12 August 2012

How the South Saved the North in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4187-4227:
The Vietnamese combatants in the Vietnam-American War were not fighting because they hated ‘northerners’ or ‘southerners’. Both sides were heirs to nationalist movements which stressed their attachment to national unity. Their divisions were over ideology, the role of the state in society, religion and many other political issues.

In this long view of Vietnamese history, the 21 years between the division of the country into capitalist and communist in 1954 and its reunification under communism in 1975 seem less important than what went before and after. But those 21 years meant there was continuity in the south between the freewheeling capitalism of French Cochinchina and that of the ‘American’ Republic of Viet Nam (RVN), which was never truly suppressed after reunification before economic reforms began in socialist Vietnam in 1979. Capitalism is a relatively recent introduction in the north but it has been southern Vietnam's default position for almost all of the past 150 years.

When the communist People's Army crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in April 1975, it seemed, in the minds of the northern leadership, to confirm Hanoi's superiority: militarily, ideologically and historically. The north had beaten the Americans. Triumphalism reigned. Hanoi sent another army to the south, an army of northern bureaucrats which tried to remould it into an image of the north without regard to its very different economic situation. But bureaucratic ideology met its match: capitalism was never truly eradicated. More humiliatingly for the ideologues, in those parts of the country where socialism prevailed, hardship endured. Gradually they had to face up to the reality that Hanoi communism couldn't solve all the country's problems. Hubris would soon be humbled.

Even now, the extent to which Hanoi's rule was saved by the south is unacknowledged in public discourse: the ‘Official History’ of Hanoi's supremacy endures. But if it hadn't been for that legacy of southern entrepreneurialism, Vietnam might have collapsed. Despite Hanoi's draconian campaigns in favour of collectivisation and against ‘comprador capitalists’ (mainly ethnic Chinese), old trading arrangements survived. In 1979, when the failure of Hanoi's policies had become obvious, southern leaders, such as the then Party boss of Ho Chi Minh City, Vo Van Kiet, authorised ‘pragmatic’ steps to make ends meet. The city authorities bought rice from farmers at market prices and allowed those Chinese entrepreneurs who hadn't fled the country to make contact with traders in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan to keep imports and exports flowing. Such fence-breaking broke the rules imposed by Hanoi, but kept the economy alive.

When, eventually, the failure to make state socialism pay the bills forced Hanoi to open up the economy, the south was ready to take full advantage. The first foreign investors to arrive were the trading contacts of the Chinese community. They found the south more conducive to business: less rule-bound, less ideological. In addition the south had the benefit of roads and ports paid for during the war years by American taxpayers. Between 1990 and 1994, 60 per cent of all foreign direct investment went to Ho Chi Minh City and three of its neighbouring provinces: Binh Duong, Dong Nai and the ‘oil province’ of Ba Ria-Vung Tau. These advantages for the southern provinces were multiplied by a curious arrangement, initially begun as an incentive to encourage economic growth.

The Vietnamese government allowed (and still allows now) provinces to retain any revenue they earn above a set target. In the north, most provinces tried to boost their income by developing the state sector. But leaders from those four southern provinces – more open-minded, less suspicious of foreigners – looked abroad for investment. It worked. Labour-intensive industries such as textiles, garments and food processing flocked in and the taxes and tariffs they paid made their host provinces rich. The surplus (after deductions for kickbacks and patronage) was reinvested in better infrastructure and services, which encouraged other investors to locate there, creating a virtuous circle of growth. Southern leaders, who had been largely excluded from the pinnacles of power since reunification, knew they were unlikely to make it to the top of national politics. Instead, they concentrated on keeping their own constituents happy, untroubled by the need to break national rules to keep the income flowing.

While some in Hanoi disapproved, they couldn't stop the fence-breaking because the country needed the cash. In the 1980s provinces had depended upon the central government for the allocation of subsidies from the Soviet Union. By the early 1990s the central government was dependent upon the surplus being generated in the south. The quid pro quo was a strong policy of redistribution. Southern surplus still funds government spending across the country, lifting the standard of living in northern and central areas closer to the national average and helping to preserve national unity and the Party's hold on power.

