Vietnam: the curious fall of a communist leader

Questions have arisen about the anti-corruption campaign that saw the first firing of a Politburo thành viên in 21 years.

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Newly elected Politburo members Dinh La Thang (2nd R) poses with other Central Committee members at the closing ceremony of the national congress of the Communist tiệc nhỏ in Hanoi (January 28, 2016).

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Within four days, Dinh La Thang suffered a fall from grace not seen in Vietnam’s Communist buổi tiệc ngọt in over two decades.

The Party’s Central Committee voted Thang out of the elite 19-member Politburo with a 90 percent vote on May 7. Three days later, it was confirmed that he had also been fired from his position as de facto mayor of Ho đưa ra Minh City.

Thang, the các buổi party explained, bore responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars disappearing from state coffers. He subsequently accepted his punishment as “reasonable và sensible” in the midst of infighting targeting the more corrupt elements of the party.

While Thang isn’t the first Politburo member to face expulsion, none have been sacked since 1996 và Thang is the first to thua his job on anti-corruption grounds. Tiệc nhỏ General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who is Vietnam’s de facto head of government, vowed at a May 13 town hall meeting in Hanoi that “more will come” in the fight against graft.

Thang’s patronage networks, however, may have been entangled with those of a deposed prime minister who also happened khổng lồ be Thang’s former benefactor. Owing lớn the party’s secretive culture of silence on infighting, suspicions have emerged that Thang was politically targeted.

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“The tiệc nhỏ knows that is the thing that most threatens their legitimacy & monopoly of power,” said Zachary Abuza, a specialist in Southeast Asia teaching at the National War College in Washington, DC, adding that Thang is also disliked by the dominant faction in the party.

“To be sure, the more conservative faction of the buổi tiệc nhỏ leadership have never liked Dinh La Thang, and they’ve had him in their sights for a few years,” he added.

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Nguyen Tran Bat*, a Hanoi-based lawyer who specializes in advising foreign investors about Vietnam’s political và legal landscape, described the investigation into Thang and his network as a deeply layered crime mystery rather than a political purge.

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“Mr. Thang is a politician that is like an onion with many layers forming his body. The fight against a politician must be carried out step by step khổng lồ peel each skin lớn look at the final skin,” he said, adding that he agreed with the Central Committee’s decision to fire Thang.

“The West has explained Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign as an internal fight between Mr. Xi và Mr. Jiang Zemin, so they are finding the same ngắn gọn xúc tích in explaining ,” added Bat.

A Lack of Due Diligence

Thang’s downfall stems from his time as general director of the state-owned PetroVietnam oil và natural gas company between 2009 & 2011. 

Among his misdeeds, according lớn the party, was investing trăng tròn percent of PetroVietnam’s capital into the ill-fated Ocean Bank, against regulations. Owing to the bank’s loss of $88 million, 48 former executives of the firm are currently facing charges for criminal mismanagement. The indicted include Nguyen Xuan Son, former chairman of PetroVietnam, who was arrested in năm ngoái on charges of abusing his position of power và deliberately violating managerial rules.

Thang was also said khổng lồ have lost $532 million in a Venezuelan investment, as well as regularly awarding contracts without public bidding. 

It’s unclear that Thang personally benefited from graft, but Vietnamese law treats any major loss at a state-owned enterprise as a serious crime worthy of long prison sentences. 

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“While no evidence has emerged that Thang personally profited size corrupt acts, he has been exposed as a weak administrator,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert and Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales.

“Since Vietnam criminalizes individuals for causing severe losses lớn the state, it was only a matter of time that the anti-corruption investigation would move up và expose Thang’s failure lớn exercise due diligence,” he added.

While the state-controlled Vietnamese media usually avoids singling out individuals for corruption, accusations against Thang went viral on social truyền thông after Huy Duc, an author and journalist whose independent blogging cost him his job at a state-owned newspaper in 2009, denounced Thang on Facebook for alleged corruption.

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Thayer said that the unauthorized public spotlight on Thang’s case made punishment inevitable.

“The amount of publicity given to this case is too great for Thang to lớn escape dismissal as tiệc ngọt chief in ,” he said.

A Purge?

Thang is not the only prominent official lớn find himself on the losing side of the party’s will in the past year. 

His former colleague, ex-Prime Minister Nguyen rã Dung, was forced khổng lồ retire following the năm 2016 Party Congress, where he lost a power struggle with Trong.

During his time as premier from 2006 to 2016, the same time period as Thang’s appointment lớn PetroVietnam and promotion lớn minister of transport, Vietnam saw impressive economic growth alongside major corruption scandals.

The most notable scandal took place at Vinashin, a state-owned shipbuilder that racked up a $4.5 billion debt and defaulted in 2010 on $600 million in loans. When Moody’s downgraded Vietnam’s sovereign credit rating in the same year, it cited Vinashin as a reason.

Infighting, which the state is generally able lớn keep secret, over Dung’s role in Vinashin & other suspect dealings revealed itself in extremely rare public criticisms.

In November 2012, lawmaker Duong Trung Quoc broke the customary appearance of tiệc ngọt consensus when he told Dung to resign during a televised parliamentary gathering.

In a 2013 vote of confidence in the National Assembly, Dung received 160 votes of “low confidence.” While the majority voted for confidence, divisions in government had once again entered the public sphere.

Yet despite the scandals and one sharp dip in 2012, GDP under Dung saw impressive growth from 5.7 percent in 2006 to lớn 6.68 percent in 2015. 

