China style campaign targets senior officials

Brought low by corruption charges, Dinh La Thang was once a high flyer in the party hierarchy. Photo courtesy VietnamNews

China’s President, Xi Jinping, described his anti-corruption campaign as a hunt for “tigers and flies”.

The Vietnamese police have now bagged a “tiger” of their own, in a drive that increasingly parallels developments north of the border.

The police announced on Friday that the former politburo member, Dinh La Thang, had been arrested on charges of economic mismanagement. The arrest of his brother, Dinh Manh Thang, and another former business leader, Nguyen Quoc Khanh, swiftly followed.

The three are former top officials at the state oil company, PetroVietnam, which has been the focus of a top-down campaign that has many of the hallmarks of a political purge.

Life in prison

President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in China, although on a vaster scale, has also homed in on alleged wrongdoing at the country’s state oil firm.

After a series of arrests, denunciations and internal Communist party probes, it became clear that the main target of the campaign was a formidable member of the once untouchable Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Zhou Yongkang, a former head of internal security in China and a rival of Xi Jinping,  was finally brought down in 2015 and sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges.

In similar fashion, Dinh La Thang, once seen as a rising star with leadership ambitions in Vietnam, was first dismissed from his posts on the politburo and as Communist party boss in Ho Chi Minh City, before facing criminal charges.

Some suspect that the party leadership has an even bigger “tiger” in mind, the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung,  as party investigators continue to build evidence.

Mr Dung also had close links to PetroVietnam and dealings with many of the high profile officials already arrested. He has looked increasingly vulnerable since launching a bid for the party leadership last year. He lost all in a power struggle with Nguyen Phu Trong, who has since consolidated his hold as General-Secretary of the party.

Cold War stunt

Like Xi Jinping in China, Mr Trong has personalised the anti-corruption campaign and made clear that he is driving it forward as his top priority.

Mr Trong went public in the summer with his determination to arrest another former PetroVietnam executive, Trinh Xuan Thanh.

The German government alleges that Mr Thanh was later kidnapped by armed Vietnamese agents from a park in central Berlin, a Cold War style stunt that startled many observers of a party leadership in Hanoi once noted for its caution and pragmatism.

Widespread corruption

The charges against Dinh La Thang relate to a loss of investment in Ocean Bank, the subject of a recent high profile trial that resulted in a death sentence for yet another former PetroVietnam chairman.

There are also charges of wrongdoing at one of the oil company’s subsidiaries.

The punishment of such high profile officials will no doubt find favour amongst a general public convinced that corruption in the party is widespread and deeply rooted.

However, as in China, any campaign to root out corruption will always raise doubts as to why some corrupt officials are targeted while others are left in place.

No attempt has been made to win over sceptics by introducing a degree of transparency or independent judicial process.

The Communist party is acting, in effect, as investigator, judge, jury and executioner, and so its intent will always appear, fairly or otherwise, to be primarily political.