Tran Duc Luong
France occupied all of Vietnam by 1884. Independence was declared after World War II, but the French continued to rule until 1954 when they were defeated by communist forces under Ho Chi MINH, who took control of the north. US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the government, but US armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later North Vietnamese forces overran the south. Economic reconstruction of the reunited country has proven difficult as aging Communist Party leaders have only grudgingly initiated reforms necessary for a free market.
One of the most important political events to happen in Vietnam in 2002 was the election held in May of the country's new National Assembly (NA), the highest legislative body, for the 2002-2007 term. 498 individuals were elected as parliament members, including 118 permanent members, who will work on NA committees during their term, unlike the majority of members, who usually operate in local areas and only attend regular meetings of the NA when they are arranged.
The NA has decided on the new government cabinet, whose working term will also extend from 2002 to 2007. Prime Minister Phan Van Khai was re-elected and the number of deputy prime ministers cut to three for the next five years from four in the previous term.
Minister of Trade Vu Khoan, was elected deputy PM in charge of trade and foreign affairs, replacing Nguyen Manh Cam. Khoan is respected for his contribution in signing a landmark trade deal between Vietnam and its former enemy the United States.
Two deputy PMs, including Nguyen Manh Cam and Nguyen Cong Tan who was responsible for agriculture, retired. Deputy PMs Nguyen Tan Dzung and Pham Gia Khiem continue in their posts for the next five-year term.
The NA approved the setting up of 26 ministries and ministerial committees, up from 23 in the previous term. The new formation aims to help ministries to focus more on their responsibilities and to work more effectively. Stagnation, overlapping functions and the bulky structure of the government's administrative bodies was one of the major causes of the ineffectiveness of government in its previous terms.
Fourteen new ministers and committee heads or 50% of the government's cabinet have been appointed for this new term, including ministers of police, justice, trade, transport, construction, industry, planning and investment, home affairs, science and technology, natural resources and environment, post and telecommunication, state inspectorate, ethnic minority people, and population, family and children. Two newly-created ministries included the Ministry for Natural Resources and Environment and Ministry of Post and Telecommunication.
The NA held its second meeting, which lasted from November 12th to the middle of December, to seek measures to improve the country's socio-economic situation in the remaining months of 2002 and discuss plans for the next year.
Major issues focused on during this meeting were corruption, squandering, education, criminals, justice and traffic jam and accidents. The government firmly pledged to implement changes to provide a more favourable and equal environment to support private enterprises during the term of the 11th National Assembly, in addition to imposing tougher conditions for state owned enterprises
(SOEs). In practice, the new-found commitment to the private sector remains to be tested. The government has, however, moved ahead with economic reforms related to its pursuit of World Trade Organization
(WTO) membership, and its commitments under the bilateral trade agreement with the US.
In an effort to ease the public's increasing discontent with corruption and other social ills, the Communist Party general secretary, Nong Duc
Manh, promised to pursue a tough campaign to crack down on corruption and wrong-doings of party members. Manh has also attempted to breathe new life into the economic renovation
(doi moi) process, but the pace and progress of economic reform is unlikely to quicken significantly in 2002-03.
The Communist Party, easily the most powerful organization in Vietnam with around two million members, has set targets to consolidate control and leadership in grassroots groups. The Party says it will clarify the responsibilities of commune authorities and other social organizations, make them work under local Party organizations' management, and to consult citizens regarding their decisions. It will also improve discipline in those offices, train staff for commune offices and organizations and increase payments and preferential treatment for grassroots officials, according to the meeting's final announcement.
For many years, Party organizations have had little effect on people since the tasks and responsibilities of Party organizations and local governments have not been clearly defined.
In urban areas, local Party organizations just assemble some retired Party members for impractical gossip sessions and rarely admit new Party members, because most Party members are drawn from their offices' organizations.
In rural areas, Party members are also commune authorities, so they have unchallenged power to decide on local issues, which is the root of increasing corruption and abuse of power, illustrated by the mounting number of complaints and criticisms.
