By Bailey Marsheck
Situated above the private enterprise spilling into the crowded streets, but below skyscrapers housing international corporations across the skyline of Ho Chi Minh City, only the hammer-and-sickle flag revealed that my trip to Vietnam had taken me to one of the world’s five remaining communist countries. Three of these nations, China, Laos and Vietnam, were included in the World Bank’s list of the top 20 fastest growing national economies of 2015. However, with a sizable portion of their gains occurring on the backs of free-market developmental policies, what does it really mean to be a communist country in today’s globalized era? How does Vietnam’s communist identity fit in that framework and how is it expressed in the daily lives of the Vietnamese people?
Hysteria over communism gripped the Western Bloc throughout the mid twentieth-century, but only a shadow of the institutional ideology remains. China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba and North Korea are commonly identified as the remaining bastions of one-party communism. But even agreeing on a definition of communism is difficult, as none of these nations fully embody the principles of Karl Marx’s utopian vision. Although often seen as the state most rigidly exemplifying modern communism, North Korea is ruled by a dictatorial family and promotes itself as a “Juche-oriented socialist state.” Cuba too, has also been ruled by totalitarian regimes. China, Vietnam and Laos are governed by the Communist party, but their initial centrally-planned, government-driven economies continue to shed their restrictive layers in favor of free-market orientations. While these countries ideologically align closely with either the political or economic aspects of communism, it is fairly obvious to say that none have retained both.
What best epitomizes modern communism in my eyes are two characterizations: the struggle to contest or adapt to the hegemonic neoliberal economic order as well as having some of the world’s strictest censorship regulations. Freedom House’s “2015 Freedom of the Net Report” ranked China first, Cuba fifth and Vietnam seventh globally in terms of internet censorship. North Korea was not included in the study but would have likely been ranked first, ahead of China. Also omitted, Laos would rank highly as well due to its own notable censorship laws. Initially created to empower the working class population, Communism has devolved into an institutional model that silences its citizens to maintain a “unified” nationalistic political agenda.
These communist centrally-planned economies have either been partially abandoned in favor of public industries that keep state-owned enterprise afloat or left behind altogether due to the global scope of neoliberalism. The decision to forego free market principles cripples a country’s production, as state-owned industries carry little incentive to improve productivity. Cost-saving innovations likely only reward a department with a lower budget in subsequent years. China, Laos and Vietnam’s adaptations towards the free market have led to convergence with the rest of the world, but these development rates are not significantly above average in the emerging Asian region. Plainly stated, these nations have not caught up to where they would be without communist-based economies.
Vietnam’s Globalizing Surge
Despite these harsh depictions, the lasting effects of communist rule are strictly business as usual for the Vietnamese population. The country is developing quickly, expanding into private industries and utilizing foreign direct investment as tourism grows. Its serene landscapes and constant developments are helping it cement its place as a tourist destination, second in the region only to Thailand. While I first saw this explosive growth as contrary to my previous notions surrounding Communism, I hypothesize that this economic ideal is in fact likely responsible for the boom. With economic struggles characterized by a 700% inflation rate in the 1980s, Vietnam’s planned economy kept production artificially low for so long that they were forced to give up on many of their centrally-planned economic policies by 1986. The country in turn implemented “Doi Moi” reformation policies which achieved greater trade liberalization and led to their admission into the World Trade Organization in 2007. Vietnam’s historical protectionist policies left plenty of room for explosive growth as the country began to realize its production potential. Vietnam has developed competitively in areas like agriculture, where they have become leading producers of both coffee and rice.
Communism also plays a complicated role in the country’s history, serving as both a unifying and divisive force among the population. A former French colony, Vietnam was liberated by communist war general Ho Chi Minh. Communism is therefore equivocated with nationalism and a sovereign Vietnamese state. A tangible rivalry developed between the autonomous northern and southern states during the ten years between Vietnamese independence and the Vietnam War. Communist Northern Vietnam and republican Southern Vietnam were separated along the famous “Nineteenth Parallel.” The communist victory during the Vietnam War ended with the North renaming the Southern capital of Saigon after communist General Ho Chi Minh, seemingly in equal part celebration and mockery of the South’s defeat.
Fittingly, the southern Ho Chi Minh City serves as the center of capitalism and free trade in Vietnam. The northern city of Hanoi remains the seat of the communist government and upholds the traditional Vietnamese style. This embodies Vietnam’s division between its communist identity and capitalist tendencies. I definitely noticed a fierce bias among the people against both cities. Speaking to university students wanting to practice their English in Ho Chi Minh City, I learned that the younger population strongly preferred the lively trade center to the more traditional Hanoi. However, a tour guide from Hanoi opined that Ho Chi Minh City’s development was coming at the expense of its Vietnamese culture.
In both the north and south, speaking controversially about Communism was difficult. Citizens and guides were hesitant to broach sensitive topics in fear of censorship, and were coerced to speak mainly of the country’s positives. The regime commonly uses national security laws to silence opposition and holds critics in jail without trial. The few who were willing to talk about the struggles of Communism tended to be those with a strong disdain for it. One of our guides, who married an Australian woman and had lived in Sydney before returning to Vietnam, expressed his frustrations with a communist system in which getting a promotion or good job required extensive bribes as the, “cost of doing business.” He complained about high government taxes on cars, implemented to discourage driving because of weak infrastructure thus relegating Vietnam to a sea of motorbikes. The cost of a Lexus SUV is around $300,000 in Vietnam, typically only driven by men in military uniforms. Such corruption is rather normal in the developing world.
Being of half-Asian and half-Caucasian descent and having met many half-Vietnamese people in the United States, I asked our guide why I hadn’t met anyone of similar ethnic makeup in Vietnam. He grimly replied, “If they had the choice, they wouldn’t stay here.” A Vietnamese girl whom I met at the airport and studies in San Francisco echoed the same, explaining that anyone with the means would study in the U.S. as long as possible to increase their chances of future immigration. While I don’t feel that this outlook is representative of the population as a whole, it was certainly thought-provoking.
I look forward to following how Vietnam’s communist identity will continue to shape and be shaped by the country’s place at the forefront of globalization. Vietnam’s natural scenery has not been overtaken by the speed of its development. Google Searches of “Ha Long Bay” and “Hội An” yield beautiful scenes far removed from worries emanating from contrasting political ideologies. Every morning at 6:00 am, the people of Hanoi flock to a central park area where they participate in group exercises including soccer and the famous “Laughing Yoga.” The Vietnamese people start and end the day with a smile, and rightfully so. Life goes on in joyful indifference to capitalism or communism, and there is still much to be hopeful about under the Red Vietnamese sky.
Featured Image by Peter Garnhum
All other images courtesy of Bailey Marsheck