After two generations successively and successfully fought against French and American forces, Vietnam formally became a unified country in mid-1976 under the rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). The next decade saw the communist party-state running a Soviet-style command economy and a police-controlled society. By the mid-1980s, the country fell into a virtually “comprehensive socio-economic crisis” with the inflation rate standing at nearly 700%. Peasant protests took place across the nation, and public trust in the regime was eroded. The crisis realistically posed a threat to the ruling CPV’s legitimacy. In response to the question “death or survival” and learning lessons from the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and failed reforms (known as perestroika) in the former Soviet Union, the CPV took bold steps, formally launching Doi Moi (or renewal) in all aspects of society at its sixth national congress in late 1986.
By many accounts, the CPV’s Doi Moi should be praised for its post-war success. Within less than a generation, the party-state impressively transformed the nation from one of the world’s poorest in the mid-1980s into a lower middle-income country by the end of the first decade of the XXI century. Even though affected by the Southeast Asian monetary crisis in 1997 and the global credit crunch in 2008 that slid into the worldwide financial crisis in the early 2010s, Vietnam’s economy has continuously been growing, mainly due to stable FDI flows and a burgeoning private economic sector. Notably, the private sector, which used to be considered the “enemy” of the proletariat and subjected to a socialist re-education campaign before the country’s Doi Moi, is now recognised as the principal driver of prosperity and the socialist-oriented market economy. Between 1990 and 2018, Vietnam’s average economic growth rate was 6.5%, making it one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Per capita GDP was less than US$ 250 in 1985, but stood at over US$2,500 in 2018. More than 45 million people were lifted out of poverty between 2002 and 2018. Poverty rates dramatically declined from 70% in the early 1990s to less than 5% in 2018.
Positive outcomes in other domains such as health care and education have also been seen in tandem with high economic growth and rising living standards. According to the World Bank, Vietnam’s maternal mortality rate decreased from 139 to 54 deaths per 100,000 live births, and infant mortality dropped from 44 deaths per 1,000 live births to 16.7 in the 1990 to 2015 period. It ranks 73 in the universal health coverage index, which is higher than regional and global averages, with 87% of the population covered. Among ASEAN countries, Vietnam is behind only Singapore in achieving universal primary education for all. Nevertheless, Vietnamese students’ performance in primary schools as shown in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in recent years surpassed their peers in ASEAN and many other OECD countries. Vietnam’s human capital index is highest among middle-income countries, ranking 48 out of 157 countries and being second only to Singapore in ASEAN. It was hailed by the United Nations as an outstanding example among developing countries in achieving the targets set out in the MDGs.
Externally, since Vietnam signed its bilateral trade agreement with the United States, its former war foe, in 2000 and became the 150th member of the World Trade Organisation in 2006, it has thus far concluded and joined more than a dozen other bilateral or multi-lateral free trade agreements (FTA), including so-called “new generation” FTA such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It is also a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) under negotiation. By World Bank measures, Vietnam’s international trade reached over 200% of GDP in 2017, standing at the top among the 20 most globalised populous countries including China, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The country has set its sights on becoming a financial hub in the region and “a modern and industrialised nation moving toward becoming a prosperous, creative, equitable, and democratic society” in 2035.
Economic liberalisation is said to be followed by democratic development. But this is not yet true in the case of Vietnam. Even though several structural reforms have been made, the space for political freedom is virtually unchanged. The CPV retains its monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership. The current constitution prescribes that the CPV is the leading force of the state and society. No opposition political party is allowed. The public sphere for civic engagement in politics is limited, essentially through public institutions including the mass media which are strictly controlled and censored by the government. There have been voices within the party, academia, and society at large calling for political reforms that would allow multi-party elections and an independent civil society to function. However, the party-state managed by one way or another to silence these voices. State law criminalises activities defined as “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”; “activities aimed at overthrowing the government,” “anti-state propaganda” and “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state”. According to Human Rights Watch, an international organisation that monitors human rights practice around the world, more than 130 political dissidents are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their fundamental rights. Civil society activists very often face police harassment, intimidation, surveillance and interrogation.
After Vietnam was connected to the global Internet in 1997 and social media platforms gained popularity in 2008, the space for civic engagement has been extensively widened. Now that ordinary people are using social media platforms such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, not only to reduce their personal stress and connect with friends, but also to critique public services, unveil corruption cases, mobilise civic action to transform public policy, and influence leadership change. They have also become a channel to mobilise political support. Cyber activism cultivated a hope that the nation was moving toward a more pluralist society. However, it all ceased when the CPV-controlled national assembly passed a law on cyber security last year, empowering security authorities to place all online activities under their surveillance. Freedom House has named Vietnam one of the countries with the least internet freedom in the world.
The CPV-ruled Vietnam will have a couple of grand anniversaries to celebrate next year: 75 years from the founding of the country (1945-2020); 90 years from the establishment of the CPV (1930-2020); 45 years from national reunification (1975-2020), and 35 years of Doi Moi (1986-2021). On the background of these events, the CPV will persistently pursue economic liberalisation to achieve the 2035 goals, but at the same time keep political reforms at a distance.