President re-emerges to demand tighter controls

Known for a harsh crackdown on government critics, President Tran Dai Quang is calling for more controls.

The Vietnamese president, Tran Dai Quang, has called for tougher controls on the internet – an intervention that follows weeks of rumours about his own political future.

The former internal security chief, who is well known for his intolerance of government critics, said that “hostile forces” were undermining the prestige of party and state leaders.

He called for greater controls on social networks in order “to prevent news sites and blogs with bad and dangerous content”.

The article, published on the government website, comes after a wave of rumours on independent blogs that the president was ill or had been sidelined by his political rivals.

Bloggers noted that he had failed to appear at a number of high profile events in recent weeks.

Contender for the top job

Quang has been seen as a contender for the post of general-secretary of the Communist party, the senior position in Vietnam’s collective leadership.

He lost out to the incumbent, Nguyen Phu Trong, at the party congress last year, but is thought to be positioning himself for another shot at the leadership when Mr Trong steps down.

Rumours of turmoil in the leadership have been exacerbated by the admission that another politburo official, Dinh The Huynh, seen by many as the logical successor, has been temporarily replaced because of cancer.

Mr Huynh is a hard-line conservative ideologue and a close associate of the current general-secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong.

Some analysts suspect the abduction of the fugitive former oil executive, Trinh Xuan Thanh, from Berlin last month, and his return to Hanoi to stand trial for corruption, is connected with infighting at the top of the party.

It could have been an attempt to signal the ruthlessness, reach and power of the conservatives around Mr Trong, even at the cost of damaging relations with an important European partner.

If that was the case, the plan may backfire if the diplomatic and economic costs are higher than expected.

High tension

President Quang appears keen to make clear that he remains in contention for the leadership.

His attack on freedom of speech is in line with his hard-line reputation, although it may also be motivated by suspicions that his opponents are using social media and anonymous blogs to undermine him.

The latest bout of political intrigue comes at a time of high tension for Vietnam.

Hanoi was forced to cave in to pressure from China last month over plans to drill for gas off the southeast coast.

There is a perennial suspicion amongst government critics that China’s allies inside the communist leadership are prepared to undermine Vietnam’s national interests and sovereignty.

Rumours, political gossip and cynicism are a feature of life in a country where the leadership insists on operating in the shadows: it forbids political reporting in the mainstream media and is waging a war of intimidation and persecution against independent bloggers.