The Communist Party of Vietnam: harnessing nationalism to strengthen government legitimacy

A post dedicated to my one reader.

South China Sea. Photo credit:
How does a non-democratically elected government ensure that it is viewed as the rightful and legitimate ruling power in a country?

The Arab Spring protests (in which millions of aggrieved citizens from Tunisia to Bahrain came out on the streets to call for the end of illegitimate authoritarian rule in the Middle East) exemplifies the greatest fears held by non-democratically elected governments: that the people will one protest against their rule (and in the case of Syria, drag the country into a half decade of seemingly endless bloodshed and destruction).

Broadly speaking, political legitimacy accords leaders moral authority via the approval of its citizenry to the extent that they willingly obey such leadership and consent to being governed by them (Kane & Patapan, 2009). For democratically elected governments, this legitimacy is usually conferred via the ballot box in freely contested elections. Non-democratic governments must look elsewhere to ensure the compliance and loyalty of its people.


What is the source of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s legitimacy?

In the search for enduring legitimacy, Vietnam has oscillated from one strategy to another in its four decade long rule of Vietnam. Since coming to power after the 1975 reunification of the North and South, the main sources of its legitimacy derived from a collective sense of strong nationalism among the people and a belief in the Party’s rhetoric of a Socialist vision, based upon Marxist-Leninist thought.

Nationalism flowed from the military struggle of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) fighting for Vietnam independence. For a country which had been under occupation since falling under French colonial rule in 1885, winning two protracted wars against Western powers – France and then the US from 1946 to 1975 – gave moral authority to the Party. The fact that countless Vietnamese flocked to fight under the Communist Party’s military command tangibly demonstrated the strength of their legitimacy.

However, after the withdrawal of the US and the surrender of South Vietnamese to the CPV, the  military struggle would no longer be an automatic source of legitimacy for the Party. The late 1970s ushered in a new paradigm in which the CPV had adjust to a new reality, away from the battlefield. Instead they had to navigate the task of governing, which brought its own burdens.

This new post-reunification period was a highly contentious time for the Party, with a decade of the unpopular occupation of Cambodia from 1978 to 1989. This military adventurism led to acerbic criticism from Western governments and harsh economic sanctions,  which further damaged the CPV’s perception of legitimacy, both domestically and internationally.

Most detrimental,  economic stagnation crippled the CPV’s popularity and exposed the Socialist vision of the Party to be hollow. Emerging from decades of war, Vietnam in the 1970s was as poor as Ethiopia. The Vietnam war left a legacy of destroyed infrastructure (it it estimated that 14 million tons of bombs and shells had fallen on country), 1.5 million civilians dead, 15 million people homeless as well as millions of working-age Vietnamese too injured or lacking the skills to work. The post-reunification society had to wean itself off an entire economic system that had been directing all its resources to winning the war effort.

The CPV had the uneviable task of delivering on the promise of a socialist utopia from the ruins of a bloody war (one that had been serving as a proxy theatre for the Cold War). The chosen model to achieve this Socialist vision involved transitioning to a Soviet style system of collectivising agriculture and nationalising manufacturing. As the Communists embarked on implementing their first Five Year Plan, the country sustained  a famine throughout the country and a further loss in human capital with the large exodus of over one million refugees from Vietnam, fleeing after the communist victory in the South.

The legitimacy of the Party in the eyes of the people was beginning to crack.


Abandoning Communism, Embracing Economic Growth

In 1978, Chairman Deng Xiaoping, leader of China, abandoned the Maoist model and opened the Chinese economy to market reforms. This “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” catapulted his people to decades of record-breaking growth. In 1986, the CPV followed the contours of China’s example and launched their policy of Doi Moi (Vietnamese for “renovation”), which led to a complete opening of economic institutions formerly under state control.

