Vietnam’s communist leadership faced calls for greater political openness from a group of ruling party members dissatisfied with how the nation handled tensions in recent months with China, its dominant trading partner.
Sixty-one members of the Southeast Asian nation’s Communist Party, including a former ambassador to Beijing, urged in an open letter that the leadership “develop a truly democratic, law-abiding state,” allow for greater freedom of political speech and “escape” from its reliance on China.
The document builds on past efforts to introduce pluralism in a unified Vietnam that’s never had democracy, after a group last year including ex-government officials distributed an alternative draft constitution calling for “political competition.” A perception of Vietnam being dealt a setback in the latest in a series of confrontations in recent decades with China over maritime claims provided a backdrop for increased domestic criticism.
“It indicates to the leadership that people are increasingly getting more courage to speak up,” Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said in a phone interview. “They are willing to act.”
The July 28 letter adds pressure on the government after China’s moving of an oil rig into contested territorial waters set off a wave of Vietnamese nationalism and deadly anti-Chinese riots in May. The dispute has deepened the wedge between the two communist countries at a time when Vietnam’s economy has become more dependent on Chinese investment and trade.
“The Party needs to get rid of Marxism-Leninism and get out of China’s orbit,” Chu Hao, former vice minister of science and technology and one of the letter’s three co-authors, said in a phone interview. “It is very high time for the party to make a thorough transformation.”
Vietnam’s leadership, which didn’t publicly acknowledge the letter, is unlikely to heed the call for radical reform, Murray Hiebert, a Washington-based senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mail.
“The party only wants to make minor tweaks on the margins,” he said. “It is not willing to make major changes for fear of losing power.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment on the letter.
Any move away from China could provide an opening for the U.S. to serve as an economic and security hedge against Chinese influence in Vietnam, said Scott Harold, an analyst in Washington with Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., whose doctorate from Columbia University focused on China’s foreign policy.
“If Vietnam were to decide the strategic future of Vietnam requires a political opening to the West akin to what Myanmar has passed through in the past three, four years, a genuine opening up -- not full democracy -- if Vietnam were to do something like that, it would be an enormous strategic loss for China,” Harold said.
The letter reflects the sentiment among a growing number of party members that the government wasn’t forceful enough in confronting China over the oil rig, which led to weeks of clashes at sea, resulting in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in late May.
The Vietnamese Communist Party’s reputation has been damaged by bad policies, corruption and by agreeing to “kneel down in the face of Beijing’s pressure,” Tuong Lai, former head of the Hanoi-based Vietnam Institute of Sociology and adviser to late Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet who signed the letter, said in an interview.
Discontent is also rising over widespread corruption, with senior party members willing to openly criticize the government over the confrontation with China.
The letter calls on Vietnam to take legal action against China, something Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said the government is considering.
Vietnam’s government has “so far have failed to win people’s trust and failed to prove that the Vietnam government has dealt with China with a smart strategy,” said Hao, one of the letter’s authors. Instead, leaders reveal “their feebleness.”