11 August 2012

Vintage Year for Vietnamese Dissidents: 2006

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2486-2519:
2006 was a unique opportunity for Vietnamese dissidents. The country was in the final stages of joining the World Trade Organisation. Negotiations with individual WTO members were followed by drawn-out multilateral talks and then an equally drawn-out process in the US Congress to award Vietnam Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) status, an adjunct to WTO membership. In addition, Vietnam held the rotating chair of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group, during 2006, and was due to host its annual summit in November. Twenty-one leaders had been invited, including the presidents of the USA, Russia and China and the prime ministers of Australia and Japan. Vietnam was also seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. All of this meant the Communist Party was vulnerable to criticism from abroad and therefore less able to crack down on dissent with its usual efficiency.

There was another factor too. By 2006, broadband had fully penetrated Vietnam; internet shops were available on most city streets. Through the net, dissidents managed to surmount the physical barriers the state had erected around them and bridge the gaps of physical distance, of ideology and – at least as important – of ego, which, until then, had kept them divided. Services originally intended to allow teenagers to flirt with each other provided invigorating links with Vietnamese exiles in the United States and elsewhere. Websites such as PalTalk host chat rooms in which hundreds of people can type messages to each other and simultaneously listen to an audiostream or watch video. In effect, each chat room is an interactive radio ‘narrowcast’. Narrowcasters can give out information, make speeches, discuss developments and take questions and comment from the other participants. Suddenly dissidents in Vietnam had access to a new world of ideas and to a reservoir of supporters. Until then many people had been reluctant to trust each other, never knowing who was an informer; but a few overseas activists acted as ‘brokers’ – in effect vetting the dissidents who contacted them and putting them in touch with one another. They also began to provide cash.

With the cost of living so cheap in Vietnam, relatively small amounts of money raised abroad could go a long way. Supporters groups sprang up in Australia (Bloc 1–7–06), the US (Bloc 1–9–06) and the UK (Bloc 10–12–06) and sent in money for dissidents' living expenses and equipment. With hundreds of thousands of overseas Vietnamese remitting money to relatives each month it was easy to disguise the transfers. They weren't particularly clandestine; most went via Western Union. Once inside Vietnam, the money was moved by couriers to where it was needed. When police stopped the car of one dissident, Nguyen Phuong Anh, on 15 December 2006, they confiscated 4.5 million Vietnamese dong, the equivalent of about $300, about six months' wages for the average worker. He told them he had planned to buy clothes for needy paper boys. The money was crucial. It paid for computers, dozens of mobile phones, and hundreds of SIM cards to enable the dissidents to stay in touch even as the security services tried to disconnect them.

But useful as the internet was to the dissidents as an organising and discussion tool, it was much less effective as a proselytising force. The national firewall prevents the casual web-surfer accessing dissident websites and intercepts unwelcome emails. That didn't stop one middle-aged Ho Chi Minh City-based activist, though. At night, after his family had gone to bed, he would trawl Vietnamese discussion sites and blogs harvesting the email addresses of anyone making critical comments. Then, with his harvest complete, he would send out two or three hundred emails with details of dissidents' activities. He would tell them about strikes and how to form trade unions and about lobbying activities in the United States. But he couldn't send all the messages from one email address because he feared the security services would soon track him down. So instead, he laboriously maintained dozens of different accounts and sent just a few messages from each one. It worked, and he managed to stay below the police's radar. But even this very direct mailing had limited success; the phantom spammer estimated his response rate was less than 1 per cent. So even with all these technological innovations the number of active dissidents remained small.

