Vietnam’s COVID-19 Success Is a Double-Edged Sword for the Communist Party


Vietnam’s COVID-19 achieve­ments have been truly impres­sive. At the time of this arti­cle, Vietnam has 747 report­ed cases with only 10 deaths, which is rel­a­tive­ly low com­pared to other coun­tries in the region. A new wave of COVID-19 arrived in the coun­try in late July, but Vietnam’s pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences and cur­rent high public trust create a favorable environment for the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to combat the virus this time, too. The public gen­er­al­ly values the government’s aggressive response to the new wave.

It is widely acknowl­edged that Vietnam’s suc­cess lies in its aggressive contact tracing, mandatory quarantine, massive campaigns to raise awareness, public compliance, and local and national lockdowns when judged necessary. Interestingly, all these mea­sures have been made pos­si­ble because of the trans­paren­cy of infor­ma­tion and close hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal coor­di­na­tion among dif­fer­ent levels of gov­ern­ment.

Yet, the effec­tive­ness of trans­paren­cy and gov­ern­ment coor­di­na­tion will likely place the CPV in a dilem­ma after COVID-19. This arti­cle argues that Vietnam’s accom­plish­ments with regards to con­tain­ing COVID-19 will likely create a fur­ther public desire for trans­paren­cy and make it chal­leng­ing for the party to use its tra­di­tion­al blame-avoid­ance strat­e­gy to pro­tect its legit­i­ma­cy in the face of policy fail­ures. The suc­cess of COVID-19 is a double-edged sword, which the party should use care­ful­ly to enhance its legit­i­ma­cy.

Transparency of Information

With the glar­ing excep­tion of COVID-19, Vietnam is noto­ri­ous for being secre­tive with many polit­i­cal issues. For exam­ple, more than six months after a bloody clash between the police and vil­lagers over a long-standing land dispute in Dong Tam com­mune in sub­ur­ban Hanoi, the actual events of that con­flict have not been dis­closed to the public.

One pos­si­ble effect of the suc­cess of COVID-19 is that those who used to be igno­rant of pol­i­tics might sud­den­ly think that trans­paren­cy can be a solu­tion to other prob­lems. It will likely raise the expec­ta­tion that the public has the right to demand trans­paren­cy and that the party is capa­ble of releas­ing infor­ma­tion. This should not come as a sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing that trans­paren­cy is pos­si­ble in the battle against COVID-19 because the party wants it to be.

The CPV may have already felt this pres­sure. In May 2020, dis­sat­is­fied with the Supreme Court’s deci­sion to reaf­firm a death sen­tence by a lower court in a decade-old murder case, the public used social media chan­nels to show their anger and demand more infor­ma­tion about the case. On Facebook, a pop­u­lar social media plat­form in Vietnam, many neti­zens expressed their expec­ta­tions for the party to be as trans­par­ent as it had been in the fight against COVID-19.

The party has so far han­dled this case rel­a­tive­ly well. In the face of increas­ing demand, media start­ed to pro­vide more in-depth infor­ma­tion about the murder case, much of which was com­plete­ly new to the public. Soon after, the judi­cial com­mit­tee of Vietnam’s National Assembly agreed to review the decision made by the Supreme Court.

Yet increas­ing demands for infor­ma­tion from the public will likely place the party in a dilem­ma, espe­cial­ly when it comes to sen­si­tive polit­i­cal areas. Providing too much infor­ma­tion on del­i­cate issues would risk dra­mat­ic polit­i­cal reforms or expos­ing dark sides that the party wishes to hide. But restor­ing more secre­tive pol­i­tics would no doubt raise the ques­tion of why the party opts to be trans­par­ent in cer­tain issues but not others. An apo­lit­i­cal indi­vid­ual could sud­den­ly begin to wonder about the motives and inten­tions behind the CPV’s deci­sions to share or hide infor­ma­tion.

Coordination Among Government Authorities

Close coor­di­na­tion and effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion among dif­fer­ent levels of gov­ern­ment proved effec­tive in the battle against COVID-19. However, it will likely make it chal­leng­ing for the CPV to use its favorite strat­e­gy to pro­tect its legit­i­ma­cy in the face of policy fail­ures: blame-avoid­ance. In the face of policy fail­ures, the party typ­i­cal­ly shifts the blame for poor per­for­mance to lower author­i­ties, espe­cial­ly local gov­ern­ments. For exam­ple, the party often attrib­ut­es land dis­putes to the mis-imple­men­ta­tion of land policy by local author­i­ties rather than the Land Law itself.

By shift­ing blame to lower author­i­ties, the party wishes to send the mes­sage that while cen­tral poli­cies are sound, local author­i­ties some­times dis­tort policy imple­men­ta­tion for their own inter­ests and refuse to coor­di­nate with the center, a sit­u­a­tion that is beyond the party’s con­trol. Yet Vietnam’s suc­cess with COVID-19 con­tain­ment proves that the party is highly com­pe­tent in acquir­ing infor­ma­tion and coor­di­nat­ing with local author­i­ties. Again, an apo­lit­i­cal indi­vid­ual, when seeing the lack of coor­di­na­tion between cen­tral and local gov­ern­ments in other issues, will likely wonder, “Why cannot close coor­di­na­tion be enforced this time?” More trou­ble­some is if an apo­lit­i­cal indi­vid­ual starts to think that blam­ing local author­i­ties is just a strat­e­gy employed to avoid making dra­mat­ic changes to cen­tral poli­cies, which may neg­a­tive­ly affect the inter­est of the party.

Looking to the Future

Vietnam’s COVID-19 suc­cess has been pos­si­ble because of the full trans­paren­cy of infor­ma­tion and close coor­di­na­tion among gov­ern­ment author­i­ties. However, the accom­plish­ment means the coun­try may face increas­ing expec­ta­tions and demands. The suc­cess of its COVID-19 strat­e­gy has, so far, increased trust in the CPV in the short run, but it will likely create demand for trans­paren­cy in other polit­i­cal issues and make it harder for the party to use the blame-avoid­ance strat­e­gy in the face of poten­tial future policy fail­ures. The suc­cess of COVID-19 is a double-edged sword that, if not han­dled very well, will likely haunt the party in the long run. If increas­ing expec­ta­tions are not han­dled skill­ful­ly, the trust that the party has gained from its COVID-19 achieve­ments may evap­o­rate.

Mai Truong is a Ph.D. can­di­date in polit­i­cal sci­ence at the University of Arizona. She stud­ies social move­ments, social protests and social media. Her region­al focus is East and Southeast Asia.

The Diplomat source|articles

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