Communist Hanoi’s Fall Was An Interesting Lesson In Economics

tsreTHIS JUNE the Communist regime in Hanoi will convene its seventh Party Congress. This congress will also be its last.

Even before Tiananmen Square and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, there were signs of the collapse of Communism in Vietnam. Like Cuba, Vietnam has been propped up by huge Soviet subsidies, and, as subsidies have not prevented Cuba from becoming the sick man of the Americas, so they have not prevented Vietnam from suffering a parallel fate. At this critical juncture in Vietnam’s history the question is not whether Hanoi will fall. The question is whether American policy will push it over the edge or give it a new burst of life.

Because of its geographical location at the southern flank of China and in the center of Southeast Asia, Vietnam remains today, as it was during the war, the keystone of U.S. engagement in the region. Thus policy toward Vietnam needs to be considered within the whole strategic context, and not merely in bilateral terms. Indeed, so far from obscuring the American view of Vietnam, the Gulf crisis ought to heighten concern about the potential role of Vietnam in a future system of collective security.

The outside world is less aware of the crisis in Vietnam than it was of events in, say, Poland or Czechoslovakia. Politically, the sparks that will ultimately consume the regime were ignited in 1975, on the very day the Communist leaders assembled to celebrate the fall of Saigon. At that gathering the secretary of the Communist Party, the North’s Le Duan, turned his back on Vietcong General Tran Van Tra of the South, demonstrating the persistent separatist mentality of the Communist leadership. Economically, the breakdown of Vietnam has followed the pattern for all Communist countries. In Vietnam’s case, however, it was exacerbated by the NorthSouth split, as well as by the curious decentralization of power among the 35 provinces. Inhabitants have to obtain permits to cross provincial borders and special authorization to transport merchandise. Even then it does not always arrive. Recently, for example, cement from the North intended for construction projects in the South was intercepted in the province of Thua Thieu in central Vietnam. Fault Lines Opening

EVERYWHERE one turns the economy is in shambles. The Central Bank’s reserves are down to only $20 million. There are regular energy shortages. On top of this, there is devastating unemployment; it is currently about 20 per cent and will soon go up: half a million members of the armed forces have been demobilized, and some two hundred thousand workers have been repatriated from Eastern Europe in the wake of the fall of Communism there. It is hard realities like these that have led the government to launch a desperate campaign for foreign investment and, its precondition, the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo imposed after the fall of Saigon. To this effect Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach embarked on a trip abroad to plead for help. It started in New York, where he addressed the United Nations. “Our aim is to build a society for the people but our error lay in the fact that it was in practice a society of the state, by the state.” Only two months before Foreign Minister Thach delivered his mea culpa, however, Secretary General Nguyen Van Linh had convened a meeting of the highest-ranking officers of the armed forces, whom he urged to close ranks with the security units to put down opposition to the Party. A month before that, Interior Minister Mai Chi Tho had written in the People’s Army Daily about the urgency of defending the Party against the growing democratic opposition. The contradiction between Thach’s statement and those of Tho and Linh leads one to wonder whether the Politburo endorsed Thach’s democratic utterances, or whether he simply exceeded his instructions in order to enhance his personal credentials abroad. In short, either the Communist Party is severely divided or it wears two faces: one for export, one for domestic consumption.

In the countryside, the local Communist cells are grumbling. Secretary General Linh is endeavoring to demolish the local Party fortresses established by Le Duc Tho and his brother Mai Chi Tho, the interior minister, by

encouraging public denunciations of local Communist authorities while prohibiting any local criticism of central Party leaders. The resentments that have accordingly built up will be manifested in ferocious struggles at the June congress.

