Vietnam: Rethinking the State

Vietnam: Rethinking the State

by Martin Gainsborough


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Vietnam: Rethinking the State offers an exciting and up-to-date look at the politics of this fascinating country as it seeks to make the transition from a war-torn economic backwater to a dynamic modern society. Martin Gainsborough argues for a move away from the idea of 'reform' as commonly understood and towards a deeper understanding of the concept, questioning the idea of state retreat. The result is a path-breaking book that gets beneath the surface of Vietnam's politics in a way few outsiders have done.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848133105
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 09/28/2010
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Martin Gainsborough is a recognized international expert on Vietnam and its politics. He is Reader in Development Politics in the Department of Politics at the University of Bristol.  He is also director of the Bristol-Mekong Project, and consults widely on aspects of Vietnam's politics and business, notably for the United Nations Development Programme, the UK's Department for International Development, and the World Bank.  He teaches on development studies, Vietnamese and Asian politics, and state theory.  He is author of Changing Political Economy of Vietnam: The Case of Ho Chi Minh City (Routledge, 2003) and editor of On the Borders of State Power: Frontiers in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (Routledge 2009).

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Rethinking the State

By Martin Gainsborough

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Martin Gainsborough
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-565-9



Some two decades after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the former Soviet Union in 1991, Vietnam is just one of a handful of states where Communist Party rule persists (the others being China, North Korea, Laos and Cuba). While Vietnamese society is undoubtedly witnessing new forms of political expression, and pressure on the state, against the backdrop of rapid economic development, the fact of continued Communist Party rule at this juncture – whatever the future holds – requires some explanation. This chapter considers this issue with reference to theoretical ideas which have their origins in Barrington Moore's now classic text, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Moore 1966). Moore's writing has since been built upon by other scholars, including most notably Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens (1992). These writers, who emphasize the importance of changing class relations, state power and transnational forces in explaining moves towards greater democracy or their absence, are to be contrasted with those who focus on such things as political leadership, culture and political parties to explain why democratization has or has not occurred (Potter 1992: 355–79).

This chapter, which looks at political change in Vietnam over the past twenty or more years, will do so primarily with reference to the first body of literature. This has the advantage of helping us move away from a heavy reliance on the so-called 'middle classes' as the standard-bearer of democratization, which in recent years has tended to become the sine qua non of whether a country democratizes or not. While not ignoring the potential role of the middle class, the writings of Moore and Rueschemeyer et al. situate it within a broader context. Drawing on historical cases from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, these writers between them single out five classes as being important as to whether a country democratizes. These are large landowners, the peasantry and rural workers, the urban working class, the bourgeoisie (or capital-owning class), and the salaried and professional middle class. The writers argue that it is not only the changing stance of individual classes brought about by economic development that has a bearing on whether a country democratizes but also the relationship among classes and their relationship with the state.

In terms of the focus of this chapter, some of the writers' most interesting findings concern the position of the middle class or bourgeoisie. Drawing on the historical record, they note that while the middle class has been a force for democratization, it has often as not sided with authoritarianism. According to Moore, what is important is not simply the existence of a large middle class but its relationship with the state. That is, if it is to support democratization, it needs to be 'vigorous and independent' from the state. This chapter explores what this means in relation to Vietnam, particularly focusing on business interests that have emerged during the reform years. Also important, according to Rueschemeyer et al., in terms of whether the middle class will be a force for democratization, is its relationship with the working class. In countries where there is a large and politically active working class, the middle class has tended to feel threatened, favouring instead the authoritarian status quo. This issue will also be considered in relation to Vietnam. In addition, the chapter considers the nature of state power in Vietnam and the impact of transnational forces on the Vietnamese political scene, because these issues are also emphasized by these writers as having a bearing on whether a country democratizes.

The danger with the approach being proposed here is that it can all too easily be taken to assume that all countries are travelling on the same historical road, ending with the establishment of liberal democracy. When looking at political change in authoritarian states, we, in the West, find it genuinely very difficult to conceive of any other end point. And yet the experience in Asia to date would seem to suggest that Western-style liberal democracy is one of the least likely conclusions. Even Thailand and the Philippines, often seen as Asia's most democratic states, display many features that suggest their democracies are more formal than substantive (Anderson 1988a; Hutchcroft 1991; McCargo and Pathmanand 2005; Sidel 1996). Moreover, Singapore, with its long-standing capitalist development and substantial middle class and yet the absence of a democratic transition, although perhaps explained by Moore's emphasis on the importance of middle-class independence from the state, nevertheless seems to point to the possibility of another kind of evolution. One only has to read interviews with Singapore's leadership to be aware of the very different philosophical and cultural tradition on which it draws (Rodan 1992; Heng and Devan 1992). We can, of course, dismiss the language of such politicians as simply a cover for authoritarianism. However, in terms of trying to gain a sense of how politics in Vietnam, or elsewhere in Asia, is likely to evolve, it seems worth taking this differentness seriously. These issues will be considered further towards the end of the chapter. In the meantime, it is important to bear in mind that the issues discussed below have been chosen because they appear to have been significant in the evolution away from authoritarianism in other historical contexts. However, they are not deterministic; nor do they provide much insight into the nature of political systems that will emerge in place of authoritarianism.

