The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is preparing for its 13th Congress scheduled to be held in early 2021. Surely it will elect someone else to take over from 75-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong as general secretary. Trong has served as the CPV chief for almost 10 years now. Last year, he also took power as head of the Vietnamese state following the sudden death of incumbent president Tran Dai Quang. He is the most powerful leader of the country in the post-Ho Chi Minh era.
Among ordinary Vietnamese citizens, especially young people who care more about market capitalism and amassing wealth rather than following communist ideals, Trong is likely popular for his anti-corruption efforts and for his bringing down and punishing of high-ranking corrupt officials. For Trong, national interests are the most important and saving the Party from collapse — preventing the party-state from backsliding into decay and irrelevance — is key to this. He has been nicknamed ‘the great fireman’ after he compared the fight against corruption to a blazing furnace which would burn any piece of wood, representing a corrupt official, whether it be dry or green.
While Trong is certainly powerful and has gained respect for his anti-corruption efforts, Vietnam has been criticised internationally as it has become increasingly tough on pro-democracy voices and civil society activists. In the run up to the next Party Congress, there appears to be speculation about Trong’s continued grip on power. True, he could be re-elected as head of the state, but the condition of his health should prevent him from taking on the job. This year especially there have been rumours and concerns about the Party chief’s health.
When Trong was named the general secretary of the CPV in 2011, Nguyen Tan Dung had already been the prime minister for five years. During this period, Dung built up political patronage networks and consolidated his power. He and his cronies in several cases ignored the role of the Party and National Assembly and consequently caused the loss of billions of dollars in state assets. Corruption was rampant within the system and tolerated by Dung in his role as head of the government’s anti-corruption committee. Dung made himself the most powerful prime minister since the founding of the country and emphasised individualism over collectivism in decision-making.
Trong was fully aware of the weaknesses of the Party owing to pervasive corruption and lax Party discipline. Once in the top post of the Party, Trong launched attacks on both. From the beginning, he knew Dung would be his first target. Though Trong failed to discipline and remove Dung from office over his economic mismanagement in a plenary of the Party in 2012, he sent a clear message to Dung and his cronies about his determination to combat corruption and rein in Party officials through Party discipline. Since then, Trong has gradually consolidated his power and stepped up efforts in the cleaning up of the Party.
As of early 2019, according to the Central Commission for Internal Affairs, more than 53,000 government officials and Party members, of which 60 were under the direct oversight of the Central level, were disciplined. A total of 643 cases involving 1579 individuals were under investigation and prosecuted in relation to corruption and economic mismanagement. Notably, one incumbent Politburo member, two members of the Central Committee, one former deputy-prime minister, four former ministers, a dozen vice-ministers (including those from the defence and public security sectors), and Party secretaries, chairmen and vice-chairmen from the provinces were disciplined, expelled from the Party, or jailed.
Many of these corrupt officials had a close relationship with the former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Never before in the history of the CPV had such a large number of high-ranking government and Party officials been disciplined and punished. At the moment, the public is watching to see how and what Trong will do with Le Thanh Hai, a long-time and now-retired Party boss nicknamed ‘the god father of Ho Chi Minh City’ who has been involved in large-scale property development.
Trong’s anti-corruption efforts were orchestrated as part of his attempt to clean up the Party. Ideological and lifestyle standards have been set to prevent overly ambitious princelings and officials from climbing up to higher offices. However, these standards have also been used to stamp out criticism. The last couple of years have seen an increased crackdown on academic freedom and intellectuals who were Party members but have made speeches and statements deemed not to be in line with the Party’s positions and policies. Freedom of speech has been further restricted in the country after the law on cyber security, passed in the Party member-dominated National Assembly last year, went into effect in January 2019.
Yet, Trong cannot be entirely blamed for the sweeping crackdown on political dissent. In effect, authoritarian regimes indiscriminately repress any opposition to stay in power. Political dissidents and civil society activists should not expect a relaxation of control from Trong, an old guard and aging communist apparatchik who believes in the CPV’s indispensable role in the country’s success.
Trong technically has absolute power now and holds the two most powerful positions in the state: CPV general secretary and state president. Also, being the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and sitting on the Central Standing Board of the Police Party Committee, Trong controls both the military and the security forces. Though he has occasionally dismissed the notion of having absolute power invested in one individual, Trong is now obviously the boss.
In 2017, Trong signed a document, known as Regulation No. 90, that sets criteria for the CPV general secretary and state president. Age and health are among these rules. Trong’s experience and integrity may help him bypass the rule of age since he can be nominated as ‘a special case’ again as he was in 2016. Trong has been the Party’s chief for two consecutive terms and, therefore, cannot be re-elected for a third term by the party statutes. He could, however, be re-installed as head of state.
But it appears the old guard’s health is not favouring him. Perhaps most importantly, Trong has always emphasised leadership that rejects the greed for power. Even if there is strong support within the Party, a retreat from politics at the next Party Congress would embody Trong’s self-professed model of political governance.