Photographer: Justin Mott/Bloomberg

Why Vietnam's Communists Are Learning to Like Facebook

  • Government joins Facebook, used by 30 million Vietnamese
  • Leaders risk public criticism ahead of political transition

Vietnam’s Communist government, which once blocked Facebook Inc., is now embracing the online tools of capitalism by establishing its own page on the social media website in order to reach young Internet-savvy users who turn to it for news and discourse.

The page, called simply “Government Information,” caught public attention this week and was set up to ensure Vietnamese netizens are fully informed of Hanoi’s policies, according to the government. Posted on the site are grip-and-grin photos of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung meeting with foreign dignitaries and press releases about government policies and activities. The site, run out of the the prime minister’s office, was set up earlier this month.

Unlike China’s Communist officials, who still ban Facebook, Vietnam has joined the social media fray it once opposed. The government, while maintaining some control over information, is signaling it’s willing to risk facing the wrath of citizens and overseas Vietnamese critical of its policies and one-party system as it gears for a political transition with a new slate of leaders next year.

“The Vietnamese leadership is becoming more practical,” said Vu Tu Thanh, chief Vietnam representative of the U.S.-Asean Business Council. “A new and younger generation of officials have been elected to various provincial positions who are familiar with modern tools like Facebook.”

The government, after lobbying by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the Asean Business Council, of which Facebook is a member, stopped blocking the social network two years ago, he said. Nearly half of Vietnam’s 90 million population is online, according to the government. There are 30 million active Facebook users who access the social media site monthly, according to Tuoi Tre newspaper.

The government’s Facebook page is a pilot project, said Vi Quang Dao, who oversees the page as well as the government’s main website. “We aim to expand channels to increase giving information to the public on government activities,” he said.

Communist leaders are preparing for next year’s Party Congress, which will usher in a political transition across the government. Vietnam’s leaders have learned that taking small steps toward transparency, and admitting mistakes, gives the government more credibility, Thanh said.

The government is sure to have a system in place to ensure comments it considers too critical of the leadership will be omitted, he said. Already, critical comments have begun to appear.

“This government information page is full of applause, supportive comments,” a Facebook user who goes by the name Duong Hoai Linh posted on the government site Thursday. “Contrary opinions are all deleted and blocked. So is there freedom of speech?”

The user’s comments were later deleted, though it’s unclear by whom.

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