Where will Vietnam’s corruption crackdown end?

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The photos of Dinh La Thang being led to a Hanoi court in handcuffs on last week will make history. Never before in the country’s decades-long communist rule had a former politburo member endured such a disgrace.

Mr Thang and 21 other defendants, most of them former officials at PetroVietnam (PVN), the state-owned oil and gas group, and its subsidiary, PetroVietnam Construction (PVC), stand accused in the nation’s highest-profile corruption trial. It began on Monday (January 8) and is expected to last until January 21.

The 57-year old Thang is charged with wrongdoing in connection with his role as chairman of PVN between 2009 and 2011.

Following that two-year tenure, during which time he is now accused of having “deliberately violated state economic management regulations, causing serious consequences,” Thang was named minister of transport in the then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s government.

At the Communist Party’s national congress in January 2016, Dung was forced to retire – but Thang, widely seen as one of the latter’s surrogates, was unexpectedly promoted to the party’s all-powerful politburo. A month later, he was appointed party secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s biggest economic hub.

Thang’s demise has been just as quick as his political rise. It has also been brutal. In many ways, his downfall is similar to that of China’s Sun Zhengcai, the former party chief of Chongqing who suddenly fell from grace last year.

In May 2017, Mr Thang was dismissed from the politburo and sacked as party secretary in Ho Chi Minh City. On December 8, Vietnam’s national assembly, the one-party state’s parliament, stripped him of status as a lawmaker and with it immunity from prosecution. That very day, he was arrested. With his trial underway, he now faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

The dilemma remains how to fight corruption and other wrongdoing at the top without causing much in the way of political instability

His case has attracted widespread attention, not only because he is the highest-ranking official to be charged over economic mismanagement to date, but also because of the ruthless nature of his ouster.

The images of a shabby, handcuffed Thang standing in the dock have evoked strong, and mixed, reactions in a country of 90 million. While some are skeptical of Thang’s prosecution, others welcome it.

A university lecturer in Hanoi told the Washington-based Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service that she felt pity for Thang and that his trial made her sad rather than happy. She said that in a country that lacks transparency, many other officials may well have committed similar – or even more serious – wrongdoings.

Such a perception is key to why the current anti-graft campaign being led by party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, is seen as being – at least in part – politically motivated. It is certainly aimed, for the most part, at those who were close to Dung, who lost out in a power struggle with Trong two years ago.

State media outlets and former officials have, by way of contrast, welcomed Thang’s prosecution and see it as evidence of the party hierarchy’s willingness to break with precedent to tackle the corruption and economic mismanagement at the top. For them, the charges against the former politburo member indicate that nobody, no matter their position or seniority, is “untouchable”.

Although it has long regarded endemic corruption as an existential threat, the ruling class has previously tended only to “wash from its shoulders” – i.e. target low- and middle-ranking cadres and avoid top officials.

It’s true that whatever the real motives behind the current crackdown, by punishing one of their own in such a quick and brutal manner, Vietnam’s leaders have at least appeared to step up their fight against corruption.

Together with recent public pronouncements by Trong, and an intervention by Truong Tan Sang, a former president, this has aroused speculations that – after Thang – other senior, officials will be purged, possibly even higher-ranking ones.

Over the past few months, the 74-year-old party chief has repeatedly insisted that there are no longer any “no-go” zones in the party’s crackdown and that the campaign will go after guilty parties at the top.

At a court in Hanoi, on January 8, 2017, Dinh La Thang, a former member of the politburo of Vietnam's Communist Party and the former chairman of PetroVietnam, stands; behind him, PVC's former chairman, Trinh Xuan Thanh (left), sits. Photo: VNA/ Doan Tan via Reuters

At a court in Hanoi, on January 8, 2017, Dinh La Thang, a former member of the politburo of Vietnam’s Communist Party and the former chairman of PetroVietnam, stands; behind him, PVC’s former chairman, Trinh Xuan Thanh, sits. Photo: VNA/ Doan Tan via Reuters

In an opinion piece widely published in state newspapers on January 8, Sang, who retired after the party’s 2016 congress, stressed that the current battle against what he calls “internal enemies” mustn’t stop.

The PVN trial in Hanoi opened on the same day as another high-profile trial in Ho Chi Minh City – a trial that involves 46 defendants, including a former deputy chairman of Sacombank and a former chairman of Vietnam Construction Bank.

An earlier mass trial – of 51 officials and bankers – in September, ended with Nguyen Xuan Son, a former executive of Ocean Bank and an ex-chairman of PetroVietnam, being sentenced to death after being found guilty of corruption.

Together with the energy sector, scandal-hit banking firms are clearly in the government’s sights. This has led to suggestions that one of the potential targets might be Nguyen Van Binh, the governor of the State Bank of Vietnam from 2011 to 2016 and the current chairman of the Party Central Committee’s Commission for Economic Affairs. Like Thang, Mr Binh is seen as a protégé of Mr Dung and was elevated to the politburo in 2016.

As many of those lately prosecuted have connections with the former prime minister, there is even speculation that Dung himself could be called.

Still, such eventualities remain largely hypothetical.

Should Binh or other top former or current officials – Mr Dung, especially – be purged, the party could be destabilized. The current leader of one of the world’s longest ruling regimes – a regime that has traditionally put political stability above all else – is likely to be very careful about causing any such disruption.

In 2014, Trong – who, like his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, often cites proverbs and metaphors – famously said that while seeking to “catch mice” (i.e. target corrupt officials), one must be careful “not to break the vase,” adding that disorder is a very dangerous thing.

Admittedly Trong’s political position when he made that warning wasn’t as strong as it is now. That said, he and the other leaders who support his crackdown probably remain cautious about the next move. Their dilemma remains how to fight corruption and other wrongdoing at the top without causing much in the way of political instability. And that fact remains the reason why corruption in the one-party state hasn’t – and won’t be – eliminated.

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