What the arrest of a top official says about Vietnamese politics

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In a move that apparently shows their resolve to tackle endemic corruption, Vietnamese leaders decided to punish one of their own. Still, Dinh La Thang’s prosecution also exposes corruption at the highest level of the Communist-run country.

Thang, 57, was arrested and prosecuted last Friday just after he was expelled from the National Assembly, the one-party state’s rubber-stamp parliament, and suspended from party-related activities. In that Southeast Asian nation, sitting lawmakers are immune from prosecution.

In May, the hierarchy of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) decided to oust Thang from its 19-strong and all-powerful politburo and strip him of his role as party chief of Ho Chi Minh City. With such a decision, the political career of a man once seen as a rising star was all but done. Thus his arrest last week was somewhat unsurprising.

Nonetheless, it has still attracted great attention and speculation during the past few days. While other politburo members had been disciplined, it was the first time a member of the CPV’s – and Vietnam’s – highest decision-making body had been publicly prosecuted for economic mismanagement and corruption.

Thang’s downfall is, to some degree, similar to those of Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai in neighboring Communist China. Bo and Sun, both members of the Chinese politburo, fell afoul of the huge anti-graft campaign carried out by President Xi Jinping that targeted both low- and high-ranking corrupt officials. Xi’s Vietnamese counterpart, CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, is apparently pursuing a similar crusade.

Yet like that of the two Chinese senior officials, it is speculated that the criminal investigation of Thang is politically motivated. The two former Chongqing party chiefs were regarded as political rivals to Xi Jinping, whereas the former leader of Ho Chi Minh City was a close ally of former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, widely perceived as an opponent of Trong.

Such speculation is also understandable given the fact that, as in its northern neighbor, in Vietnam the Communist Party controls everything (government, parliament, judiciary and media) and decides virtually everything, often behind closed doors, from personnel to policy. Like China and any other one-party state, Vietnam lacks press freedom, transparency and democracy.

In fact, such a system is a key – if not the fundamental – reason there are cases such as that of Dinh La Thang.

One of the charges against Thang is his violation of “the state’s regulations on economic management … and abusing position and authority to arrogate property causing losses” of about US$40 million during his time as chairman of the board of PetroVietnam, a state oil and gas company, in the 2009-11 period.

This raises many questions. For instance, why had such a serious violation not been discovered and charges made earlier? Why was an official conducting such wrongdoings promoted to head the Ministry of Transport in 2011, to the all-important politburo and then to lead Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s biggest economic hub, in 2016?

In a more transparent and democratic country, Thang wouldn’t have been allowed to commit such offenses or, had he done so, he would have been stopped or charged much earlier.

Large-scale and deep-rooted corruption and other related problems, such as nepotism and economic mismanagement, won’t be considerably restrained, let alone stopped, unless radical political and institutional reforms are made

A former official told the Voice of Vietnam, the national radio broadcaster, that Thang’s prosecution set a precedent that nobody is untouchable and showed the party’s willingness to prevent and fight corruption. In his view, with such determination, sooner or later corruption can be stopped.

To cure what he describes as a “serious malady,” he also suggested that corruption in Vietnam needed “special medication,” recommending that drastic measures, such as eliminating corrupt officials from state departments and party organs, should be taken.

Undoubtedly, the decision to prosecute Thang is indicative of a new resolve among top Vietnamese leaders, notably Nguyen Phu Trong, to battle widespread corruption. Trong is probably in a good position to tackle the problem as among past and present leaders, he is apparently the cleanest – or, perhaps, the least corrupt.

That said, large-scale and deep-rooted corruption and other related problems, such as nepotism and economic mismanagement, which have become pervasive in Vietnam, especially in its state-owned sectors, won’t be considerably restrained, let alone stopped, unless radical political and institutional reforms are made.

Official corruption in Vietnam isn’t new. It is at least as old as the country’s doi moi (economic renovation). Abandoning its disastrous central-planning model of socialism, the CPV adopted a “market-oriented socialist economy under state guidance” in 1986.

While this “market economy with socialist orientation” has economically and socially transformed the country, it has also fostered “state capitalism” or “red capitalism” that, in turn, generates patronage, cronyism, nepotism and corruption.

The lack of press freedom, democracy and civil society also greatly emboldens such dishonest behavior among officials and leaders.

That’s why, since the early 1990s, the party has consistently identified corruption as a major threat to its legitimacy and survival. Although its leadership has pledged to tackle the problem, it has not substantially decreased.

For instance, in 1997, Vietnam scored 28 points out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International. In 2016, the Berlin-based group gave the country only a slightly better score of 33. It remains classified among “red countries, where citizens face the tangible impact of corruption on a daily basis.”

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