This radical shift in the government’s economic model focused on developing a multi-sector, export-led market-based economy with arms open to foreign direct investment and international trading opportunities. Vietnam’s great leap in economic growth extricated many Vietnamese out of crippling destitution, with national rates of poverty falling from 63% to 21.5% in the space of two decades. World Bank President Mr. Jim Yong Kim in his February 2016 visit of Hanoi stated,

“Vietnam is a remarkable development success story. In a short time, the country has charted a course if rapid, inclusive growth, delivering higher living standards for the majority of its people”.

And with that, the Party experienced a shift from militaristic nationalism-based legitimacy to a new economic performance-based legitimacy as the economy grew exponentially


Problems on the horizon

In 2016, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Doi Moi reforms, the economic-based legitimacy that the Party has been cultivated is beginning to fray at the edges again. Following global trends, the CPV may soon no longer be able to rely on impressive GDP figures to shore up unquestioned support for its rule.

Adverse conditions in the past year alone point to exogenous factors beyond the control of the government that could sabotage the CPV’s title as the  guardians of the country’s economic successes.

Serious cases of ocean pollution caused by Formosa Steel Company’s industrial waste and the worst drought to hit the country in almost a century across central and southern Vietnam, have both significantly reduced industrial and agricultural production in 2016. Profitability from mining activities has decreased precipitously in recent years due to persistently low global commodity prices. Coupled with the slowdown in global demand for Vietnam’s export since the financial crisis across the world, these factors could create a perfect storm to capsize the country’s economic growth predictions and raise serious concerns among the public about the Party’s ability to deal with such negative economic fallout.

After years of reaping the successes of accelerated globalisation, international trade and export-led growth, Vietnam’s high level of exposure to the increasingly stagnating global economy highlights a vulnerability. In such a hostile environment, the CPV government is struggling to deliver on its 2016 economic growth target of 6.7 % (a figure which the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have revised down to 6% this year).

As a telling example of how exposed the Vietnamese economy is to the vagaries of global economic events, the cessation by Samsung of its spontaneously-combusting Galaxy Note 7 smartphone will have a noticeable negative effect on Vietnam’s exports. The Korean conglomerate is Vietnam’s largest exporter, representing about a fifth of Vietnam’s cargo shipments. Additionally, in 2016 Cambodia has announced that foreign direct investment (FDI) from Vietnam collapsed to zero in the first six months of this year, highlighting a Vietnam in retreat from the global market, unable to throw it weight around the region.

According to data from the World Bank, the Vietnamese government faces the biggest fiscal strain among emerging markets in Southeast Asia with state debt estimated at 64% of GDP this year, compared with 41% in Thailand and 56% in Malaysia. A large portion of this debt came as a result of the Vietnamese government borrowing extensively to finance its spending and prop up growth, while lingering non-performing loans still remain a dormant hazard.

If the CVP – under the auspices of President Tran Dai Quang, Communist Party Secretary-general Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc – cannot promise its people economic prosperity, this may exacerbate widespread public unrest. Vietnam may witness its increasingly discerning middle class push for more democratic input in the country’s governance. A younger population highly literate in the Internet may demand freedom of speech in society and push against state strictures and censorship. Both of these trends would strike fear into the hearts of the country’s single Party leadership.

The government of Vietnam ultimately faces the same dilemma as other non-democratic governments who can no longer deliver on the tacit “social contract” with its citizens (grudging acceptance of the party’s rule in exchange for growing personal freedom and prosperity). Vietnam only needs to look to China’s one-party rule to see the potential storm on the horizon.

This leaves the Vietnamese government searching for new sources of legitimacy. In the absence of performance-based legitimacy, the familiar narrative of nationalism-based legitimacy is re-appearing again as an attractive alternative. By highlighting threats from outside that could potentially harm the fabric of their society, Vietnamese citizens may feel it best to unify behind their government in order to mitigate fears or repel attacked from this threat. By bolstering an”us versus them” mentality  and fostering a narrative of the nefarious “other”, this could ensure solidarity in the populations and minimise domestic dissent.


Following in neighbours’ footsteps

In the past few years, neighbouring Philippines saw the opportunity to harness the conflict in the South China Sea to bolster nationalist support for its rule. The Philippines’ actions in the South China Sea Crisis under Benigno Aquino, President of the Philippines until 2016, forged a path that Vietnam can follow in fomenting nationalist sentiment for domestic political gain.

