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Where the 1970s Are Ancient History

Young Vietnamese line up for American coffee, not exhibits on American ‘atrocities.’

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By MAX BOOT
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The same day that I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, I also stopped to get an iced coffee in Saigon, as many Vietnamese still refer to the country’s biggest city. My coffee (and a good one it was) came from a place called NYDC, short for “New York Desert Café.” It was decorated with pictures of the Statue of Liberty and other American icons. A TV showed Ice Age with Vietnamese subtitles, while hordes of trendy young people huddled around their iPads and cheesecakes. Next-door The Coffee Bean, an American franchise, was just as mobbed. 

There is something symbolic about the fact that young, urban Vietnamese are drinking up American
culture, while their government continues to adhere to the party line about the evils of American “imperialism” and “aggression.” Even that line is softening as Hanoi realizes that it needs Washington’s help against Vietnam’s historic enemy and longtime occupier—China. What’s not changing is one-party rule, which remains as stultifying as ever despite decades of economic liberalization. As Human Rights Watch notes:

The Vietnamese government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists who
question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely subject to police harassment and intrusive surveillance, detained incommunicado for long periods of time without access to legal counsel, and sentenced to increasingly long terms in prison for violating vague national security laws.

Recently, with the country facing declining rates of growth, a credit crunch, and a housing bubble, the government has turned its wrath on rich businesspeople presiding over businesses that are heavily in debt and failing. They are being arrested and tried for a variety of offenses, real or not, that were tolerated during the boom years. It is hard to know what to make of such arrests since, as in China, there is absolutely no transparency and much corruption. The Communist party elite in Vietnam is closely involved in business affairs; the arrests could reflect shifting fortunes in the Politburo, with the business allies of some leaders suffering for their declining political fortunes. Or the arrests could simply be an attempt to palliate public anger about slowing growth.

Western expatriates I spoke with in Ho Chi Minh City said they were amazed by the off-the-charts corruption prevalent throughout Vietnam; just as in China, this is holding back the country’s long-term development. The rule of law is non‑existent. Instead there is the rule of the well connected. It is impossible to operate a business of any size without cultivating government connections; otherwise you may find your enterprise mysteriously shut down or expropriated. 

The current state of affairs has created confusion and fostered corner-cutting among people who know that the Communist propaganda they were reared on is false and that the country’s leaders are looking out for themselves and their families first. But the Vietnamese have no alternative, non-Communist vision to believe in. Instead, much like the denizens of other post-Marxist states such as Russia and China, they assume that everything they hear is lies and that anything is permissible in pursuit of personal enrichment.

The Chinese leadership is solving its similar problem of legitimacy by increasing nationalist agitation over islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea that are claimed by neighboring nations—including Vietnam. Beijing and Hanoi, along with Taipei, are at loggerheads, in particular, over the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam controlled from 1932 until a South Vietnamese garrison was ousted by Chinese troops in 1974. Some smaller nations might back down in the face of Chinese bullying. Not Vietnam, which defeated a Chinese invasion in 1979. Another Sino-Vietnamese war is quite conceivable in the future as the ruling oligarchies in both countries seek to buttress their nationalist credentials. 

There is an obvious opportunity here for the United States to draw closer to Vietnam and further contain the rise of Chinese power with a series of alliances with the states that ring the rising dragon. Don’t forget, however, that Vietnam is a fundamentally illiberal, oppressive, and illegitimate government. As we have recently seen in Egypt, such allies cannot necessarily be counted upon for the longer term.

Max Boot is a Weekly Standard contributing editor and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.

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