“To be sure, he was dogged by corruption & nepotism allegations. But he clearly grew the economy, which tends khổng lồ make people a little more forgiving,” said Abuza.

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Dung ended his premiership without censure. Although he was forced out of government, neither the tiệc nhỏ nor Vietnamese truyền thông media gave any indication of infighting and Dung was allowed lớn quietly retire. His exit, however, left cadres in his patronage network exposed.

Making matters worse for them, said Abuza, U.S. President Donald Trump scrapped what may have been Dung’s most positive enduring legacy. It was largely thanks to Dung that Vietnam signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which was expected lớn have benefited Vietnam’s export-dependent economy through increased access to the U.S. Market. 

withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership và the seeming lack of commitment toward regional peace và security has left the advocates of the TPP and deepened reform exposed,” said Abuza.

“It’s very hard for them khổng lồ say that their strategy, based on the TPP, which entailed painful reforms and concessions, và deepened engagement, has borne a lot of fruit, vis-a-vis China,” he added.

Nguyen Tran Bat, the Hanoi-based lawyer, said the Central Committee is currently investigating ties between Thang và Dung lớn determine if the two plotted together lớn either undermine the các buổi party or enrich themselves.

“Mr. Thang and former Prime Minister Dung were members of the Central Committee when Mr. Thang had three terms, so obviously Mr. Thang and Dung have a relationship with each other,” he said.

“But whether they related to each other as members of the leadership committee, or in a political plot is not clear. So the investigation will expose this connection, they were only members of the leadership committee or in a political or economic plot.”

Bat stressed, however, that the investigation was a matter of pursuing criminality rather than political scoring.

“I do not believe the discipline decision against Mr. Thang is a political purge,” he said.

Thayer, while not discounting intra-party rivalries entirely in Thang’s case, warned against attributing his firing solely lớn an attempt to clear the các buổi tiệc nhỏ of Dung’s patronage network.

has a support base but it is too simplistic to view all infighting in Hanoi as between the supporters of Secretary General Trong và former Prime Minister Dung,” he said, adding that Thang’s own tư vấn base came from those who benefited from his poor oversight at PetroVietnam, as well as from Thang’s time as minister of transport.

“My understanding is that Secretary General Trong and a small group spent seven months studying this case before acting. The corruption and mismanagement issues at were too big lớn ignore.”

Abuza attributed Thang’s sacking to lớn an anti-corruption strategy aimed at targeting high-profile targets to deter others, rather than addressing the root systematic causes.

He pointed out that the party, despite some officials having a more conservative streak, is already united on the major issues. “There is broad consensus on the economic reform program. There are debates over pace và scope,” he said.

Dung và Thang did nội dung one characteristic that Hanoi-based civil society organizer Nguyen Anh Tuan, who is a project manager for the unregistered NGO Voice, said grated the conservative faction.

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“Thang was kind of a populist leader,” he said, citing Thang’s penchant for being outspoken on solving urban problems affecting chất lượng of life for Ho chi Minh thành phố residents. 

“And whenever he appears on media, he looks good. Dung was the same way,” he added, citing Dung’s vocal anti-Chinese rhetoric.

“Dung was very vocal in criticizing China, but not taking actual action, kind of like Thang’s style,” said Tuan.

Populist appeals by individual politicians, said Tuan, went against the party’s traditional approach khổng lồ politics. “They want to lớn keep the old style of collective leadership,” he explained.

In the post-war era, Vietnam has minimized the visibility of living leaders while opting for the appearance of a unified các buổi party dictating policy. The only personality cult welcomed is Ho bỏ ra Minh’s.

The Party’s Next Move

Thang, who accepted the Party’s denunciations, has been allowed khổng lồ stay on the Central Committee in a reduced capacity. He will now spend the next three years serving as the vice head of the Central Committee’s economic subcommittee.

“His appointment as a deputy head seems khổng lồ indicate he is being spared the outright dismissal and will be left to serve out his time out of the limelight,” said Thayer, adding that Thang has three years before the next buổi tiệc ngọt Congress to lớn either redeem himself or retire.

He said it is unlikely, however, that Thang will rise under the Party’s current leadership.

Thang’s replacement in Ho đưa ra Minh city is Nguyen Thien Nhan, another Politburo thành viên who was most recently the chairman of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, which serves as an umbrella organization for all registered social groups, ranging from sports teams lớn labor unions.

Nhan, a technocrat with a doctorate in cybernetics educated in East Germany & the United States, is known for having a cosmopolitan flair. He is one of the few top leaders in Vietnam lớn speak fluent English, a valuable trait in a đô thị trying to reinvent itself as a global tech hub.

“I see Nhan as a ‘grey figure’ who fit in at the Front and kept a low uncontentious profile,” said Thayer, adding that his time in the Vietnamese Fatherland Front helped him negotiate a diversity of viewpoints.

“He bided his time, successfully as it now turns out,” he added.

But Tuan said that regardless of the merits of the party’s case against Thang or the performance of the city’s new boss, its decision to lớn remove Thang comes at a cost of legitimacy. 

An earlier version of this article misspelled Nguyen Tran Bat’s name. We regret the error.

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Bennett Murray is Deutsche Presse-Agentur’s Hanoi bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter 
BDMurray.

Bac Pham has been reporting in Vietnam for 15 years, and has worked for numerous publications including The Straits Times. He has worked for Deutsche Presse-Agentur since 2008. 


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