Changing class interests under reform

The onset of reform in Vietnam is variously dated from 1979, when the first tinkering with the central plan was carried out; from 1986, when the Vietnamese Communist Party held its Sixth Congress; and from 1989, when rather more substantive structural economic changes were introduced. Whatever one prefers, Vietnam for twenty years or more has been undergoing a shift from a system of central planning to one that places greater emphasis on the market to allocate goods and services. During this period, the ruling party has eschewed making changes to the political system along multiparty lines, focusing instead on making one-party democracy work better. Nevertheless, driven by growing integration into the world economy, the past decade and a half has seen rapid economic growth in Vietnam and rising per capita incomes. This has had repercussions nationwide and in all sectors of society. The chapter will now consider the impact of the last fifteen or so years of rapid economic growth on class formation and the relationship among the five different classes cited above.


The first class mentioned in the theoretical literature is large landowners. Historically, they have been against democratization. In Vietnam's case, it would appear to be axiomatic to argue that such a class does not exist. Large landowners were purged in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the 1950s, with the process continuing in liberated areas of the south during the 1960s and after the Communist victory in 1975 (Porter 1993: 57–8; Dacy 1986; Beresford 1989). According to the theoretical literature, the fact of their absence would seem to work in favour of a democratic transition.

However, is it right to see Vietnam as a country devoid of a large landowning class? Despite continued formal restrictions on the maximum permitted landholdings in the countryside, the reform years have been accompanied by the growing incidence of landlessness with its obvious corollary, namely the re-emergence of large landowners (Kerkvliet and Porter 1995; Dahm and Houben 1999; de Mauny and Hong 1998). There is also a confluence of interest between the government's stated desire for foreign investment in agroprocessing and the need for large landholdings. Foreign investment in agroprocessing has not been huge, but foreign agroprocessors have been able to secure large tracts of land when desired.

One might also argue that while the large landowners of the ancien régime have been toppled, in their place there has emerged a new landlord class, namely Communist Party cadres and government officials. After all, it is very often they, or their family members, who dominate the rural economy (Kerkvliet and Porter 1995; Kerkvliet 2005). If this analysis is correct, the prospects for a widening of the political space look less good.


The second class is that of peasantry and rural workers. According to the theoretical literature, the peasantry have historically had an interest in democratization but have not been much of a force for it, largely because they have been poorly organized. The fact that Vietnam continues to be a predominantly rural society two decades after reform would seem to imply a relatively weak impulse for democratization. Nevertheless, with urbanization proceeding apace the situation is changing. Only 20 per cent of GDP is now derived from agriculture, although some 73 per cent of the population is still classified as rural (World Bank 2008).

Since the 1990s, rural unrest has become more common. The causes of the unrest are multiple but they would appear very often to be linked to land disputes involving local elites, often with allegations of elite corruption (Kerkvliet and Porter 1995; Kerkvliet 2003). Although there is no evidence of direct foreign sponsorship of rural unrest, dissident non-government groups based overseas and foreign human-rights organizations have been quick to champion the cause of aggrieved rural communities, while foreign governments, including the United States, have criticized the government's handling of such incidents.

Beyond individual instances of unrest, it would, however, be misleading to speak of a rural opposition in Vietnam understood in terms of an organization with a common institutional base and a coherent critique of party rule. Some scholars have alluded to the growth of autonomous farmers' groups (Fforde 1996: 78–80). However, while it is clear that some farmers groups are increasingly outspoken, whether this amounts to clear or aspirational autonomy from the Party is less certain.


The third class mentioned is the urban working class. It is regarded as having been an important force for democratization. In Vietnam, the urban working class is still quite small, given the predominantly rural nature of the country. However, the reform era has been accompanied by rapid urban growth, and hence a growing urban population. This has been driven in large part by spontaneous rural-to-urban migration, as strict controls on the movement of population have broken down and as farmers have flocked to the cities in search of employment on construction sites and in the factories that have sprung up in the context of marketization. By 2010, it is expected that one-third of the population will be urban-based.

