth, 1998: 173. Other material I use in this and the previous paragraph comes from
this dissertation, pp. 86–99, 140–75.
23 This paragraph is based on 2 studies: Gillespie, 2006: 228–233; and Stromseth, 2003: 88–
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Forum for Development Studies 45
bucking the whole political system. It was playing a part in a continuing struggle
within the state itself about the nature and extent of private enterprise in Vietnam’s
new market economy. Some high-ranking party and government ministry officials
argued vigorously that such provisions would grossly undermine the state’s capacity
to regulate, monitor and manage the country’s economy. Ultimately, this side of the
argument lost ground. The Enterprise law has most of the provisions favoured by
VCCI and its allies.
Local organisations have also used legal channels to get helpful responses from
authorities. Examples are community groups that have pressured local and national
authorities to enforce laws against environmental pollution.24 One such group
emerged in the early 1990s among neighbours in a town near Biên Hòa City in [Dstrok] ng
Nai province, north of Ho Chi Minh City. Residents were upset with the continuous
emissions of black smoke and soot from the nearby Dona Bochang textile factory, a
joint venture between the provincial government and a Taiwanese corporation. The
pollution dirtied people’s clothing, blew into their houses, corroded the roofs of their
homes and caused respiratory illness for many residents. Also in [Dstrok] ng Nai province
is the Tan Mai paper mill, owned by a government ministry in Hanoi. Wastewater
from the mill pollutes residents’ wells, stunts rice and other plants growing in nearby
fields and poisons fish ponds. Initially people tolerated the pollution as a trade-off for
employment the mill provides for some residents, but as production accelerated and
pollution significantly worsened in the early 1990s, neighbours organised to demand
relief and compensation.
In Hanoi and in Vi t Trì City (in Phú Th province) northwest of the nation’s
capital, residents mobilised against pollution from chemical factories in their
neighbourhoods. In the 1980s–1990s, Ba Nhat Chemicals, owned by the Hanoi
Department of Industry, spewed toxic white powder and other pollutants into nearby
apartment buildings and houses. That and the constant noise of grinding rocks
provoked residents to start a campaign in the late 1980s to close the company or move
it elsewhere. Vi t Trì Chemicals, owned by a national ministry, emitted nauseous and
toxic water and air that had long irritated nearby residents. In the 1990s, people,
including many who worked at the factory, coalesced around demands that authorities
must enforce environmental regulations against such pollution. In a district west of
Vi t Trì, villagers used legal channels in the 1990s to get the Lâm Thao fertiliser
factory, also state owned, to stop releasing sulfuric acid and other toxins into the air
and polluted water into their drinking water, irrigation canals and streams. People
were literally dying from these waste products, which also wreaked havoc with rice
fields, fruit trees and other crops.
In each of these 5 cases, people mobilised among themselves to convey their
complaints to authorities at many levels. They wrote letters, circulated and signed peti-
tions and made appointments to meet with officials. Their appeals went to subdistrict
24 Material about these groups comes from O’Rourke, 2004: chapters 3 and 7.
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46 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
and district authorities, managers and owners of the factories, as well as to provincial
and national officials, including National Assembly delegates from their districts and
executives in various ministries. They also brought their complaints to journalists who
wrote newspaper stories and produced television programmes about the environmental
degradation and people’s efforts to get relief.
In no case did these community groups get quick relief. But in 3 cases, after some
years of pressure, the results were largely favourable. The Dona Bochang textile
factory installed a filtration system to capture the polluted air, thereby significantly
reducing emissions. The national government moved the Ba Nhat factory to a rural
area designed as a location for chemical production. And Vi t Trì Chemicals invested
in new methods that greatly reduced offensive emissions while even reducing its
production costs, a win for the environment, the community and the factory itself.
Community pressure against the Lâm Thao fertiliser plant was partially effective. The
national agency in charge of it has greatly improved the enterprise’s water treatment
system, thus drastically reducing pollution from that source. The plant’s measures to
stop emitting polluted air, however, have been meager. Community efforts to stop or
at least drastically reduce pollution from Tan Mai Paper produced no significant
A combination of factors account for the different outcomes. Broadly speaking,
according to Dara O’Rourke’s analysis, a high degree of cohesion and persistence
among residents pressuring authorities greatly enhanced the chances of success;
divisions within communities noticeably reduced that outcome (O’Rourke, 2004:
101–105, 222–227). Another factor is the extent to which community groups could
find sympathetic and influential allies within governmental officialdom. In all cases,
reactions among officials included some avoidance, unwillingness to respond and
disagreement with residents’ claims. But in successful cases there were officials with
enough concern and clout to overcome inertia within government offices and/or over-
rule other authorities who were blocking the implementation of regulations and laws
against environmental pollution.
Repression against vocal, complaining, self-organised citizens readily fits with the
view that Vietnam’s political system is run by the Communist Party and allows no
room for influences from outside the state apparatus. Repression also conforms with
the interpretation that Vietnam has an authoritarian political system that allows citizen
participation but only through official, authorised organisations.
