Vietnam and the Chinese Model

Earlier today, four Vietnamese  political dissidents were convicted of trying to overthrow the government in Hanoi.  The men were calling for the creation of a multi-party democracy in a country governed solely by the Communist Party.  The most prominent activist on trial was Le Cong Dinh, a US-educated human rights lawyer, who received a five year prison sentence.  The harshest punishment was meted out to Tran Huynh duy Thuc, an Internet entrepreneur and blogger, who was sentenced to a 16 years behind bars.  In the past three months, 14 high profile dissidents have been tried and convicted of similar crimes.

Vietnamese leaders are essentially following the Chinese political-economic model.  Like China, Vietnam has a self-described “socialist market economy” in which free market reforms have been introduced but the government still exerts a considerable amount of control over certain sectors of the economy such as banking and heavy industry.  Efforts to increase exports and encourage foreign investment have been key aspects of the new economic strategy, and both countries joined the World Trade Organization in the past decade as means of attaining their goals.

But economic liberalization has not been combined with political liberalization in either nation.  The Communists continue to rule autocratically in a one-party system where civil liberties are highly curtained and censorship is widespread.  Examples of these practices occured earlier this month when theVietnamese government restricted access to Facebook and the Chinese government clashed with Google over the company’s refusal to continue to prevent Chinese users from viewing banned Internet sites.

It is understandable why political leaders in Vietnam have followed China’s lead.  Since 1978, when China began implementing free market reforms, the Chinese economy has grown ten-fold while averaging double-digit annual growth rates in GDP.  At the same time, the ruling elite have managed to stay in power in the post-Cold War era when democracy has become much more pervasive around the world; a feat which has been accomplished by crushing dissent and locking up those who call demand more civil liberties and greater respect for human rights.  Thus far, Vietnamese leaders have been successful in promoting economic growth (in 2006, Vietnam’s economy grew by more than 8 percent) and retaining political control since the 1990s when the free market movement started.

Chinese leaders believe that raising living standards enable them to continue their reign.  But many analysts argue that as China’s middle class expands its members will demand a greater say in their nation’s affairs and push for political liberalization, and therefore the Communist Party may have planted the seeds of its own destruction by promoting economic growth.  There is a high probability that party bosses in Vietnam will meet the same fate as their Chinese neighbors, whatever that fate may be.

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