The Communist Party of Vietnam is facing a choice between the unchanging and the transitory. But it is not simply a battle between an old guard and reformists — it highlights a time of continuities, contradictions and constraints in contemporary Vietnam. 

In the lead up to the 12th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in January, we saw a struggle for the position of General Secretary of the Party – the top of the pyramid in Vietnam’s power structure.

In Western media, this contest pitted the outgoing General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, usually portrayed as a northern pro-Chinese conservative, against the then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, seen as a southern pro-Western reformist.  Not only did Dung fail in his bid for the position of Secretary General, he also failed to be elected to the Politburo – the highest body in the Vietnamese Communist Party (CPV).

Trong saw his term as Secretary General extended for two, and possibly, five years. Yet, to see this outcome as a victory of old guard pro-Chinese conservatives over younger pro-Western reformists would be mistaken.

Dung was shunted aside aside not because of his reformist agenda, but because he was seen as having built a patronage network in a crony capitalist environment that promoted the interests of foreign investors and well-placed persons, especially members of his own family. In a sense Dung became a victim of the popular anti-corruption campaign he encouraged during his two terms as Prime Minister. The details of the rumored deal that allowed him to retire quietly without fear of prosecution remain unknown.

However, does the extension of Trong’s term as Secretary General mean the end of reform and Vietnam’s furthering opening to the international economy and society?

This is probably not the case.

First, Vietnam’s collective leadership in the Party’s Central Committee and in the Politburo, while comprising various clans and factions with diverse views, is still one committed to the principles of doi moi (renewal) and with a shared awareness that the survival of Communist Party rule is dependent on adapting to a fast changing and, above all, challenging domestic and international environment. Both the new Central Committee and Politburo have younger members less firmly rooted in the ideals of the revolution and whose legitimacy is linked to their competence as economic managers.

For example Bui Quang Vinh, a rising star in the CPV has publicly called on the Party to immediately undertake both economic and political reforms. Analyses that highlight conservatives versus reformers, or an old guard versus a new guard is outdated. It is perhaps more salient to situate members of the Central Committee and the Politburo on a continuum between “mandarins” (who see legitimacy as based on ideological purity) and “technocrats” (who are more concerned with performance legitimacy).

In many ways the Congress provided a snapshot of the continuities, contradictions and constraints in contemporary Vietnam.

Since the 6th Party Congress of 1986, which gave an ideological cloak to the process of doi moi, each of the succeeding congresses held once every five years has sought to provide it with a new momentum, while at the same time, maintaining the objective of building socialism with Vietnamese characteristics. The contradiction between ‘renewal’ and the promotion of a conservative socialist system has become increasingly difficult for Communist leaders to control as Vietnam has become, like China, a capitalist economy ruled by a one-party state.

Moreover, in a society where the vast majority of the population was born after reunification in 1975, tropes on the Vietnamese revolution no longer have much traction. Appeals to nationalist sentiment can backfire, such as when the anti-Chinese demonstration in 2014, prompted by Chinese oil-rigs drilling in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, morphed into criticism of the Communist regime itself.

Debate on environmental issues has also become a space for political freedoms where the responsiveness of the regime is called into question. For example, unlike in 2008 when a similar disaster occurred in southern Vietnam, in May 2016 massive fish die-offs due to uncontrolled and illegal discharges from a Taiwanese owned factory led to demonstrations throughout the country. In 2008 the disaster was largely ignored, but this time the government rapidly secured $500 million in compensation from the company concerned.

Finally the National Assembly itself can no longer be considered as a rubber-stamp institution like its Chinese counterpart, but one in which the government is being called to account for its actions — albeit in a way that does not threaten to overthrow it.

These internal developments are being amplified by Vietnam’s changing geo-political and ‘geo-economic’ environment.

On the one hand, China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has not only awakened an underlying Sinophobia in the Vietnamese population, it has seen the Vietnamese leadership moving to strengthen relations with the United States and Japan.

President Obama’s visit to Hanoi in May 2016, in which he lifted the US arms embargo, was preceded several months earlier by the first visit of a Secretary General of the CPV to the White House in which Trong largely endorsed the pro-US shift of the Vietnamese government. Japan has already provided several ships to the Vietnamese to patrol its maritime economic zone, and it has raised it will provide second hand P-3 Orion Maritime aircraft to the country.

On the other hand, Vietnam’s economic future is increasingly tied to opening up to the international economy.

After its entry into the WTO, Vietnam has sought to join the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement and has signed a Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation and a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union. All studies indicate that Vietnam, as the least-developed of the 12 members TPP, has the most to gain economically from membership and, contrary to expectations, has been willing to make necessary concessions.

As well as accepting the creation of a free trade area, the Vietnamese have agreed to end the preferential treatment of state owned enterprises (SOEs). For the former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the TPP was always seen as a lever to achieve the reform of SOEs that has been bogged down — particularly since the Party Congress SOEs in Vietnam have accelerated their search for foreign capital in order to meet the challenges of the TPP. In an environment in which Japanese and Western multinationals are seeking alternatives to China, they are well placed to succeed.

The central theme of the Congress can be summed up in the dictum di bat bien, ung van bien (“resort to the unchanging in order to cope with the transitory”).

Yet, what is the nature of the “unchanging”? Is it the central role of the Communist Party or that of the political regime? Or is it that of defending the national interest in a challenging international environment? And is Vietnam’s transition to a capitalist economy merely a transitory phase in the road to building socialism? Or is it, as developments of the last 30 years would suggest, the ultimate (unstated) destination point?

David Camroux is a Resident Senior Associate at the Centre for International Studies (Sciences Po) Paris and, from September 2016, a Professorial Fellow at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (VNU), Hanoi.

Hien Laëtitia Do Benoit is Associate Professor at the Conservatoire national des Arts et Métiers, and Research Fellow at the LIRSA (Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Research in Action Sciences), Paris. 

This article is an edited version of an essay published in the July 2016 edition of the “RISE” (Relazioni Internazionali e International political economy del Sud-Est asiatico) published by the Twai (Torino World Affairs Institute).