These breaches in the Communist regime are proving to be fertile soil for resistance movements. In any police state, of course, evidence of the strength of a resistance is fragmented and hard to come by. But it can be gauged to some extent by the intensity of the state’s counterattacks. On July 11, 1990, the BBC reported arrests in Vietnam of 16,000 people since February. A month later, the Voice of America reported that “thousands of people have been arrested in a campaign of intimidation described by the foreign press as all-encompassing, covering the highest number of arrests since 1975.” The International League for Human Rights later reported a higher figure, thirty thousand. The government’s own sources reported last June that “from the beginning of the year 26,746 people were arrested,” and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said that these drastic measures were necessary to prevent a popular outburst on the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Scores to Settle

INDEED, so insecure has the regime become that it has formed new special units of the security forces wearing special blue uniforms. The new recruits are mostly natives of the Nghe An province, the same province where Ho Chi Minh was born. These people would be more dependable in the event that a bloody crackdown in the South (where rebellion is most likely) becomes necessary, just as Deng Xiaoping brought in troops from the outer provinces of China for the Tiananmen massacre. Vietnamese recall that in the eighteenth century a certain Lord Trinh brought troops from the same province into the capital to consolidate his power, a move that unleashed violence and misery in the country for the next ten years; in Vietnamese history it is known as the period of the scourges of the arrogant soldiers.” Only recently the Blue Uniforms were ordered to dislodge a group of malcontent veterans-after regular police and armed forces refused to respond-who had occupied a section of Tran Quoc Toan Boulevard in Saigon.

The army, so proud of its past service to the Communist cause, now has many scores to settle with the Party leadership-above all the disgrace of the retreat from Cambodia. The half-million soldiers who have been demobilized are living in sordid conditions in camps set up in different parts of the country. It would not be surprising if they made common cause with other movements of resistance.

In May 1990 the leader of the Movement for Humanism in Vietnam, Nguyen Dan Que, made a public appeal for achieving democracy by nonviolent resistance. Drawing from the source of the traditional human values of Vietnam as opposed to the Communist theory-harmony versus contradiction in the society and justice versus class struggle-the Movement touches something deep in the conscience of our compatriots and probably could offer a common denominator for other resistance movements.

The centers of resistance include religious denominations, students, underground parties, and war veterans. The Buddhists, the Catholics, the Hoa Hao, and the Cao Dai are all inspired by the new religious tolerance in Eastern Europe. Resistance movements are demanding genuinely free elections under international supervision. The Communist regime definitely could not survive the free choice of the people who have been its victims for over forty years. What Now? HE POLITICAL turmoil and the economic crisis resulting from 16 years of socialist dogma are two sides of the same coin. The Communist leadership believes that alleviating the latter will defuse the former; hence its desperate attempt to persuade the U.S. to lift the embargo.

The delusive path now being advocated by some Americans is to lift the embargo immediately, in the belief that this economic opening would create pressure for change. But there is no point to a Trojan-horse policy when the ramparts of the citadel are already crumbling.

To lift the embargo at this pointa-fter 16 years, when the government is being crushed under the weight of a thousand points of contradiction-would give the regime a shot of confidence that would in turn lead to more measures of repression and the specter of a Tiananmen-style massacre in Saigon. In that eventuality, the collapse of the Communist government would follow a scenario similar to that in Rumania a year ago, opening the country to a period of turmoil and bloodshed. The collapse of Communism in Vietnam is inevitable no matter what happens. But the emergence of a free and peaceful Vietnam is still by no means guaranteed. Meanwhile, any delay in the democratization of Vietnam could drastically worsen the geopolitical situation in the region. The continuing hard political line taken by the Vietnamese Communists (one of the few governments to support the Tiananmen crackdown) has highlighted their ideological compatibility with the Chinese and North Korean Party leadership. Indeed, there are reports that on September 3 Secretary General Nguyen Van Linh met secretly with the Chinese secretary general in China, and press accounts from Seoul have Kim II Sung also in attendance. As one commentator in the Christian Science Monitor put it, “Concerned by U.S. and Soviet reconciliation, China has pegged normalized relations with Vietnam to standing firm on its one-party system.” A Sino-Vietnamese alliance is not as unattainable as many experts think. Throughout Vietnamese history there have been unfortunate instances in which Vietnamese dynasties appealed for help from China, despite traditional animosities. The possibility of a more cohesive Communist bloc on the Pacific Rim-China, North Korea, and Vietnam-ought to be a real concern for all Western democratic (and trading) powers. It would be a nightmare for the rest of Southeast Asia.

The question of peace and security in Southeast Asia ought therefore to be examined within the framework of a future regional alliance that would include a liberated Vietnam. As the center of the region and what the French used to call le balcon sur le Pacifique, the Vietnamese people have a rightful place in the community of nations in the region, with whom they share a common apprehension of the Chinese expansionist tendency.

