The music’s stopped, but they’re still dancing. You can still hear them singing the same revolutionary-nationalist songs, though the words are hollow, and their ideology no longer applies. The shell of international communism has been chipped, but the aging generation of political leaders in Vietnam’s Communist Party (VCP) won’t just go away.
How could they merely back down and walk away? The Vietnamese nationalist movement was born during late French colonialism in the 19th century. With such anti-French and pro-independence heroes as Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940) and Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926) during the bleak years of the early 20th century, the revolutionary movement advanced against all odds, repressed as it was by French domination. The immemorial Nguyen Ai Quoc (later to be Ho Chi Minh) coalesced the Vietnamese independence struggle with expert diplomacy, a keen understanding of international history, and an eclectic philosophy influenced by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and even the writers of the US Declaration of Independence. The later mass-mobilization of peasants as well as urban intellectuals against the French swept Ho Chi Minh to power over the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945.
Ho Chi Minh’s legacy and the indelible mark of international communism, which he absorbed as a means to wage war against imperialist powers, bears its mark on the subsequent rhetoric and policy of Vietnam’s Politburo. In fact, it seems the VCP has erected an elaborate glass house, the removal of one piece of which would spell the crushing downfall of the legitimate powers that be.
Andrew Lam,¹ a Vietnamese-American novelist, journalist, and NPR contributor living in San Fransisco, finds humor in the charade. He is also the son of a famous Southern Vietnamese Army General, Lam Quang Thi, who fought with both the French and the Americans against Ho Chi Minh’s communist “rebels”. Andrew spoke seriously about the dire state of affairs in modern Vietnam, citing the lack of charismatic leadership in the echelons of today’s VCP. But he laughs uproariously when spurred to think of the irony in the policy of constructing statues to honor peasants while evicting those peasants in land relocations, uprooted by state development projects and yet united under a single banner of communism. Or how Politburo members all drive around Mercedes Benz or Rolls Royce cars and display flashy cell phones in a competition to exude prestige based on base materialism and bland party loyalty.
The way Lam sees it, the VCP is in fact very insecure. An insightful linguistics theorist, he says the Party is trapped by its own language. The Party’s legitimacy is premised on its promises for future prosperity, as Vietnam’s economy has grown rapidly with urban industrialization, cheap labor, and a booming export market. But Lam argues that Vietnamese culture is more than just material. At least Uncle Ho (a common reference to Ho Chi Minh among Vietnamese people) had a sort of “spiritual leadership” that enabled him to inspire millions of Vietnamese in the struggle for liberation. That is what’s missing today, Lam laments.
Vietnam’s Communist Party will need to find a new song to sing, perhaps give up the dance, and admit the fallacy of some of its policies. Corruption and nepotism alongside rote education and the perpetuation of now meaningless and outdated Marxist-Leninist theory (in light of Vietnam’s own consumerist obsession) threaten to stagnate the country’s youth. What Vietnam needs now is dynamic leadership, innovative thinking, and the desire to create rather than merely to consume and regurgitate.
¹ Andrew Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and, and he recently spoke in Seattle.