In the cross hairs again, but is PetroVietnam more than a scapegoat ?

Another oil executive, Phan Dinh Thuc, is targeted in the party’s campaign against corruption. Photo courtesy VnExpress International.

In a country where corruption is a deeply entrenched and pervasive aspect of daily life, Vietnam’s much touted anti-graft campaign looks increasingly narrow and open to questions about its effectiveness.

Many of the high profile arrests have focused on the state oil firm, PetroVietnam, and companies and banks that did business with it.

Another former chairman of PetroVietnam, Phung Dinh Thuc, has been targeted in the latest sweep, joining a small battalion of other top oil executives, facing either dismissal, trial, or in one case, the death penalty.

Mr Thuc has been placed under house arrest and is facing charges of “deliberately acting against the state’s regulations on economic management, causing serious consequences,” according to state media.

Zealous inquisitors

The focus on PetroVietnam is applauded by many Vietnamese, who see the milking of state enterprises by Communist party apparatchiks as an evil that needs to be eradicated.

However, it raises an uncomfortable question for the newly zealous inquisitors of the Communist party and compliant state apparatus – why is the state oil company is facing such a sustained assault while equally corrupt officials elsewhere continue enriching themselves ?

Transparency International placed Vietnam at 113 on its latest global index of perceived corruption, lower than neighbouring Thailand as well as countries such as Egypt and Algeria.

That is a humbling position for a country that sees itself as a rising industrial powerhouse intent on attracting foreign investment, and governed by a nominally Marxist elite that likes to extol the virtues of austerity, honesty and communitarianism.

While ordinary Vietnamese experience petty corruption at all levels, foreign businessmen must also wrestle with a public administration wedded to greed and extortion on levels that would not be out of place in sub-Saharan Africa.

Companies complain that they experience bribery, political interference and facilitation payments in all sectors, with construction and land administration particularly prone to the worst practices.


The General-Secretary of the Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, has made the anti-corruption drive the centrepiece of his second term.

He says he wants to restore the good reputation of the Communist party, increasingly perceived by many citizens as a get-rich-quick scheme for ambitious bureaucrats.

However, the campaign is on a tiny fraction of the scale of that launched by Trong’s ideological comrade, Xi Jinping, in China, who announced similar objectives when he came to power.

Trong’s campaign is in danger of remaining just that, a temporary campaign for short term political and public relations gains. Without institutional roots and a degree of transparency, the current drive is unlikely to improve Vietnam’s unenviable reputation for endemic corruption and opaque, unaccountable and self-serving governance.