Most repression is against people whom state authorities deem to be actually or
potentially trying to disrupt social order, weaken national security, destabilise the
political system, undermine the government, or dislodge the Communist Party from
power. People whose activities do not cross these ‘lines’, even if they criticise author-
ities and policies, are rarely at risk of repression. Those who do cross one or more of
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Forum for Development Studies 47
these lines are highly likely to suffer harassment, physical violence, arrest and/or
imprisonment. Sometimes people know that their actions are likely to anger officials.
But at other times, people are unaware that they have overstepped the bounds because
authorities are the ones to define and determine the lines, often in secret.
On 2 February 2001, 3000–4000 people converged on Communist Party and
government offices in Pleiku, the capital of Gia Lai province.25 The next day, thou-
sands more marched from several directions toward Buôn Ma Thu t, the capital of
[Dstrok] c L c, the province adjacent to Gia Lai. During the next few days, people staged
numerous smaller demonstrations in several districts of the 2 provinces. Both Gia Lai
and [Dstrok] c L c are in the Central Highlands, a region several kilometers inland from,
and more than 500 meters above, the coast. The provinces, which lay along the
Vietnam–Cambodia border, have had several public protests and demonstrations but
the ones in early 2001 not only involved the largest number of people but also
appeared to authorities to be the most organised and coordinated.
Nearly all the protesters were Jarai and Edê, 2 of the most numerous non-Kinh
ethnic groups in the Highlands. (Kinh people compose about 87 per cent of Vietnam’s
population; the remaining fraction is made up of over 50 minority groups, each
usually concentrated in a different part of the country.) Lingering ethnic tensions are
among the reasons for the occasional public protests. A more immediate reason in
2001 had to do with accelerated conflicts over land and other natural resources. To
many Jarai, Edê and other ethnic highlanders, Kinh migrants from lowlands and
ethnic minority settlers from the mountainous provinces in northern Vietnam were
taking, often with government help, their lands and forests. Population changes are
indicative. In 1976, ethnic highlanders constituted half of the 1.2 million population
of the Central Highlands. By 2001, the area had over 4 million people, but less than a
quarter of them were ethnic highlanders. On the eve of the huge protests, 100–300,000
more settlers were scheduled to arrive. Another immediate reason for the 2001
protests had to do with religion. Since the 1980s, large numbers of Jarai, Edê and other
indigenous people in the Central Highlands have become Christians, often as
members of Evangelical churches. Although Vietnamese law allows freedom of reli-
gion, authorities have been highly suspicious of Evangelical groups. Local Commu-
nist Party and government officials, including police, often mistreat and abuse
Evangelical members. What sparked the flurry of large protests in February 2001 was
officials in Gia Lai arresting on 29 January 2 ethnic minority men for their evangelis-
ing activities.
Had the large protests in Gia Lai and [Dstrok] c L c been only about conflicts over land
or even over Evangelical religious practices, national officials might have reacted
rather peacefully and carefully, much as they did to the huge demonstrations in Thái
25 This and the next 3 paragraphs draw heavily on an independent WriteNet researcher (WriteNet
paper no. 05/2001, Centre for Documentation and Research, UNHCR); and Salemink, 2003.
I have also consulted Human Rights Watch, 2002; and Human Rights Watch, 2006.
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48 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
Bình province in 1997. Instead, they sent in military troops to buttress provincial and
district security police units that forcefully suppressed the protests within a couple of
days. In the process, authorities reportedly destroyed several Evangelical churches,
bludgeoned many citizens and arrested dozens of people. A few months later, govern-
ment courts found many of those arrested were guilty of being ‘masterminds’ behind
the demonstrations and sentenced them to prison. Only after restoring ‘peace and
order’ did authorities take some responsive measures and investigate underlying
causes. And even while doing that, security forces in March 2001 scoured villages
looking for more leaders of the demonstrations.
To authorities, the Central Highland protests were not just about land and religion.
They were a serious threat to the nation and government. According to officials,
Evangelicalism was a means through which people hostile to Vietnam were trying to
destabilise the country and its political order. And those people were both inside and
outside the country. Authorities linked the demonstrations’ leaders to organisations in
the United States, composed mostly of people from the Highlands who had left
Vietnam in the 1970s–1980s, that vigorously oppose the Communist Party govern-
ment and seek an autonomous Central Highlands ‘homeland’ for ethnic minority
groups there. The organisations, according to national authorities, were perpetuating
the goal sought by ‘FULRO’, a small guerrilla movement composed of ethnic high-
landers that the Vietnamese government had put down in the early 1980s. To author-
ities – and, as news spread and government versions of the events circulated, to many
ordinary Vietnamese – the February 2001 protests were an attempt, supported by
hostile foreign forces, to ‘break the Central Highlands away from Vietnam…’.26 This,
Vietnamese leaders believed, justified the prompt use of force.