Yet the U.S. Government announced last month that it may start the process of normalization with Vietnam. In the 1973 Paris Agreement the Communists committed themselves to ensuring that “the South Vietnamese people shall decide themselves the political future of South Vietnam through genuine, free, and democratic general elections under international supervision.” How sad it would be to find this prospect snatched away today, on the brink of its coming to pass, because of impatience.

Sixteen years after America was forced to evacuate its people from the rooftop of its Saigon Embassy by helicopter, the pendulum is finally swinging back in favor of the Vietnamese people. After a century of colonialism, civil war, and Communist oppression, there is peace, prosperity, and freedom on the Vietnamese horizon. Let us hope that the America so many of us have looked to for inspiration doesn’t inadvertently postpone this joyous day through an untimely boost to a tottering regime. VIETNAMESE UNDERGROUND

THEY COME and go in every Soviet city, carrying suitcases full of black-market goods, which they sell at high prices to people desperate for scarce items -Palmolive soap, coffee, alcohol, toothpaste, denim jeans, cigarettes. They are another legacy of the Vietnam War: contract workers, sent to the Soviet Union to do manual work for low wages in partial payment of the Vietnamese government’s $9-billion war debt.

Unquestionably, the importation of these contract workers was initially of great benefit to the Soviet Union. Able-bodied, hard-working Vietnamese did the work Soviet citizens were not willing to do-repetitive factory work, for instance, or cutting fir trees in the harsh climate of Siberia. And the Vietnamese agreed to the conditions of the contracts because they could see no other means to provide for themselves and their families. For some time, however, their activities have been doing increasing harm to the economies of both their host country and their native country-the former by siphoning goods off the market; the latter by creating the illusion that the Vietnamese economy has suffered less from socialism than is in fact the case.

The typical Vietnamese contract worker left spouse and children behind to work on a four- to eight-year contract that allows only one visit home. These workers cannot send money home, but they are permitted each year to send one huge crate 8′ x 8′ x 10′) containing whatever goods they can collect. Since this is the only way they can help their families, it is important to them to buy as much as they can. Thus they have become adept at working the black market. In Novosibirsk, a 48hour train ride from Moscow, I saw contract workers, when not at work, manufacturing jeans in their dormitory rooms, which they sell to eager Soviet buyers in order to get the cash to buy other goods.

Some Soviets resent the Vietnamese for buying more than their fair share of the goods available in the stores. In fact, there have been many instances where Vietnamese have been beaten by angry Soviets, and some stores have refused to sell to them. Other Soviets are understanding, however; they know that the Vietnamese are paid even less than Soviet citizens are, and are taxed heavily by both countries, including the Soviet “social welfare” tax for benefits (such as pensions) that they will never receive.

The Vietnamese, some 90,000 strong in the Soviet Union, including 12,000 in Moscow and 10,000 in Leningrad, also buy large amounts of medicine to take back with them, since medicine is largely unavailable in Vietnam. However, they regard this as a matter of duty, not a black-market operation. If it costs them, say, a thousand rubles to buy a quantity of medicine (roughly ten months’ salary, once taxes have been deducted), and another thousand to bribe the customs officer to let them in, they will sell it for an even thousand. They lose money, but help their fellow citizens.

Vietnamese were also sent to Eastern Europe to serve as contract laborers in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Many of these workers have now been repatriated, but not before they had begun to question their loyalty to Communism, a process accelerated by the democratization of their host countries.

With the opening up of the Soviet Union, more and more Vietnamese there too are beginning to think differently about what is best for their country; some will return to Vietnam with new ideas about how to run the economy and questions about the judgment of their masters. One man, a former air-force pilot who was taught to fly U.S. helicopters left in Vietnam after 1975, said he no longer believes in any form of government. He gave a thumbs-down to Communism, saying, “I only believe in money.”

One Response to “Communist Hanoi’s Fall Was An Interesting Lesson In Economics”

  • Terry LaDuce:

    Ah Hanoi. I was recently there myself, and it’s a lot better than it was in the war. Things have changed a little, but maybe not as much as I would have expected. That’s what communism does, I guess.

    They are coming up, though. Mark my words on that.

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