Changing Role of Media in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Locs. 2931-2947, 3019-3044:
Right from the beginning of doi moi, Party leaders wanted the media to act as an agent of reform. The Politburo knew that hundreds of thousands of people had grievances about corruption and mismanagement by local officials and that it didn't have the capacity to address them all. So, in effect, it delegated some of the power of inspection and exposure to the media. A new Press Law, formally approved in 1990, specifically gave journalists the right to gather their own information and made it an offence to obstruct their work. Simultaneously the end of Soviet aid meant the end of subsidies. Newspapers and magazines had to actively sell their product – and therefore offer something readers actually wanted to buy. Just as in every country with a freer press, editors discovered that the best thing for selling papers was crime. And who better to publish crime stories than a newspaper owned by the police themselves? Readers of Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Police) are treated to a diet of sex and murder – with reportage straight from the horse's mouth. The editorial line of the paper both terrifies the audience and reassures it that the police are on hand to catch the bad guys and keep the streets safe. It's a successful mix, making it easily one of the country's biggest selling papers.

The once near-monopolistic Nhan Dan, on the other hand, is kept afloat by the obligation placed upon every Party and government office to buy a copy. If it were left to survive on its street sales it would have gone bust long ago – it's almost impossible to find in newspaper kiosks. The people don't want to buy ‘The People’. Nhan Dan is not alone. Quan Doi Nhan Dan (the army newspaper) and Hanoi Moi – published by the Hanoi City Communist Party branch – are also kept going by compulsory purchase arrangements. Instead consumers have turned to papers which have built a reputation for uncovering corruption, exposing malpractice and widening the boundaries of what it's acceptable to print.


The search for profit usually tops almost all other considerations – including, from time to time, ideological instructions. It's sometimes a major battle for the Party to keep control. The local TV networks in Hanoi, and particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, now make so much money from advertising that they don't need state subsidies – and if they don't need the money why should they take the state's instructions? The answer so far is that Party discipline has been stronger than the lure of cash but such divided loyalties are becoming more and more difficult to manage. So much so that the Prime Minister was forced to issue his December 2006 directive ordering tighter control over the press, in which he said Vietnam would never allow privately owned media.

But one media outlet is already almost entirely privately owned. The hugely popular online site, vnexpress.net, started life as a project of FPT, the Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology, wholly owned by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Under its highly entrepreneurial management (led by Dr Truong Gia Binh, former son-in-law of General Giap: see Chapter 1) FPT has grown from its original 13 employees into an employer of several thousand, with a series of IT outsourcing contracts for companies in Japan and Europe. It is also one of Vietnam's largest internet service providers and telecoms companies. In 2001 it set up its own online news site – and just like VietNamNet-TV it did so without a government licence. Initially vnexpress.net was classified as an ‘internet content provider’, meaning that it could only publish material that had already been published elsewhere. By selecting the stories which the site's editors thought would most interest readers and by focusing on information rather than ideological comment it rapidly reached a huge audience. Its business plan required it to reach 200,000 users within a year and a half. It achieved this within four months. But by the end of its first year in business it had already made profits from advertising of $70,000. It was the only unsubsidised website in the country. After more than a year of lobbying, vnexpress.net eventually received its licence from the Ministry of Culture. It was surprisingly easy. At the time it seemed to the leadership of vnexpress.net that the Ministry didn't really see the point of an online newspaper or understand its potential significance.

As it has evolved, the parent company of vnexpress.net, FPT, has grown far away from its roots. Just 8 per cent of its stock is still owned by the state, around 80 per cent by its employees and foreign investors (including the venture capital arm of the US chip-maker Intel), with the remainder held by investment houses based in Vietnam. Thus one of the most important Vietnamese news outlets is almost wholly owned by private interests in contradiction of government policy. Its survival rests less on the law than on the balance of relationships between the company's patrons and potentially hostile forces in other parts of the Party and government. FPT has become one of Vietnam's biggest companies and its connections run deep into the Party leadership and into the boardrooms of some of the biggest global corporations. It has no shortage of allies to call upon if it's ever put in a difficult position. For the time being vnexpress.net, its most controversial subsidiary, exists in a curious legal limbo.