Less visible and not concentrated in one part of the country are other Vietnamese
whom state authorities have intimidated, harassed, beaten, arrested and/or imprisoned
in recent years. They compose what some who are involved call a ‘democracy move-
ment’ (phong trào dân ch ). Public advocates for democratic institutions and the
protection of free speech and other human rights have existed in Vietnam under
Communist Party rule for decades, but they have been few in number and thus fairly
readily silenced by authorities Starting around 2005, their numbers have markedly
increased. Not only that, about a dozen political parties and other organisations cham-
pioning democracy and human rights have come out into the open. They have such
names as [Dstrok] ng Dân Ch Nhân Dân (People’s Democratic Party, secretly formed in
mid-2003; publicly announced in June 2005), [Dstrok] ng Dân Ch th k XXI (21st century
Democratic Party, formed in June 2006), and [Dstrok] ng Th [abreve]ng Ti n Vi t Nam (Vietnam
Progressive Party, launched in September 2006). They have not registered with proper
government agencies – although some have tried – and hence have no legal standing.
Nor do the newspapers that some pro-democracy groups in Vietnam have been
distributing, primarily through the internet, during the last half dozen years. Among
26 An independent WriteNet researcher, n.d.: 20.
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Forum for Development Studies 49
these publications are [Dstrok] in Th (Electronic letter, published nearly monthly from
April 2003 through June 2007), Tp San T Do Dân Ch (Freedom and Democracy
Journal, published about 4 times a year since September 2006), T Quc [Homeland,
published twice a month since September 2006]; and T Do Ngôn Lu n (Free Speech,
published twice a month since April 2006).
Some editorial board members of this last publication were instrumental in prepar-
ing and circulating a ‘Declaration of Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam’ (Tuyên
Ngôn T Do Dân Ch cho Vi t Nam). Released on 8 April 2006 through the Internet,
the statement accelerated the democracy movement because it was not just the work
of a few people but over a hundred Vietnamese who endorsed it, each stating their
name and where they live. The statement called on others favouring greater freedom
and democracy in Vietnam to give their support. And indeed, within a few weeks,
more than 3 hundred more people had added their names. By the end of the year, over
2000 people had publicly endorsed the Declaration.27 Although by then the list
included some Vietnamese living abroad, the vast majority were in the country. This
apparent groundswell of support for the democracy energised some activists to start
several of the just mentioned political organisations and newspapers that are highly
critical of the Vietnamese Communist Party and its government. One of them, Kh i
8406 (Bloc 8406), takes part of its name from the date on which the Declaration was
issued and claims to represent those who signed it.
Perhaps contributing to the spurt of pro-democracy advocacy in 2006 was the
occasion of the annual meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which
the Vietnamese government hosted for the first time in November. The knowledge
that international media networks were covering preparations for this prominent event
and would send teams of reporters to cover the meeting itself emboldened advocates
for democratic reforms. They may also have calculated that such international
attention would inhibit Vietnamese authorities from reacting harshly against them.
Until about August 2006, the repression was the usual harassment and intimidation
of outspoken pro-democracy advocates by the national security police (Công An). But
repression intensified for the rest of the year and well into 2007. By mid-2007, a pro-
democracy group’s incomplete list of Vietnamese recently incarcerated for their
political and religious views had 3 dozen names.28 The list included several leaders of
the political parties and the online newspapers already referred to, a number of leaders
in religious organisations and a few defense lawyers for pro-democracy and religious
freedom advocates. Many of those incarcerated had signed the April 2006 Declaration
for Freedom and Democracy. Harassment and intimidation against public advocates
of democracy continue until now, punctuated by occasional arrests and imprisonments.
27 Statement from Kh i 8406, 2006.
28 Kh i 8406, 2007,’Th g i T ng Th ng Hoa K George W. Bush’ [Letter to President Bush].
An earlier source says that Vietnam has ‘hundreds’ of prisoners of conscience signed an
open letter to President Bush (‘Th ng g i T ng Th ng Hoa K George W. Bush’, 2006: 8).
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50 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
The crime for which pro-democracy activists are often convicted is violating laws
against spreading false propaganda about the state. Frequently state prosecutors also
argue that the accused have connections to foreign organisations, often composed of
Vietnamese living abroad who are viscerally opposed to Vietnam’s Communist Party,
that are trying to overthrow the government and destroy the nation-state.
Victims of state repression since mid-2006 have also included peasants and work-
ers with little or no connection to the democratisation movement. In late 2006 and
early 2007, police forcibly removed (and in some cases detained for days) dozens,
maybe hundreds of demonstrators from a public park in Hanoi that had become a
popular place for villagers from around the country to congregate while protesting
against a wide range of issues, especially corruption, abusive local officials, wrongful
eviction from farmlands and religious persecution.29 Authorities claimed that the
demonstrators were disrupting social order. Intensive police patrols now prevent
demonstrators from using that public park.
