By John Weeks

[My new book, The Economic of the 1% is out this month! Order it at]

Ho Chin Minh (leader of the Vietnamese revolution) and Yingluck Shinawatra (current prime minister of Thailand). Dictator and democrat?

Shortly before the holiday began my column confronted the vexing question of whether progressives have an obligation to defend democratic institutions when they seem hopelessly flawed.  That question plagued me while in Bangkok in early December and even more when I flew on to Hanoi.

I first visited Vietnam in 1992.  I would have gone fifty years earlier under less pleasant conditions had then-president Lyndon Johnson decided to activate the Marine Corp reserve.  Fortunately for me, he chose to fight the ground war with draftees rather than the reserves (the latter having a heavy weighting of middle class weekend soldiers, while the draft could draw on the poor, especially poor African Americans).

The transition from central planning to market regulation resulted in twenty years of extraordinarily rapid growth in Vietnam, with per capita income almost tripling since 1992.  Especially in the 1990s this growth involved a substantial increase in income inequality.  None-the-less poverty declined dramatically and in the 2000s the inequality trend abated.  The increase in equality is what we should expect in the switch from socialism to capitalism, though in Vietnam it was considerably less than in Central Europe, the ex-Soviet Union and China.  Economically capitalist, Vietnam remains under the rule of the Communist Party.

While no dictatorship should be described as benign, the Vietnamese regime is considerably less brutal than what one finds in China.  The National Assembly was long an institution with no obvious function other than to serve as a rubber stamp.  Today it appears to play a serious role in monitoring if not formulating policies (disclaimer: an ex-student of mine serves as chair of the Assembly’s economic policy committee).

I am always amused by people saying “countries like China”, as if there were any country other than India in its league for population.  With that in mind, many outside observers and quite a few Vietnamese compare the country’s transition to China’s.  The China-Vietnam comparison is not totally off-the-wall.  Though the differences in population and territory are enormous, with almost 100 million people Vietnam is a large country, number thirteen in the world.  Both are single party dictatorships with economies that were centrally planned until the 1980s.

But for many reasons the comparison is not valid or useful.  First and most important, Communist Party rule in Vietnam does not display the aggressive brutality that one finds in China.  Second, with a few major exceptions the Vietnamese government has supported the family farming communes that characterizes rice production and provides much of rural livelihoods.  This support has reduced migration to the major cities, a process that generates appalling urban poverty in China.

Third, the rapid economic growth in Vietnam has not been associated with massive urban “renewal” that has rendered entire cities in China unrecognizable compared to a decade ago.  When you visit the famous Forbidden City in Beijing you discover that the authorities bulldozed the communities around it to make way for commercial construction (as done in Singapore years earlier).  By contrast, Hanoi remains a quite charming city with an old quarter full of tiny shops and a beguiling art deco French colonial architecture.

Comparing Vietnam favorably to China is “damning with faint praise” to say the least.  More relevant, how does Vietnam compare to the putative democracies in the region?  To put the question simplistically, would you rather live in Vietnam than in the India, Philippines and Thailand?  (I omit Malaysia and Singapore from the question because in my opinion those countries fail even the formal test for democracy).

Class is central to answering that question.  A rich person would without doubt prefer India, Philippines and Thailand.  Especially in the latter two countries the limitations on the accumulation of outrageous riches are virtually nil, and no employer need worry about the governments taking labor laws very seriously.  A good education and adequate health care are luxuries enjoyed only the wealth and the upper reaches of the middle class.

In Vietnam working conditions in factories are appalling, wages are low, and there is little that the work force can do about it.  On the other hand, access to education and health care is relatively equitable and has notably improved over the last several years.  On balance a household in the lower third of the income distribution is considerably better off in Vietnam than in the Philippines or Thailand.

But where does that leave us?  To make the choice among regimes all the more complicated, experience shows that what the neoliberals call a “democratic opening” in Vietnam would serve the interests of the aspirant rich far more than it would benefit the 99%.  There are straight-forward reasons why democratic transitions bring economic misery to the majority and not only in former socialist regimes.

Most important is that those powerful before the “opening”, party bosses and bureaucrats in China and Russia for example, are best placed to take advantage of the opportunities created by the formal end of the old regime (of which they were an integral part).  Worse placed for political influence and economic improvement are urban and rural workers.  The democratic transition story unfolds in a depressingly repetitive manner.  Elections result in a rejection of the formal institutions and principles of the central planning regime because people correctly associate it with repression.  This brings to power the most reactionary elements of society.

With their “democratic mandate” the new rulers set about the liberalization of the economy and the destruction of the welfare state.  The 99% suddenly finds itself “free”, impoverished, without access to health care and other social services.  If there is an exception to this story of impoverishment through democratic rights I cannot name the country,

Therefore, am I in favor of the continuation of the rule of the Communist Party in Vietnam?  As I have tried to explain, this is not an easy question to answer.  If pressed for an answer, I would say that the Communist Party should surrender its monopoly over political power in Vietnam.  But I have no illusions about the likely outcome.

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John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.