Friday 5 February 2016

No sign of Hanoi Spring as Vietnam feels the chill

As the party apparatchiks hunkered down in their suits in chilly Hanoi for their great political showdown, I was fleeing terrified in the night in the tropical south of the country.

I leapt onto my motorcycle and sped down small roads between paddy fields as the police closed in on my hotel in a small town near Ho Chi Minh City.

I had gone south to escape mounting repression in Hanoi where the police were tightening their grip in the run up to the big Communist Party congress, the most tense political confrontation that any of us could remember.

I have been accused of no crime, but I’m closely watched by police perhaps because of the independent blog I write, and because of my contacts with human rights and pro-democracy campaigners.

Panic and chaos

Tension had been building for months when, in mid- December, just as the political season got under way, the police swooped on one of Vietnam’s best known government critics, the human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.

He had been badly beaten up by unidentified masked men the week before. Now he and an assistant were taken into custody and charged with employing propaganda against the state.

The arrest caused chaos and panic in the dissident community and the mood continued to darken. The police gathered outside the apartments of some activists, they disrupted meetings of environmental campaigners and staged a massive exercise to display their riot control capabilities.

                                        On the way out – the ambitious premier takes the final salute. Photo courtesy Reuters

One organiser escaped on her bike to her home in the northern mountains, spooked by the more aggressive manner of the police that occasionally tail her.

Other activists, across the country, were attacked in the street by thinly disguised police agents.

Of course, none of this gets mentioned in state controlled media, and most people will barely have noticed the change in atmosphere.

The majority seemed far more interested in discussing the great Hindu epic, Balika Vadhu, currently being shown on TV, than following the ins and outs of Communist Party wrangling – let alone the covert crackdown on bloggers, party critics and civil society activists.

We are marginalised and barely visible in a political system that mobilises great resources to isolate us and deny us space to operate.

For all the bunting, many people remained indifferent to the wrangling in the party.

Some people, of course, did take an interest in the congress, thanks to independent blogs and leaks from rival factions. Many got their first ever glimpse of the battles raging at the highest levels of the party.

I recalled the previous party congresses when I was small. Days before a congress, the national television, VTV, would feed us up every week night with dozens of “revolutionary” movies and documentaries “in celebration of the great political event of our party and country” as they put it.

Nobody buys into it like that any more, and even the party doesn’t bother to make the effort. There were token programmes of stultifying propaganda on tv but somehow the Hindu epic seemed more relevant.

Loud knock on the door

I was expecting to get a break from the oppressive atmosphere of Hanoi in the freewheeling south, where communist party plenums, congresses and central committee meetings feel like they’re taking place on a different planet.

But I was wrong.

There was a loud knock on my hotel door and the hotel manager looked at me with a drawn face and anxious expression.

“You’d better get out quick,” he said, “the police have been badgering all the hotels in the area since you came. They have been showing everyone two photos of you and a written notification that they are searching for you.”

He said that I didn’t look like a criminal to him so he had denied I was there. But he warned they would be back soon to search the rooms and I had to leave immediately.

I packed quickly, thanked the manager – somewhat amazed at his display of southern insouciance – and hit the road.

It was 10 pm. I came off my bike and cut my leg in my panic, but I drove for 20 km or so and somehow found another place to stay.

I heard through friends the next day that I’d better get back to Hanoi quick. The police could keep an eye on me there and would probably ease of. They seemed not to want me “at large” in the country during the congress, even if I was taking a bit of a holiday in the sun.

Hanoi locked down

I was not the only one of course. The apparatus of repression in Vietnam is huge and plays cat and mouse with dissidents to keep them off balance and fearful. Five days before the congress began more than a dozen activists in Ho Chi Minh City were suddenly put under de facto house arrest.

Some others complained about sudden searches of their homes at night to “check the home registration” – a procedure often used by the police to find out whether there is any “stranger”, or guest, staying in a house without previous registration at the local police station.

In Hanoi, the police seemed more confident that they had things locked down, and they relied more on hi-tech devices: Cell phones were heavily tapped and signals were jammed.

Barred from going out, Hoang Dung, a member of the Vietnam Path Movement in Saigon, stayed at home and obsessively monitored Facebook – a platform the government somehow failed to ban and now serves as the prime conduit of information for its 35 million users.

As a political blogger, he was giving his support to the embattled prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, whom he thought to be a powerful man committed to reform, even if he is accused of widespread corruption.

Bitter rival

But Hoang Dung, and many others, had backed the wrong horse.

Dung’s last stand at the congress came to nothing and he lost his position not only on the politburo, but the central committee as well.

Quite a fall for a man tipped until recently as the next general-secretary of the party.

His bitter rival, Nguyen Phu Trong, held on to his post as party boss for another term in what many saw as a remarkable comeback for the 72-year-old Marxist-Leninist scholar.

Conflict between different factions of the party can hardly be something new. There have always been rumours. But this congress looked like a particularly fierce competition between the party and state, represented by the incumbent party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong and the premier, Nguyen Tan Dung.

With his cabinet of technocrats, Dung was viewed by many as a “pro-reform” communist. His daughter was married to the son of a former official under the South Vietnamese regime, which added to his reputation as a pro-western politician.

People saw him as good looking and eloquent, able to speak in an impromptu manner without trudging through a prepared script like the other party hacks.

Bloggers arrested

But he also presided over the actions of a police state. During his two terms, the police enjoyed huge power. Many famous bloggers or democracy activists were imprisoned.

Some assumed they were targeted for their resistance to China’s aggression in the South China Sea, but Huy Duc, a well known journalist in the south, told me that they had all stood up against the prime minister and angered him.

Certainly, Dung’s ambition to consolidate his power was an open secret.

After surviving a scandal over economic mismanagement a few years ago he appeared to have turned the tables on the grey party dogmatist, Nguyen Phu Trong. As Dung gained influence more and more bloggers were arrested.

Trong’s comprehensive victory took most people completely by surprise. He had been silent and impassive in the background, not reacting to attacks on him by bloggers and his political opponents. He just ignored all the insults and abuse.

Welcome surprise?

Few seemed to notice that behind the scenes he was carefully calculating his move and knew exactly when and how to strike – essential characteristics for the successful communist leader.

Or was he just lucky? For all the leaks and the speculation, party politics is obscure and byzantine.

Trong may well be wise, but who can believe that such an old style adherent to Marxist-Leninist doctrine will turn out to be a reformer and advocate of more democracy?

So there’s not much hope of a sudden opening up.

But who knows? Nguyen Phu Trong stayed silent for so long and bided his time before surprising us all. Maybe he will surprise again now that he has consolidated power.

It’s a surprise that would be very welcome indeed.