In terms of organized labour, the urban working class has yet to flex its muscles in a way which has moved the political goalposts significantly. Labour relations have certainly become more complex during the reform years, with the growth of private, including foreign, capital. Since the early 1990s, strikes have become more common, including 'wildcat' strikes and the emergence of self-proclaimed but as yet not recognized independent trade unions. Nevertheless, organized labour has been kept weak by a combination of an uncertain legal framework governing its activities and an official trade union, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, which, given political pressures on it, cannot represent workers adequately (Chan and Norland 1999; Clarke 2006; Hanson 2003: 45–67; Ying Zhu and Fahey 2000: 282–99).


The fourth class is the bourgeoisie, understood here as the capital-owning or business class. In the popular view, entrepreneurs are often viewed as being part of the middle classes, and hence seen as a force for democratization. However, in the writings of Moore, Rueschemeyer and others, bourgeoisies are typically viewed as taking an ambivalent stance towards democratization. Richard Robison, for instance, has referred to an effective 'pact of domination' between capital-owning classes and the authoritarian state in Suharto's Indonesia, based around perceived shared interests (Robison 1988).

In Vietnam, the reform years have certainly seen the emergence of a new business elite. However, while this elite is new in terms of its business interests, it is in fact rather old in terms of its political ties. That is, many of the new entrepreneurs have emerged from within the existing system, are currently serving or former officials, or are the children of the political elite. To succeed in business, companies are still very reliant on the state for licences, contracts, access to capital and land, and, very often, protection (Gainsborough 2003a). Moreover, while this may be changing in some areas with business becoming more confident and less 'dependent' (Cheshier 2010; UNDP 2006), Vietnam still lacks the 'independent or vigorous bourgeoisie' cited by Moore as a necessary element in democratization.

The theoretical literature also emphasizes the importance of the bourgeoisie's relationship with the urban working class in terms of whether it supports democratization or not. If the middle class feels threatened by the working class, it is likely to be more conservative. If not, it is likely to be bolder.

Given the small size of Vietnam's working class, the outlook would appear more positive in terms of the possible stance of the bourgeoisie. However, as has been noted, although organized labour has become more militant in recent years and although there is disaffection in parts of the business community, there is little evidence yet of pressure for far-reaching political change. In calls for less red tape and a more open and transparent business environment, which can be seen coming from parts of the business community, one can perhaps see the early stages of a division between the bourgeoisie and the state. However, these calls are relatively muted in comparison with the vigour with which many companies, out of necessity, go after state largesse.


The fifth social group considered in the theoretical literature is the salaried and middle classes. In Vietnam, this would include professional state employees holding positions of responsibility in the bureaucracy and state enterprises, although there is likely to be some overlap with the capital-owning classes or bourgeoisie. Another group in this category would be professional Vietnamese employed by foreign companies or the international aid community. A decade ago some scholars were emphasizing an emerging gulf between groups such as these and the state, arguing that people were increasingly organizing their lives without reference to the party (David Marr cited in Thayer 1992b: 128). While the fact of someone's employment by a foreign company may be significant, it is more appropriate to emphasize the continued close relations between these groups and the state, in terms of their relatively privileged background (i.e. securing the necessary education to make them employable by a foreign company or the aid community), and a primary loyalty towards the state, including a willingness in many cases to join the party. Thus, as with the bourgeoisie, professional Vietnamese employed by foreign companies or the aid industry are often, although not always, still 'very much of the system'.

In terms of possible change in this area, middle-class Vietnamese regularly travel abroad and hence are being exposed to different ways of doing things, which can make them less tolerant of certain practices in Vietnam. There is also a growing exasperation on the part of some professional Vietnamese with official corruption, but again professional Vietnamese are as likely to be playing the system as railing against it (Gainsborough et al. 2009).

State power

As well as analysing the position of different classes and the relationships among them, the theoretical literature under consideration in this chapter also argues that the nature of state power has been crucial as to whether a country democratizes. In countries where it is difficult to identify clearly a distinct realm of authority separate from society (some African states, for example), the prospects for democratization are reportedly poor. However, a very powerful state – one which is almost entirely autonomous in relation to society – is also seen as not conducive to a shift away from authoritarianism. Thus, it is in the middle ground between not too little and not too much state power that a democratic breakthrough has the greatest chance of success.


Excerpted from Vietnam by Martin Gainsborough. Copyright © 2010 Martin Gainsborough. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Map of Vietnam vii

Preface ix

Introduction 1

1 Communist Party rule 9

2 New state business interests 25

3 Corruption 50

4 Hollowing out the state 71

5 Uncertainty as an instrument of rule 88

6 Local politics 111

7 Sharing the spoils 135

8 Elite resilience 156

Conclusion 177

Notes 191

References 201

Index 221

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