In mid-July 2007, about 1000 security police used water canons, batons and brute
force to disperse some 600 demonstrators.30 Mostly villagers from provinces in the
Mekong delta, the demonstrators had camped for days outside the Ho Chi Minh City
branch office of the National Assembly trying to get the attention of delegates and
other officials meeting there. They wanted authorities to address their complaints that
local officials had illegally confiscated their farmlands, an issue that has provoked
many demonstrations across Vietnam during the last dozen years. Most previous ones
ended with little incident, usually after authorities took steps to address people’s
concerns. In July 2007, some officials did meet with the demonstrators but apparently
took no further steps to respond to people’s charges. When security police officers
eventually told the protesters to leave, they refused. After a lengthy standoff, police-
men waded in. Forcing demonstrators into trucks and other vehicles, the police hauled
people back to their home provinces. Some people were reportedly severely beaten
and a few were arrested. The reasons for this use of force are unclear but appear to
center on authorities seeing the large demonstration as disrupting social order and
threatening national security.
Workers suffering the repressive side of the Vietnamese state have been leaders of
2 unauthorised organisations claiming to represent labourers’ interests: Hi p H i
[Dstrok] oàn K t Công-Nông Vi t Nam (United Workers-Farmers Association – UWFA) and
29 Among several sources are V[utilde] Thanh Ph ng and Lê Th Kim Thu, ‘Th kêu c u kh n c p’
[Letter calling for Urgent Help, Addressed to UN Human Rights Commission and Others],
2006, published on Ti ng Dân Kêu [Cry of the People] website. Nguy n Kh c Toàn’s article
refers to reports that police beat to death some of the removed demonstrators (Nguy n Kh c
Toàn, 2006: 10–15).
30 Sources include accounts in T Do Ngôn Lu n, 2007, 15 July; 2007, 1 August, by this
journal’s editors; the Liên Minh Dân Ch Nhân Quy n Vi t Nam [Vietnam Alliance for
Democracy and Human Rights], whose spokespersons include 2 Ho Chi Minh City residents,
and Nguy n [Dstrok] an Qu , a physician in Ho Chi Minh City.
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Forum for Development Studies 51
Công [Dstrok] oàn [Dstrok] c L p Vi t Nam (the Independent Trade Union of Vietnam – ITUV).
Both announced their existence in October 2006.31 By the end of 2006 authorities had
arrested UWFA leaders, who were then tried and convicted of spreading anti-state
propaganda, joining reactionary organisations and committing other offences.32
Police have harassed leaders of the other organisation, the ITUV, some of whom have
lost their jobs. One ITUV leader was arrested in 2007 and imprisoned, although appar-
ently not for her labour union involvement but for other political activism that, a court
ruled, had caused ‘public disorder’.33
Debates among critics
The responsive-repressive character of the Vietnamese state affects debates among
critics of the regime about how to press for political change and democratisation.
Broadly speaking, there are 2 schools of thought. I say ‘broadly’ because Vietnam has
some ardent critics of the present government who fit neither of these. But the 2
schools do encompass most of the people whose criticisms I have read.34 One advo-
cates struggle ([dstrok] u tranh) through participation and engagement with authorities and
state institutions. Such participatory struggle over time, they say, causes significant
mutation and conversion (chuy n hóa) toward democracy. To the participatory school
critics, the responsiveness of the state is evidence of governance improving in
Vietnam. The other school advocates struggle that directly confronts authorities and
institutions. This view pays little heed to the government’s responsive actions. Instead
critics in the confrontational school see the state as stubbornly opposed to significant
change and highly prone to repression. Hence the only way for governance in Vietnam
to improve is to replace the Communist Party government with democracy.
Before elaborating the differences between these two, I must point out that both
advocate non-violent, peaceful struggle. This is widely shared among people openly
critical of the present political system. Only a few critics hint at armed struggle.
The basic orientation of participatory struggle is to engage particular state offi-
cials, actions, policies and institutions on matters that directly affect people’s lives.
31 ITUV’s announcement, 20 October 2006, is posted in the [Dstrok] àn Chim Vi t website http:// UWFA’s
founding announcement, 30 October 2008, is on the T Do Ngôn Lu n website, http://
[Dstrok] in Th [Electronic Letter], 2007: 4–5; VietnamNet, 2007, via Steve Denney e-mail to the
Vietnam Studies Group, 4 May 2007; Radio Free Asia, 2008b.
[Dstrok] àn Chim Vi t, 2007; Committee to Protect Journalists, press release, New York, 4 February
2008; [Dstrok] ào V[abreve] n Th y in T Do Ngôn Lu n
34 I have read more than a 150 essays by some 2 dozen prominent critics and transcripts of
interviews they have given to radio journalists. There are 10 or 15 times that number of
relevant pieces I have not yet read by another 100 or more by known critics. In addition,
there is the large number of accounts by or about other Vietnamese who are not well-known
but also castigate authorities and sometimes the entire political system. Their views are not
yet included in my analysis but eventually will be.