06 August 2012

Prussian Persecution of Catholics

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), Kindle Loc. 10660-10783 (pp. 568ff):
Prussia was not the only European state to see tension over confessional questions in this era. In the 1870s and 1880s, there was heightened conflict between Catholics and secular liberal movements across the European continent. But the Prussian case stands out. Nowhere else did the state proceed so systematically against Catholic institutions and personnel. Administrative reform and law were the two main instruments of discrimination. In 1871, the government abolished the ‘Catholic section’ in the Prussian ministry for church affairs, thereby depriving the Catholics of a separate representation within the senior echelons of the bureaucracy. The criminal code was amended to enable the authorities to prosecute priests who used the pulpit ‘for political ends’. In 1872, further state measures eliminated the influence of ecclesiastical personnel over the planning and implementation of school curricula and the supervision of schools. Members of religious orders were prohibited from teaching in the state school system and the Jesuits were expelled from the German Empire. Under the May Laws of 1873, the training and appointment of clergy in Prussia were placed under state supervision. In 1874, the Prussian government introduced compulsory civil marriage, a step extended to the entire German Empire a year later. Additional legislation in 1875 abolished various allegedly suspect religious orders, choked off state subsidies to the church, and deleted religious guarantees from the Prussian constitution. As Catholic religious personnel were expelled, jailed and forced into hiding, the authorities imposed statutes permitting state-authorized agents to take charge of vacated bishoprics.

Bismarck was the driving force behind this unprecedented campaign. Why did he undertake it? The answer lies partly in his highly confessionalized understanding of the German national question. In the 1850s, during his posting to the German Confederal authority in Frankfurt, he had come to believe that political Catholicism was the chief ‘enemy of Prussia’ in southern Germany. The spectacle of Catholic revivalist piety, with its demonstrative pilgrimages and public festivities, filled him with disgust, as did the increasingly Roman orientation of mid-century Catholicism. At times, indeed, he doubted whether this ‘hypocritical idolatrous papism full of hate and cunning’, whose ‘presumptuous dogma falsified God’s revelation and nurtured idolatry as a basis for worldly domination’ was a religion at all. A variety of themes were bundled together here: a fastidious Protestant contempt (accentuated by Bismarck’s Pietist spirituality) for the outward display so characteristic of the Catholic revival blended with a strain of half-submerged German idealism and political apprehensions (shading into paranoia) about the church’s capacity to manipulate minds and mobilize masses.

These antipathies deepened during the conflicts that brought about the unification of Germany. The German Catholics had traditionally looked to Austria for leadership in German affairs and they were unenthusiastic about the prospect of a Prussian-dominated ‘small Germany’ excluding the 6 million (mainly Catholic) Austrian Germans. In 1866, the news of Prussian victory triggered Catholic riots in the south, while the Catholic caucus in the Prussian Landtag opposed the government on a number of key symbolic initiatives, including the indemnity bill, the Prussian annexation programme and the proposal to reward Bismarck and the Prussian generals financially for the recent victory. In 1867–8, the Prussian minister-president – now chancellor of the North German Confederation – was infuriated by the strength of Catholic resistance in the south to a closer union with the north. Particularly alarming was the Bavarian campaign of 1869 against the pro-Prussian policies of the liberal government in Munich. The clergy played a crucial role in mobilizing support for the Catholic-particularist programme of the opposition, agitating from pulpits and collecting petitions bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures. After 1871, doubts about the political reliability of the Catholics were further reinforced by the fact that, of the three main ethnic minorities (Poles, Alsatians and Danes), whose representatives formed opposition parties in the Reichstag, two were emphatically Catholic. Bismarck was utterly persuaded of the political ‘disloyalty’ of the 2.5 million Catholic Poles in the Prussian East, and he suspected that the church and its networks were deeply implicated in the Polish nationalist movement.