When the Aquino government filed a  Notification and Statement of Claim in 2013 with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, challenging Chinese encroachment within its 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), there was no real belief that it would realistically deter the Chinese government from its island building projects and staking its historic claim to its Nine-Dash Line (which the CCP claim goes back to 1947).

The Philippines were well aware of China’s determination: retaining full territorial sovereignty is a very painful issue to the Chinese Communist Party, who still remember their “Century of Humiliation” from mid 1800 to the mid 1900s. The country was forced to concede territory time and time again in its modern memory, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and parts of Manchuria. These losses are still viscerally felt by many Chinese nationalists today. Territory in the South China Sea is therefore not something that China will quietly relinquish to others, not least at the behest of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

And of course, the Communist Party of China sees the benefit of encouraging nationalism and solidarity in its population. Declaring the legal verdict last June as “null and void”, the Chinese can use their posturing as a nationalist vehicle to distract from criticisms about the country’s slowing economy, increased inequality, environmental degradation and the calls by some citizens for more democracy in the country.

For the Philippines’ government, the benefit of lodging this legal claim was the resulting surge in nationalism across the Filipino population. By demonstrating that they were doing something about the territory claims in this “David and Goliath” battle – even if it is only by this legal mechanism – it bolstered a nation in which 55% of the population say have “little trust” in the Chinese. In 2011, the advent of the new name used by the Philippines government to describe their claimed territory in the South China Sea – renaming it the “West Philippine Sea” – itself served as a new rallying call to encourage nationalist sentiments.

Of course, this tactic was not enough for President Aquino to remain in government. Nationalism didn’t blind the people from problems on their home soil. By electing Rodriguo Duterte in 2016, the Filipino electorate demonstrated that the South China Sea threat could not distract them from domestic issues: one of the highest homicide rate in Asia, growth in drug abuse and drug crime, kidnappings and a sharp decline in tourism income.

The South China Sea balance in the Philippines has been fundamentally altered with Duterte as the President of the Philippines. His main focus in office is his unorthodox approach to fixing domestic issues with his advocacy of vigilantism. On the foreign policy front,  his new pivot to China has surprised many.

However, one must take Duterte’s colourful statements with a pinch of salt. His anti-US rhetoric has involved him calling the US President Barack Obama the son of a whore, and he has pledged to end the bilateral military treaty alliance with America. Yet, so far, none of his strong anti-US comments have precipitated into action. He would need Senate support to end any military treaty with the US and there is no such appetite for this in the government. Furthermore, Duterte recently asked Japan to become more active in the South China Sea dispute – a move that would only madden China, perceiving any inclusion of Japan as an insult. Furthermore, as mentioned above, trust among Philippines people towards China is very low, compared to the higher favourability ratings they articulate toward the US. Duterte’s anti-US tirades may be nothing more than a way for him to air his anti-imperialist anger toward America, while the foreign policy actions of the country will continue to follow the same path as his predecessor. With his unique approach to the Presidency, Mr. Duterte may only be substituting anti-China nationalism with anti-US nationalism.


The ubiquitous “rally round the flag” phenomenon

This conscious projecting of nationalism abroad with the main aim of promoting domestic support for the incumbent ruler is not unique to the Aquino government in the Philippines. Countless governments have deliberately refocused the attention of their citizens away from domestic crises or government scandals, only to magnify threats  – be they real or imaginary – coming from the outside.