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52 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
Where people – be they workers, peasants, students, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, busi-
nessmen/women, or anyone else – see that authorities and policies make life better for
them and their communities, then show support. But where people deem authorities’
actions, programmes and policies to be wrong or need modification, then struggle to
stop or improve them. Such efforts, say these critics, further Vietnam’s economic and
social development. And, even though they are not directly attacking or confronting
the political system, they also gradually and cumulatively contribute to political
change and democracy. Indeed, it is better ‘not to politicise struggles about people’s
livelihood and welfare’ (không nên chính tr hóa các [dstrok] u tranh dân sinh) otherwise
authorities are apt to be repressive rather than responsive.35 The struggle, to para-
phrase one critic, is not about overthrowing or bringing down the government. It is
about stopping policies that hurt people and the nation.36
Evidence shows, these critics say, that struggles for better living conditions and
other specific issues influence the Communist Party government and help the country
to develop. They point to the remarkable rise of family farming, which the Communist
Party had to endorse on account of persistent opposition among rural people to collec-
tive farming. Other evidence is the demise of the centrally planned economy and the
revival of private enterprise and a market economy. These were major concessions
that authorities had to make during the 1980s–1990s in the face of people’s poverty
and seething discontent. These and other changes also mean ‘communism’ and
‘socialism’ no longer have much importance or meaning among most Vietnamese,
another reality to which the Communist Party has had to adjust. Thus, on the
economic and ideological fronts, people’s struggles for better living conditions have
defeated some objectives of the Communist party government.37
Associated with participatory struggle are some specific stances, although not all
critics in this school endorse every one. A widely shared stance is to recognise the
achievements of the Communist Party regime. These include the party’s leadership in
overthrowing colonial rule and reuniting the nation and the ability of party and
government leaders to bend to pressures from the people. Critics in this school are
wary of overseas individuals and organisations wanting to play significant roles in
Vietnam’s democratisation movement.38 Among the reasons are their concerns that
such people include Vietnamese refugees who are actually trying to restore the Saigon
regime or something similar and that foreigners have inadequate understanding of
dynamics and conditions in Vietnam. Critics in this school also tend to be dubious
35 Hà S Phu, 2007, par.‘T t nhiên…’. Hà S Phu lives in [Dstrok] à L t, a city in central Vietnam.
36 ây là m t cu c [dstrok] u tranh nh m ch m [dstrok] t nh ng chính sách sai l m c a [Dstrok] ng C ng s n
cm quy n, nh ng chính sách ph n dân h i n c nh ng không ph i là m t cu c [dstrok] u tranh
[dstrok] lt [dstrok] chính quy n hi n nay.’ (Lê Hông Hà, 2007, par. ‘V n [dstrok] th hai…’). ‘[Dstrok] u tranh
vì Phát tri n và Dân ch hóa [Dstrok] t n c’ [Struggle for National Development and
Democratization]. Lê H ng Hà lives in Hanoi.
37 Lê Hông Hà (2007, par. ‘G i tên…’).
38 Tr n B o L c, 2007; Hà S Phu, 2007, transcript of interview by [Dstrok] oàn Giao Th y. Tr n B o
Lc also resides in [Dstrok] à L t, central Vietnam.
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Forum for Development Studies 53
about trying to organise big demonstrations or even petition campaigns demanding
democratic institutions.39 Generally they favour instead dialogue and interaction with
government and Communist Party authorities at all levels.40 Some within the partici-
patory struggle school think that Communist Party regime could, in time, self destruct
(tv) because of vast corruption, major conflicts and debates within the party, and
loss of support among the people.41
Critics favouring confrontational struggle stress direct opposition to the Communist
Party and its government. They say little about changes that have occurred from the
bottom up. Even if authorities in the past have made adjustments in the face of indirect
and widespread pressures, these critics see no evidence that such engagement can force
the Communist Party regime to change fundamentally the political system. And that
change, in particular a democracy, is what Vietnam needs now. Violent revolution is
not a viable way to bring this about. The only way is through straightforward and open
advocacy for a multiparty, pluralistic political system in which legislative, executive
and judicial branches of government are separated and free speech, as well as other
human rights, is protected.42 Critics in this school see little or nothing worth saving of
the present political system. It should be, in the words of the Declaration for Freedom
and Democracy, ‘completely replaced’ (ph i b thay th tri t [dstrok] ); it is ‘incapable of
being renovated or modified’ (không ph i [dstrok] c [dstrok] i m i hay [dstrok] iu ch nh).43 The
replacement can come in a couple of ways: Communist Party leaders will see the hand-
writing on the wall of their inevitable demise and simply concede or a mass uprising
that is largely peaceful will cause the regime to collapse.44
Forms of direct confrontation advocated by various critics in the confrontationa
struggle include boycotting elections for the National Assembly unless opposition
parties are allowed to run candidates freely, having an internationally supervised
national referendum on whether the present government should continue or not, and
encouraging nationwide mass demonstrations against the regime.45 The type of
39 Lê H ng Hà, 2006, transcript of interview by Vi t Tide.
40 Tr n B o L c,2007, ‘Góp [yacute] …’. Also see Hà S Phu, 2008, public letter to Nguy n Minh
Tri t and Nguy n T n D ng, president and prime minister, respectively.
41 Lê H ng Hà, 2007, par. ‘M t, cu c u tranh…’.
42 ‘Tuyên Ngôn T do Dân ch cho Vi t Nam,’ 8 April 2006, part III. This ‘Declaration of
Freedom and Democary for Vietnam’ is on numerous websites, e.g. M ng [Yacute] Ki n [Opinion
Net], For an English version, see L Ph i [Justice] website http://
43 ‘Tuyên Ngôn…,’ 2006, par. ‘M c tiêu cao nh t…’.