These concerns resonated more destructively within the new nation-state than they had before. The new Bismarckian Reich was not in any sense an ‘organic’ or historically evolved entity – it was the highly artificial product of four years of diplomacy and war. In the 1870s, as so often in the history of the Prussian state, the successes of the monarchy seemed as fragile as they were impressive. There was an unsettling sense that what had so swiftly been put together could also be undone, that the Empire might never acquire the political or cultural cohesion to safeguard itself against fragmentation from within. These anxieties may appear absurd to us, but they felt real to many contemporaries. In this climate of uncertainty, it seemed plausible to view the Catholics as the most formidable domestic hindrance to national consolidation.


In lashing out against the Catholics, Bismarck knew that he could count on the enthusiastic support of the National Liberals, whose powerful positions in the new Reichstag and the Prussian Chamber of Deputies made them indispensable political allies. In Prussia, as in much of Germany (and Europe), anti-Catholicism was one of the defining strands of late-nineteenth-century liberalism. Liberals held up Catholicism as the diametrical negation of their own world-view. They denounced the ‘absolutism’ and ‘slavery’ of the doctrine of papal infallibility adopted by the Vatican Council in 1870 (according to which the authority of the pope is unchallengeable when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith or morals). Liberal journalism depicted the Catholic faithful as a servile and manipulated mass (by implied contrast with a liberal social universe centred on male tax-paying worthies with unbound consciences). A bestiary of anti-clerical stereotypes emerged: the satires in liberal journals thronged with wily, thin Jesuits and lecherous, fat priests – amenable subjects because the cartoonist’s pen could make such artful play with the solid black of their garb. By vilifying the parish priest in his confessorial role or impugning the sexual propriety of nuns, they articulated through a double negative the liberal faith in the sanctity of the patriarchal nuclear family. Through their nervousness about the prominent place of women within many of the new Catholic orders and their prurient fascination with the celibacy (or not) of the priest, liberals revealed a deep-seated preoccupation with ‘manliness’ that was crucial (though not always explicitly) to the self-understanding of the movement.26 For the liberals, therefore, the campaign against the church was nothing less than a ‘struggle of cultures’ – the term was coined by the liberal Protestant pathologist Rudolf Virchow in a speech of February 1872 to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies.

Bismarck’s campaign against the Prussian Catholics was a failure....

Far from neutralizing Catholicism as a political and social force, then, Bismarck’s campaign enhanced it. Bismarck had reckoned that the Catholic camp would split under the pressure of the new laws, marginalizing the ultramontanes (exponents of papal authority) and transforming the remainder of the church into a compliant partner of the state. But in fact the opposite happened: the effect of state action was to drive back and marginalize liberal and statist elements within Catholicism. The controversies provoked in many Catholic communities by the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 were put aside as critics of the doctrine acknowledged that papal absolutism was a lesser evil than the secularizing state. A small contingent of liberal anti-infallibilists, most of them academics, did split from Rome to form ‘Old Catholic’ congregations – a distant echo of the radical ‘German-Catholics’ who had congregated under the motto ‘away from Rome’ in the 1840s – but they never acquired a significant social base.

Perhaps the most conspicuous evidence of Bismarck’s failure is simply the spectacular growth of the Centre Party, the party of the Prussian – and many German – Catholics. Although Bismarck did succeed in isolating the Centre Party within the Prussian parliament – at least for a time – he could do nothing to prevent it from increasing its share of German votes in the national elections. Whereas only 23 per cent of Prussian Catholics had voted Centre in 1871, 45 per cent did so in 1874. Thanks in large part to the ravages of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, the Centre Party ‘peaked early’, efficiently colonizing its social milieu, mobilizing Catholics who had hitherto been politically inactive, expanding the frontiers of partisan politics. The other parties would gradually follow suit by mobilizing their own new voters from the non-Catholic parts of the population, but it was not until 1912 that the Centre Party’s great leap forward was evened out by improvements in the performance of other parties. Even then, the Centre remained the strongest Reichstag party after the Social Democrats.