Vietnam, China and the “democratic recession”

Nguyen Phu Trong on a recent visit to Beijing.

Xi Jinping’s consolidation of strong-man rule in China this week signals that the global clash of political cultures is entering a new phase.

Autocratic rulers, including Vietnam’s own Communist party bosses, will take heart from Xi’s domestic triumphs, while campaigners for democracy see signs that the tide is turning against them.

Vietnam’s party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, was quick to offer effusive congratulations to his Chinese counterpart – expressing confidence in his plan for a “modern socialist country” that was prosperous, strong and civilised.

Hanoi may be determined to resist China’s encroachments in the South China Sea and nervous about its soaring international clout, but Mr Trong seems to have been deeply impressed by Xi’s consolidation of power at home.

Trong has pursued an anti-corruption campaign of his own, used the opportunity to lay low political rivals and backed a harsh crackdown on bloggers and other government critics.

“Socialist model”

Xi Jinping, now designated the “core” of the Chinese Communist party, and with “Xi thought” enshrined in the constitution, looks set on rivalling Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the CCP pantheon.

But his ambitions are also global. He noted in his three-and-a-half hour speech to Congress that his “socialist” model provided a new option for other countries pursuing development and independence.

Beijing’s challenge to liberal democracy around the world is becoming ever more explicit. Rulers across Southeast Asia, from Cambodia to Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Myanmar, have already taken the cue.

Vietnam, too, feels less inclined to pander to the West’s prescriptions for human rights and more accountable government.

Repressive template

These are dark days for civil society activists in Vietnam who have felt the brunt of a revitalised internal security apparatus.

Nearly thirty bloggers and other activists have been arrested or convicted over the last year, with efforts to intimidate and silence online critics gathering pace.

China offers an even more repressive template.

It is building a surveillance state unprecedented in scale and scope and, according to some observers, can be expected to export the model and the necessary technology.

Xi Jinping began his “war on law” half way through his first five-year term, targeting some 300 lawyers and activists.

Potential rivals, even a fellow member of the once all powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, have also been brought down.

Mr Xi’s successes seem to show there’s little downside, at least in the short-term, to the accumulation of power and the crushing of opposition.

History restarts

A growing crisis of governance in Western countries, not least the United States and Britain, has added to the sense of a “democratic recession” – one that China appears determined to exploit.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc after 1989, and the growth of democratic systems in once repressive East Asia dictatorships, such as South Korea and Taiwan, had led to confidence that liberal democracy would triumph across the world.

A democratic system seemed a must-have accessory for prosperous modern economies. Even many authoritarian regimes paid lip service to the ultimate goal of representative government.

Current events have shown that history, far from coming to an end, has restarted with a jolt.

Social media

Aspiring democrats in Vietnam, however, still see some grounds for hope.

Collective leadership is more deeply entrenched in Vietnam than in China, and Nguyen Phu Trong, for all his recent successes, shows little of the personal dynamism and ambition of his Chinese counterpart.

Recent international research by Pew showed the Vietnamese public retain an appetite for a degree of representative government, at least more than in some comparable societies.

The exponential growth of social media in Vietnam, and the zest with which Vietnamese have tackled once taboo subjects, also point to a pent-up demand for more freedom.

The visit of an American president was once seen as a moment of hope for Vietnam’s beleaguered community of political dissidents.

That is no longer the case, as President Trump prepares to visit to Vietnam for next month’s APEC summit – given his lack of interest in the promotion of democracy and civil rights.

However, Vietnamese people have a sense of justice and proportionality that is not always apparent in their larger northern neighbour, and the system, for all its rigidities, appears less likely to fall in to the hands of an ambitious despot intent on the consolidation of personal power.