Fifty years ago, this part of Vietnam was a pile of smouldering ash, levelled by American bombers. This month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was welcomed in the sprawling business area of Hanoi by representatives of the governing Communist Party, whose predecessors would rather have put Pompeo in a prison camp than a luxury hotel suite.
Vietnam’s journey from an impoverished rogue state to dynamic emerging market has not gone unnoticed. South Korean media reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un brought up the country’s economic miracle several times during his April deliberations with Moon Jae-in, his South Korean counterpart. Perhaps this, he surely thought, was the way forward. A thriving economy, but under the leadership of a one-party state, governed by a one-man party.
Any dictator looking to reform his impoverished rogue state should be aware of the risks. As the country transitions into a trading economy, so too does the nature of the bureaucracy. Where the Vietnamese politburo was once ruled by Communist Party founder Ho Chi Minh and his cabal of Vietnam War faithfuls, after his death the leadership was gradually replaced by members elected on the merits of competence, not loyalty. Today, the leaders of the party born in the Indochinese jungle look more like a board of corporate executives.
Therein, the lack of a strongman is very deliberate. With the introduction of moi toi, or «renewal» through a series of reforms in 1986 and onward, the collective leadership found it essential to replace leaders without the tenacity to accelerate Vietnam’s economic growth. Since 1986, Vietnam has had five General Secretaries and seven prime ministers – a turnover rate comparable to a Western democracy, but with average Vietnamese people having no bearing on it whatsoever.
One would be hard pressed to recall a single regime in history that opens an isolated country to the world, and retains the power he formerly had. The iconography dedicated to Chairman Mao all over China, from the gates of the Forbidden Palace to the office of any low level bureaucrat, should really be reserved for Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, who laid the foundations for the giant economic machine we know today.
Crucial to the growth of both countries, and their assimilation into the international community, ha been to reverse the party and leader dynamic. The entire history of the Soviet Union is coloured by the friction between them, and if we are to take a lesson from Stalin’s reign, things are usually better when the party is in charge. The same lesson applies in Vietnam. In the place of Ho Chi Minh sits General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and President Tran Dai Quang. What distinguishes them? The average Vietnamese person has no clue, and nor do I. What is clear is that they are all very boring and very competent. Rather than the personality cults of bygone days, successful one party states of the 21st century opt for technocrats.
Kim should take a hint, and so should Trump. Contrary to whatever delusions of grandeur they both suffer from, the fact remains that Kim can either take North Korea into the world, or retain his own power. He can not do both.