Nam H i, 2004; [Dstrok] Nam H i, 2005: 4; and Hoàng Bách Vi t, member of the [Dstrok] ng Dân
Ch Nhân Dân [People’s Democratic Party], ‘Nh ng Chi n S Dân Ch Chuyên Nghi p’
[Professional Fighters for Democracy], 2005: 1–2. [Dstrok] Nam H i and Hoàng Bách Vi t live
in Ho Chi Minh City.
45 Chân Tín and 3 other Roman Catholic priests, 2006: 3–4; Nguy n V[abreve] n L[yacute] , Roman Catholic
priest, 2006; Minh Chính, 2006; and Trung Hi u, n.d. Chân Tín, Minh Chính, and Trung
Hi u were writing in Ho Chi Minh City. Nguy n V[abreve] n L[yacute] , who is from Hu , was arrested
and imprisoned in February 2007.
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54 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
confrontation about which there is most agreement is the establishment of organisa-
tions that publicly criticise the Communist Party government and demand democracy.
Besides confronting the regime, say these critics, such organisations will give the
democratisation movement continuity and sustainability even though the regime
suppresses, arrests and imprisons individual activists. Whether to have many organi-
sations or to consolidate them into one or two is a question critics are discussing.46
Another issue is the role of Vietnamese living abroad and of other foreign organisa-
tions. Some critics in this school see them as vital. One even says the leadership
should be outside Vietnam until the democratisation movement in Vietnam becomes
strong.47 Others say that material and moral support from abroad is helpful but the
movement in Vietnam must rely on its own resources and leadership.
Underlying the 2 schools are differences regarding the relationship between
development and democracy. Critics in the participatory school tend to emphasise
development – meaning especially improved living conditions, welfare and happi-
ness of citizens across the country. Implicitly (explicitly for some) democracy is an
aspect of development. The 2 are linked, but development is, as Lê H ng Hà says,
overarching and comprehensive – democratisation is an important aspect of develop-
ment, not independent of it. Hence, fighting for democracy by itself does not
make sense. The struggle is for the development and democratisation of Vietnam
([dstrok] u tranh vì s phát tri n và dân ch hóa [dstrok] t n c Vi t Nam).48 Thinking along
similar lines, L Ph ng says democratisation in Vietnam need not start with a
multiparty political system. Indeed, he says, a multiple party system is likely to
come in the late stages of the whole democratisation process.49 For the confronta-
tional school, democratisation is primary. Development cannot happen until Vietnam
has democratic institutions, especially multiple political parties competing for
government positions in free elections. Without such institutions, they argue, corrup-
tion will continue, creative thinking and innovation will remain stifled, and human
rights will be suppressed.50 And without such political institutions, Vietnam cannot
46 Hu nh Vi t Lang, member of the [Dstrok] ng Dân Ch Nhân Dân [People’s Democratic Party],
2006: 39–40; Lê Quang Liêm, member of Ph t Giáo Hòa H o Thu n Túy [Hoa Hao
Buddhist religion], 2006: 10; Nguy n V[utilde] Bình, 2008. Hu nh Vi t Lang, a resident of Ho
Chi Minh City, was arrested in August 2006 and, so far as I know, is still in prison; Nguy n
V[utilde] Bình is in Hanoi. Lê Quang Liêm is in Vietnam but I do not know where.
47 Ph m Qu D ng, 2007: 15. The writer lives in Hanoi.
48 Lê H ng Hà, 2007, par. ‘V i v n [dstrok] th nh t…’.
49 L Ph ng, Transcript of interview with [Dstrok] oàn Giao Th y, 2007, par. ‘Dân ch hóa…’.
50 See, for instance, [Dstrok] ng Dân Ch Nhân Dân [People’s Democracy Party], ‘Tuyên Ngôn’
[Declaration], 2005, especially pp. 1, 5–6, 2005: 1–7; and [Dstrok] ng Th[abreve] ng Ti n Vi t Nam
[Vietnam Progressive Party], ‘C ng L[itilde] nh t m th i’ [Provisional Policy Outline], 2006.
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Forum for Development Studies 55
catch up with the development that neighbouring countries such as Thailand,
Malaysia and Singapore have achieved.51
No one knows how the debate among critics of Vietnam’s Communist Party govern-
ment will play out. I suspect the discussion will continue, perhaps even become
frenzied and poisoned with personal animosities. Also, a wider, more inclusive read-
ing of the growing volume of essays and other material critics produce will likely
reveal multiple debates across a number of issues.
In any event, I suspect the relationship between development and democracy will
remain a prominent issue for those criticising and opposing Vietnam’s government.
