More than a decade since the birth of the Grassroots Democracy Decree in Vietnam, which became an Ordinance in 2007, the core tenet of this mandate — ‘people know, people discuss, people do, people supervise’ — is entering the political mainstream of the Communist party state. It is meant to be practiced between officials and residents at communes, wards and towns: the administrative levels that are two tiers below provinces and cities. A rural commune is divided into hamlets (├в╠Бp), where the above tenet is getting real. It is seeing the social and the political mixed up.
Let me take a look at a hamlet meeting in Long An Commune, a rural area in Dong Nai Province, held at a resident’s house with a big front yard. The key agenda was to report on the financial contributions and expenses of all households to turn a dirt road into a concrete one, which now has come to its final stage. The hamlet head and deputy chaired an evening meeting with around 25 people representing their households. It proceeded as the head (1) reported the monthly collections of funds and how they were spent, (2) repeated which issues had been agreed in previous meetings, (3) briefly informed the group about a new policy guideline by the province, then leaving time for participants to discuss, raise their concerns and make suggestions.
Some people were questioning the quality of the new road, the credibility of the constructor, and the need for extra funds to be collected. They talked about numbers and exchanged rebuttals, while the hamlet head tried to address their concerns and come up with feasible resolutions. This is perhaps the best part of the meeting when the people truly contributed their thoughts to a public affair and had them addressed on the spot.
According to an official report by the provincial government on the practice of democratic mechanism up until 2012, a hamlet is not an administrative unit but only a self-rule community. In that same report, following that sentence, activities in a hamlet are claimed to positively contribute to the exercise of the democratic ordinance. Thus, by encouraging and reinforcing communal exchanges, for instance, on a small infrastructure project that was fund-raised from local households, the hamlet head and upper authorities could be happy that the philosophy of the Ordinance has been fulfilled.
One participant told me that the meeting was meant to ‘make finance public’, adding ‘which is the term they [the authorities] use’. So far each household had contributed approximately 1.5 million Vietnamese dong (a little more than 70 US dollars). Other than these grassroots funded constructions, he commented, ‘the authority is not interested in letting the people know how “they” fund other buildings and roads’. Perhaps they might make it public in some form other than holding public meetings; if so, it could be that he is not interested in finding it out.
Of course it is an oversimplification to say that grassroots democracy of the Vietnamese brand is just about meetings where people deliberate on what makes a good road for their neighbouring area. Some other avenues, as stated in the report, include the right to nominate candidates to the municipal legislative body, to vote for the inspection committee and the hamlet head, alongside the right to request handling of grievances, complaints related to housing, land compensation, and civil issues. All these avenues posture a form of people-oriented authority, when better infrastructure, less rural poverty, more civilised communities, and a greater percentage of dispute handling, are time and again stated to serve the people’s good.
Besides, promoting new policy guidelines down to the hamlet level, in direct interactions between the hamlet head and people, is not a bad idea to bring the governed closer to the governing, putting them within a real regulatory conversation. In that meeting the hamlet head mentioned a new mandate on registering permits for house construction. Perhaps it makes a greater and deeper sense to people in such a face-to-face manner than through notices, newspapers and radios.
As in the report, the task of grievance and complaint handling is a part of the broader bureaucratic reform. The turnouts of this task are the number of people that have paid visits to the municipal government office, and the percentages of complaints and denunciation letters solved which are 100 percent. The evaluation includes adjective clichés like ‘serious’ (nghi├кm tu╠Бc), ‘timely’ (ki╠гp th╞б╠Аi), and ‘good’ (t├┤╠Бt). This is at best an effective quantifying of bureaucratic performance, leaving a big question mark over its substance.
The meeting discussed here lasted for one hour and a half, when I heard the hamlet head urging everyone to reach a consensus so that he could finalise its minutes, and that they all could go home. The people exchanged some more points, looking contented that they had been given a chance to socialise and know who else had or had not contributed a fair share to rebuilding the road. Unfortunately it was already dark and the dim bulbs in the front yard failed my photography.
Tu Phuong Nguyen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change, ANU. This piece emerges from her recent field observations.