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The Enterprising Cadre: Cán b dám làm
Ken MacLean
Hung is a member of the “transition” generation. He, like millions of others, came of age
after the Second Indochina War (1959-1975) when—contrary to official promises and popular
expectations—living conditions worsened rather than improved. The centrally planned economy,
although not the sole cause of the poverty, hunger, and “entrenched thinking” that characterized
post-war life, nonetheless came to symbolize the inability of actually existing socialism to satisfy
basic needs, much less realize its stated ideals.
By the mid-1990s, living conditions had improved dramatically, largely due to a series of
reforms, which transformed some previously illicit forms of economic activity into licit ones.
Further administrative reforms followed and these eventually made it possible for civil
servants—provided they had the right combination of knowledge, skills, and connections—to
fashion interesting and sometimes lucrative careers that relied upon yet strategically blurred the
boundary imagined to distinguish the public sector from the private one.1 These cadres, as
several of my informants noted, were “brave enough to do” (cán b dám làm), i.e. become
entrepreneurs at this “public-private” (công-tư) interface.
Hung was at the forefront of this trend, now widespread nationwide at all levels of
government nationwide. Originally from Hanoi, he founded a private consulting firm inside a
1 Carolyn Nordstrom, “Shadows and Sovereigns,” Theory, Culture, & Society 17, no. 4 (2000):
35-54; Akhil Gupta, “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics,
and the Imagined State,” American Ethnologist 22, no. 2 (1995): 375-402.
state research institute based in Ho Chi Minh City in 2000, more than a year before the
Communist Party officially endorsed the socialist-oriented market economy as the new
development “model” for the country as a whole at its Ninth National Congress. The director—
who was eager to develop a “private” revenue stream not subject to “public” oversight—
permitted Hung and his team to work outside the institute on a nearly full-time basis on one
condition; they had to redistribute a portion of their revenues to the institute to help reduce the
budgetary shortfall a steady decline in state subsidies had created.
Hung’s firm, despite the additional burden of this unofficial tax, quickly became a
success, in part because of Hung’s technical expertise, enthusiasm, and natural charm, all of
which were plainly evident at a workshop on rural land use planning in Hanoi where I first met
him. But the firm’s growing list of clients, which included other state agencies in addition to
international non-governmental organizations and multilateral development banks, also sought
out Hung because of his demonstrated ability to deliver on his contractual promises. In short,
Hung got things done, on time, and close to budget despite the bureaucratic resistance he often
encountered from cadres who had “not yet turned towards the new” (chưa đổi mi), as one of his
colleagues put it, referring to officials slow to embrace the changes wrought by the reform
process of the same name.
Hung was well-liked by his colleagues as well. They affectionately called him Ông Địa,
the tutelary spirit of wealth. Initially I assumed the unusual nickname to be a play-on-words, as
“Hung” means “prosperity.” Visually, the name fit as well. Hung, while he lacked the requisite
mustache and goatee, did possess the ample belly, moon-shaped face, and beatific smile found
on statues of Ông Địa. One day during lunch, I ask several of Hung’s junior colleagues whether
my guess was correct. They said I was, but for the wrong reasons. The nickname, Quang
explained, had nothing to due with their shared physical attributes; instead, they used it because
Hung, like Ông Địa, had the power to give them what they wanted provided they kept him “well-
fed.” Quang’s answer mystified me, until he reminded me that many southerners regard Ông Địa
to be a manifestation of the Kitchen God, the guardian spirit of the hearth, whose unusual place
in Vietnamese culture provides insights into how the tactics used “to buy over” (đút lót) others,
including state officials, both have and have not changed since the reform era began.2
Since food is almost always prepared and consumed in the company of others, the
Kitchen God also monitors everyone’s behavior, a duty that is publicly acknowledged on the
twenty-third day of the final month of the lunar year. On this day, families throughout Vietnam
“bribe” the Kitchen God with lavish offerings—gold votive paper, new clothing, culinary
delicacies, and ample amounts of alcohol—before he makes his annual journey to Heaven on the
back of a magical carp. Once there, the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor, providing a
detailed account of each family’s conduct over the previous year. Since a favorable report is
widely believed to help ensure happiness and good fortune in the coming year, many people take
an added precaution: they smear the Kitchen God’s mouth with sugar, honey, or sweet sticky rice
in the hopes that he will speak highly of them or at least cast their misdeeds in a somewhat more
favorable light.
2 Nguyn-Võ Thư Hương, The Ironies of Freedom: Sex, Culture, and Neoliberal Governance in
Vietnam (Seattle: University of Washington, 2008), 3-24; Alexei Yurchak, “Governmentality in
Post-Socialist Russia,” in The New Entrepreneurs of Europe and Asia, ed. Victoria Bonell and
Thomas Gold (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2002), 278-323.
When all the above is taken into account, Hung’s unusual sobriquet seems somewhat less
playful than I first assumed. Endearments, while sweet, can convey more than affection;
moreover, they often carry a significant cost for those who give them—a requirement that
becomes abundantly clear just prior to the lunar New Year celebrations when many civil servants
give their superiors imported liquor, luxury goods, and/or cash in the hopes of securing future
returns. Fortunately, Hung’s staff did not have to provide such “gifts” to obtain raises,
promotions, or other professional opportunities, which made him quite different from other
public civil servant/private entrepreneurs. Nor were they required to forge receipts or manipulate
field data to generate additional revenue, as was also commonplace. Instead, the staff kept Hung
“well-fed” by meeting his exacting professional standards, which I knew from personal
experience, required long hours both in the field and in the office preparing reports, typically
without additional compensation. While these differences matter, the similarities also indicate
the “transition” from a centrally planned economy to a market driven one has reconfigured rather
than reformed the attitudes, values, and practices, which shape how Vietnamese mitigate risk and
accumulate favors in its sprawling public-private bureaucracy.3
3 Katherine Verdery, The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania.
(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), 61-2; Ken MacLean, “The Rehabilitation of an
Uncomfortable Past: Remembering the Everyday in Vietnam during the Subsidy Period (1975-
1986),” History and Anthropology 19, no. 3 (2008): 281-303.
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