Just as social scientists continue to wrestle with the problem without reaching a defin-
itive conclusion, Vietnamese political activists and writers will not be likely to reach
a consensus. A major reason for inconclusiveness within social science is that the
empirical evidence on the matter is complicated and mixed, to say the least. For critics
of Vietnam, some of whom are familiar with the social science literature on the topic,
a major reason for a continued discussion is the responsive/repressive character of the
Communist Party regime. As long as the regime continues to be responsive to pres-
sures for improving the welfare of citizens and their country and avoid resorting
quickly to heavy-handed repression, its critics will be divided in their analyses of
governance in Vietnam and in their methods to improve the political system.
The author is grateful to Soeren Jeppesen, Iben Nathan, Karin Buhmann and other organisers
of the FAU Conference 2009 for inviting him to write the first version of this paper as a keynote
presentation. Helping him to revise the paper for publication were suggestions and comments
from Annette Ksovsted Hansen, Anne Mette Kjær and 2 reviewers for the Forum for Develop-
ment Studies. The author is also indebted to Ph m Thu Th y, a research assistant in the Depart-
ment of Political and Social Change, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The
Australian National University (ANU). She collected many of the Vietnamese materials used
to prepare this article. Gratitude is extended to the ANU and the Australian Research Council
for Financial Support.
51 Several Vietnamese critics of the Communist Party regime lament their country being far
less developed than other Asian countries, especially these 3 Southeast Asian ones, and argue
one-party political system and other non-democratic features of Vietnam’s political system
is a major reason. See, for instance, [Dstrok] ng V[abreve] n Vi t, 2006: 15; and Tr n Anh Kim, 2006, par.
[Dstrok] ng man l i…’. [Dstrok] ng V[abreve] n Vi t is in Hanoi; Tr n Anh Kim is in Thái Bình City, Thái
Bình province.
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56 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet
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... The responsive-repressive party-state and labor reform While authoritarian states are often interpreted in monolithic terms, the Vietnamese party-state has long been an arena of negotiation and intermediation between competing interests and factions (Vuving, 2017) and proven responsive to grassroots pressure, in particular if emanating from workers or peasants, the two primary constituencies of, and sources of political legitimacy for, the VCP (Kerkvliet, 2010). The VCP, however, is intolerant when its supremacy is challenged, and demands for fundamental political reformsincluding independent unionshave been suppressed. ...
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The development of communication technology in this era has spread to all communities in Indonesia. This encourages the strength of social media that can influence society. The political world is also inseparable from containing social media. The development of relevant internet technology makes many Indonesians use the internet for social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, YouTube and others. Social media network services are very structured starting from content sharing, web and social media internet forums. Considering social media in the world of politics is very high, especially in terms of political communication in election campaigns. Social media has two very dynamic dangers. First they choose one political party to win, then this party will become a positive member. Second, choose one political party to lose, then these things can damage the image of the party itself. Thus, this paper will discuss the role of social media as political communication in the election campaign of political parties in Indonesia in 2014. It is logical by the authors in this paper that social media has played and will continue to play a very important role in political party campaigns in Indonesia
This article builds on critiques of the concept of social upgrading in global value chain (GVC) research, which problematize its coupling to lead firm strategies and economic upgrading by supplier firms, by reconceptualizing social upgrading through the lens of worker power. It argues that a better understanding of the causal processes of social upgrading can be obtained by integrating insights from labour geography, which situates worker agency at the intersection of a ‘vertical’ dimension of transnational relations and a ‘horizontal’ dimension of local relations, with conceptualizations of worker power from (global) labour studies, particularly the modes of structural and associational power. The authors call for a deeper theorization of the places in which GVCs ‘touch down’, arguing that worker power is decisively shaped by state–labour relations as well as the intersectionality of worker identities and interlinkages between spheres of production and reproduction. Case study analyses of the apparel sectors in Cambodia and Vietnam employ this reconceptualization, drawing on the authors’ own fieldwork. In both cases, worker power expressed in strike action was a key causal driver of social upgrading; and in both, the outcomes were conditioned by GVC dynamics as well as shifting state–labour relations and intersections of worker identities linked to gender, household and community relations.
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Situated within the literature on welfare regimes, this article investigates workers’ contestation of pension arrangements in post-socialist, authoritarian China and Vietnam, and considers the effects of their actions. Scholars have highlighted economic, cultural, political regime type and political institutions as factors crucial to understanding the welfare regimes of China and Vietnam. However, the “labour factor” – that is, how worker resistance and mobilisation shape welfare provisions – has been under-explored. Focusing on pension provisions in China and Vietnam, this article contends that a labour perspective can deepen knowledge of pension systems and welfare regimes in these two countries. Based on case studies of two notable strikes, interviews and documentary research, this article illustrates that, against the background of transitioning from state socialism to market-Leninism, pension provisions and welfare regimes in China and Vietnam have been constantly contested by workers. It also shows that labour resistance has influenced welfare arrangements at various levels in both countries, and that the Vietnamese state was more accommodating to workers’ pension demands than the Chinese state, because of its more strongly redistributive orientation and, relatively, a less controlling political system.
Superficially, democracy in the Philippines is in better shape than in Vietnam. Yet in terms of being responsive to “the masses,” Vietnam’s government appears to do a better job than does the Philippines’ national government. After exploring this paradox, this article points to issues regarding democracy that need considerably more research.
