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Vietnam’s endless corruption campaign

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In Brief

Since the doi moi ('renovation') reforms, the Vietnamese Government surprisingly is able to confront the fact that corruption can have detrimental effect on many aspects of economic development, such as reducing GDP growth rates and greater income inequality.

In fact, the government recently had to respond to foreign aid donors’ concern over calculation return on investment, when Japan in December 2008 briefly suspended low-interests loans of about $1.1 billion annually to Vietnam, amid a corruption investigation.


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Each year, the Vietnamese government seems more than willing to take on a new campaign against corruption. This year is no exception. According to Deputy Prime Minister Truong Vinh Trong (who is also the deputy director of the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption), ‘corruption remains grave and it’s becoming more sophisticated’ in land and property management, construction investment, and equitization of SOEs. Therefore, a new resolution promulgates that corruption would be a long and difficult work, requiring the participation at all central and local levels.

To be sure, as observed by academic Dang Ngoc Dinh who studies corruption, a missing component in the above resolution is a system that protects people who witnessed and reported on corruption. Professor Dinh also suggests that it is ‘essential to find the causes before coming up with the solution.’ Despite the ‘political will’ to reduce corruption, Vietnamese leaders are not interested in looking at the ‘roots’ or why corruption continues to flourish. Often overlooked is that the call for more intensive fight against corruption by both Vietnamese and foreign donors has not fostered potentially power corruption-reducing mechanisms, such as an ‘independent’ press or judiciary.

Democracy via political opposition, freedom of the press, and independent judiciary are considered to be powerful corruption-reducing mechanisms. For example, in countries that have opposition parties and freedom of the press, there are institutionalized incentives for the parties in power to fight corruption.

By many accounts, Vietnam has high achievement motivation. This is even more so as the market system is taking hold in the country. But, at the same time, the availability of means to succeed is in short supply. For example, only 3 percent of the total population has 13 or more years of education. Because access to higher education is limited and competitive, scandals in examinations, grade buying, and fake certifications are reportedly widespread.

It is also thought that Vietnamese communist rule is bound to create structural incentives for engaging in corrupt behaviors. Because of horizontal and vertical power of the country’s one-party-system and that allocation of economic resources depends on administrative decisions, the opportunities for corrupt practices are everywhere. An empirical study by Wayne Sandholtz and Rein Taagepera suggests that communism in Vietnam significantly diminishes ‘elite integrity,’ even controlling for cultural variables.

By implication, the longer corruption exists at the official level, the greater likelihood that Vietnamese citizens will become indifferent to corruption or take part in the lawbreaking because is the only way to get ahead in a corrupted system. And, once corruption becomes culturally embedded, it may give rise to ‘corrupt masses’ that may spur new corrupt elites, which will either be persistent during or will challenge the country’s journey as a middle-income society.

By most accounts, any hope that a Vietnamese energetic media would force and expose government corruption into the open has for the moment disappeared. From late 2005 to early 2007, western analysts had thought that a ‘dramatic moment’ in the country’s emerging civil society had occurred. That is, two prominent reporters at two of the more respected newspapers in the country, Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre, had broke the so-called PMU-18 scandal in late 2005.

In June 2006, Brian Quinn, an expert on law reform in Vietnam, noted that if top officials were unsuccessful in bribing their ‘way out of culpability,’ this is ‘only because of the Vietnam’s aggressive press corps.’ He foresaw the prospect of Vietnam’s news playing a constructive role in ‘mitigating corruption by forcing the issue into the open.’

However, in mid-October 2008, a parody of justice emerged in which journalists had become the victims. According to the presiding judge at the trial, Chien and Hai were at fault for erroneously damaging ‘the prestige of some high-ranking officials and caused negative public opinion.’ Chien was sentenced two years, Hai was found guilty of the same charge but received a ‘non-custodial, two years re-education sentence’ because he did not contest the charge.

The above curtailing of the country’s emerging civil society will mean that ‘party particularism’ will be in full force. That is, according academic Scott Fritzen, ‘the very actors which must adopt and implement policies to curb corruption are those which may face weak, or even negative, incentives to do so.’ Here, recent findings by the Government Inspectorate are very telling: ‘the higher levels only detected corruption in lower levels. Provinces detected corruption in districts, districts did the same with communes. No one said they had found corruption in their own organization.’

In sum, there is evidence to suggest that Vietnam’s greater integration with the global economy and the new opportunities created by its imminent middle-income country status (as defined by the UN) might actually increase corruption, not less. Only when Vietnamese leaders began to seriously consider the effects of communist rule on corruption can solutions come about in facilitating the country to outgrow its corruption.

Long S. Le is Professor and Director of International Initiatives for Global Studies at the University of Houston.

5 responses to “Vietnam’s endless corruption campaign”

  1. This is a very insightful article about corruption in Vietnam at its very root – the Vietnamese communist party members and/or government officers.

  2. It is absolutely laughable the criticism of Vietnam’s corruption. Yes there is systemic corruption in Vietnam, just like the U.S., just like China, just like Canada, etc. Vietnam is trying to deal with the problem and has some notable successes in the fight.
    Americans holding themselves up as the quintessence of a superior society seem to forget corruption in their banking and real estate sectors were two main contributors to the global recession. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  3. Pervasive corruption in a developing country is a huge burden for ordinary citizens, business and for the development of the country. is good place for uninformed readers to start learning about this.

  4. Correct that we have a power imbalance, and banking deregulation that cause the economic meltdown in US. However, we have active mechanisms that help keep all in check, freedom of the press, separation of power, multiple parties system etc. Addressing corruption issues abroad do not equate to non-action here in the US, quite the contrary. Addressing corruption abroad and within the US help protect our investments.

  5. Minh Nuyen. In the USA, six US companies own almost all the corporate media outlets. We no longer have an active separation of powers between the 3 federal branches of government, and never had a multiple-party system since the day America got its independence. The American wealthy class and business leaders never bother nor wanted to deal with white-collar corruption in both the private and public sectors since they always profit off it.

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