This “rally round the flag” phenomenon was evident in early 2016, when Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, was accused of stoking the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia as a way to distract his country’s citizens from economic woes battering Ajerbaijan’s energy-dependent economy, which suffered from crashing global energy prices. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was also seen as a way for Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, to reorient support in the country after economic decline and a fall in his popularity. George W. Bush, US President, enjoyed an initial surge of support for the Iraq War in 2003, as his overall approval rating surged to 71% immediately after the conflict began, up 13 points from his pre-war rating of 58%. The continual  belligerence by Arab neighbours towards Israel, and the occasional flare up of conflict, have been viewed by some as a way by authoritarian regimes, such as Syria and Egypt to coalesce support against the “Zionist entity” (while conveniently distracting attention away from domestic problems). One could argue that North Korea’s entire regime legitimacy is based upon such a narrative: by constantly reinforcing the idea that the Kim regime is under siege from the outside, permanent fear of impending war is instilled in the psyche of the people. This in turn justifies crippling levels of poverty as necessary to maintain its massive military, as well as facilitating the creation of an oppressive police-state in which anyone in opposition to the regime is a traitor.

The South China Sea multi-state confrontation is not at the same level of flamboyance and aggression as it is in North Korea. However, the South China Sea is cultivating and solidifying a strong sense of nationalism in its littoral countries.


Vietnam: throwing nothing but shapes at China

Vietnam’s ruling CVP can reclaim nationalism-based legitimacy from its posturing on the South China Sea, with the potential to reproduce even a fraction of the type of legitimacy that it enjoyed is in the last century during the decades of fighting wars of independence against the US and the French troops.

In many ways, anti-Chinese posturing is an easy target for such a purpose of stoking nationalism. In the minds of many Vietnamese, China is regarded as a hostile “other.” In 2014, a series of anti-Chinese protests took place in Vietnam against Chinese businesses in the country. The aim of the protests was to air grievances about the construction by the Chinese of an oil rig in an area of the South China Sea under dispute between the two countries. These protests subsequently dissolved into violent rioting in the country and in May 2014, it is estimated that over twenty people were killed and nearly 100 injured in Ha Tinh province during violent protests against Chinese actions encroaching on Vietnam’s sovereignty. This marked one of the most violent conflicts between the two countries since 1979 (when China invaded Vietnam briefly in response to Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, resulting in a brief but highly destructive war that devastated much of northern Vietnam).

Despite the high economic stakes involved in the South China Sea dispute – energy resources, fishing rights, trade route access – and despite real animosity felt on all sides, actual escalation of conflict to include military combat seems highly unlikely to occur. The economic, humanitarian, and political cost to both countries would be too great. For Vietnam, its largest trading partner is China, with trade equating to $36 billion. And in brute power terms, China has obvious military clout that dwarfs the offensive capabilities of the Vietnamese armies.

The losses would also be very high for China if it were to attack Vietnam over contested South China Sea territory. Any military attack would elicit immediate responses from the US, Japan and other countries around the South China Sea. The Communist Party of China only needs to recall the West’s harsh economic and diplomatic response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea to understand that any challenges the post-Cold War international order (led by US as the remaining world superpower) would be punished severely. The Chinese government, with its flagging economy and multitude of foreign investment ventures, is in no position today to risk such levels of isolation.

It is too reductionist to classify the South China Sea as a region fraught with simple 19th century security concerns of aggression and straightforward desires for territorial aggrandisment. It is important to consider how the international rhetoric is being moulded and broadcast to domestic audiences in all countries involved, rather than only viewing the build up of military forces at the water’s edge as an inevitable march towards outright conflict and violent escalation between antagonistic states.

A common cycle throughout modern history of the statehood system is that such strong posturing is a natural outgrowth of economic crises. The Great Depression and post-war stagnation in the 1930s resulted in hyper-nationalist, Fascist governments with revanchist aims coming to power across Europe. The 2008 global crisis is witnessing the return of this trend with populist governments gaining popularity across the Western by advocating nationalist views.

Economic non-performance further exacerbates the legitimacy problem in non-democratic governments, who rely on continual economic growth and advancement of citizens’ level of prosperity in order to project their legitimacy to domestic audiences. Unless the Vietnamese can weather the current global trade, debt and financial crises, the government may need to continually stoke the fire of nationalism in order to shore up its nationalist-based legitimacy and ensure the continuation its uninterrupted forty year rule of the country. It is far from the first government to harness such atavistic reflexes in is populations, and it will surely not be the last.vietnam reunification.jpg

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