In this book, the author marshals evidence to support an arena-specific approach towards viewing Vietnam's state-society relations. In practice, the Vietnamese party-state's relations with society vary from the hard and uncompromising state, with the bureaucracy getting its way, to society's ability to negotiate the state's boundaries and regimes to make them less harsh. Any analysis of Vietnam's state-society relations needs to recognize and demonstrate both elements of dominance and accommodation, as well as specify the context in which either or both are seen. Alone, neither is adequate. In particular, the idea of the "state" needs to be disaggregated because "state" is not a singular actor that is coherent or uniform through time and space. To demonstrate how state-disaggregation can make our view more nuanced, this book analyses state-society interaction at the ward level of Hanoi, an urban local authority. © 2006 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. All rights reserved.
Acknowledgements 1. Introduction: Civil Institutions and the State 2. Development of NGOs under a Post-Totalitarian Regime: The Case of China 3. NGOs, the State, and Democracy under Globalization: The Case of Taiwan 4. Friends and Critics of the State: The Case of Hong Kong 5. Civil Associations and Autonomy under Three Regimes: The Boundaries of State and Society in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China 6. From State-Centric to Negotiated Governance: NGOs as Policy Entrepreneurs in South Korea 7. The Development of NGO Activities in Japan: A New Civil Culture and Institutionalization in Civic Action 8. The State, Local Associations, and Alternate Civilities in Rural Northern Vietnam 9. Non-Government Organizations and Democratic Transition in Indonesia 10. Constrained NGOs and Arrested Democratization in Singapore Index Notes on Contributors
Preliminary pages 1. Introduction 2. Theorizing Everyday Politics in Collective Farming 3. Building on Wobbly Foundations, 1955-1961 4. Coping and Shoring Up, 1961-1974 5. Collapsing from Within, 1974-1981 6. Dismantling Collective Farming: Expanding the Family Farm, 1981-1990 7. Conclusion Appendixes, Vietnamese Glossary, Selected Places and Terms, Abbreviations, Bibliography, Index.
In Community-Driven Regulation Dara O'Rourke proposes a new policy model for pollution control, based on detailed case studies from rapidly industrializing Vietnam. He shows that environmental problems can be solved when affected community groups mobilize to pressure both state and industry and argues that this strategy, which he terms "community-driven regulation," used successfully in Vietnam, can achieve similar success in other countries.Vietnam's recent entry into the world economy has brought many benefits to its population--more jobs, higher income levels, more plentiful goods and services. But this very rapid growth of industry has also brought predictable environmental problems. Areas near industrial plants experience declining crop yields and polluted groundwater; residents downwind from factories suffer respiratory ailments. Vietnam thus serves as a model for nations dealing with environmental problems during the transition to an industrialized economy and global integration.O 'Rourke offers six detailed case studies, based on his own fieldwork in Vietnam, that show how strategies adopted by local communities achieved positive results despite a strong state bias toward development and the absence of existing advocacy groups, a free press, or politically vulnerable elected officials. The firms studied are both state-run and multinational; they include a Taiwanese textile factory, a state-owned fertilizer plant, and a Korean factory producing shoes for Nike. The communities affected range from traditional villages to urban neighborhoods. O'Rourke's policy model of community-state synergy challenges traditional notions of state-centric environmental regulation and questions the growing literature that identifies market mechanisms as the best way to solve environmental problems in developing countries.
Tests the Murray-Szelenyi model of urbanization in socialist countries, and finds it useful in so far as changes in the rate and pattern of urbanization can be traced to the interaction of state and economy. The state's impostion of central planning with its corresponding changes in class relations, is an important force in indictating the rate and pattern of socialist urbanization. However, in socialist developing countries the state often lacks the power to direct the rate and pattern of urbanization as it would like, while civil society and external relations remain important determinants of urbanization. In Vietnam's case, warfare between nation-states has come to the fore as one of the most important determinants of Vietnamese urbanization under socialism.-from Authors
A new orthodoxy dominates official Western aid policy and development thinking. At its core is the confident assertion that "good governance' and democracy are not simply desirable but essential conditions for development in all societies. The new orthodoxy assumes that there are no inherent tensions, conflicts or difficult trade-offs over time between the various goals of development - such as growth, democracy, stability, equity and autonomy. It appears therefore to assume that no special preconditions are necessary for stable democracy and that it can (and should) be instituted at almost any stage in the developmental process of any society, where it will enhance, not hinder, further development. The author, however, argues that the celebration of a victorious world-wide democratic revolution, which commenced three years ago at the 1990 Houston Summit of industrialised nations (the G7), is hopelessly premature. Few of the Third World elites which dominated formerly non-democratic political systems (on left or right) have embraced democracy with either enthusiasm or commitment. And even where popular domestic protests have prised democratisation out of authoritarian regimes, few Third World societies as yet exhibit the conditions which will sustain democracy. The central thrust of this article is therefore that political turbulence must now be expected, growth and development will be undermined and executive or military coups are bound to follow in the remaining years of the 1990s. In short, we are about to enter an era of democratic reversal, not democratic consolidation. -from Author