The Party only has groups in State-owned enterprises and administrative offices. While private and foreign invested enterprises keep expanding and increasing their contribution to the economy, the Party has not yet set up organizations in those sectors because it still prevents Party members from operating businesses. The NA's final announcement, however, did not make it clear if the Party would admit business people into its organization in a bid to increase its influence in the private sector.
However, not wanting to evade the increasingly important role of private businesses, the party this year made an historical decision allowing businessmen to be members and will permit current members to operate private enterprises. Party members can run private enterprises if they do not violate laws and have the support of their staff and
neighbours. They can maintain their Party membership if they wish. The Politburo, the country's political elite, hopes that Party members working in the production sectors will be excellent businessmen who can make legal fortunes and encourage other people to make fortunes but do not explain how these objectives may be
In the Party's previous regulations, Party members could not practice labour exploitation, because it is contradictory to old Russian socialist theory, which the Party adopted as a bible. But the Party never clarified what
"labour exploitation" was, resulting in an implicit understanding that Party members could not run private businesses that employ workers.
In fact, no Party members are directors of private companies and few are working in private companies. The permission to do so came along with the Party's resolutions on boosting the private sector's role in the economy and on improving the Party's leadership in grassroots organizations.
The Party now has to admit the existence and increasing role of the private sector. Despite much discrimination and repression, the private sector now contributes around 60% of GDP. The Party also realizes that it has lost control, along with its image and prestige at the grassroots level, in rejecting the private sector, the largest and fastest emerging part of society.
One of the pressing issues that the party has had difficulty in coping with in 2002 is its failure to find answers to the people's complaints and criticisms. The number of petitions from people regarding losses caused by, and their discontent over, the increasing number of cases of wrong doing, corruption, trade fraud and undue extravagance are on the rise. Many also expressed fury at not receiving any answers to their petitions from local authorities. The State Inspection Department received over 35,000 petitions last year, which were described as becoming more complex.
Update No: 024 -
The political scene in Vietnam is expected to remain stable in the period 2004-2005 with little change in the leadership of the Communist party and the government, of the current ruling triumvirate, only the Prime Minister, Pha Van Khai is affected by speculation over personnel change in the near future. The party chief Nong Duc Manh and the president Tran Duc Luong are likely to remain firmly in place. Mr. Khai has served since 1997 and has avoided any serious criticism. However, as he is 70 year-old and nearing retirement, he could step down in a possible mid-term reshuffle (between party congresses) in early 2004. Mr. Khai could still see out his full term however, partly because he appears to be keen to stay on, but more importantly because there is no obvious successor. One potential replacement is the first deputy prime minister with responsibility for economic and internal affairs, Nguyen Tan Dung. However, his recent performance has been regarded as disappointing. Another possible successor is Truong Tan Sang who heads the party's economic commission and headed the Ho Chi Minh city people's committee from 1996 to 1999. However, he may not yet be close enough to the centre of power and could instead be made a deputy prime minister and groomed to succeed to the premiership at a later date.
Despite the likely secrecy that will surround any leadership changes, such moves will be undertaken with a minimum of fuss and fanfare and will herald little significant change in policy direction.
There is little risk that Mr. Manh will not serve his full term in office. His determination to clamp down hard on official corruption is being fairly well received by the public, although there are doubts as to whether the most serious high-ranking offenders will be dealt with. However, several prominent government figures received prison sentences earlier this year for their part in the widely publicised scandal surrounding a Ho Chi Minh city gangster.
Relatively senior officials have thus been put on notice that contrary to what they might once have thought, they are not beyond the reach of law. But the age-old underlying cause of official corruption, a bureaucratic administration in which salaries are low and opportunities for bribery are widespread- also needs to be addressed.
The process of dealing with corruption still remains high on the official agenda. The justice system has not been running smoothly, owing to corruption and a shortage of lawyers. A "cyber dissident" has had his sentence reduced, but the government harsh crackdown on dissidents continues.
The extent of corruption in Vietnam is reflected in its poor performance in regional ranking. The Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy has been polling business people since 1995 on their perceptions of corruption. The most recent regional survey, carried out this year, ranks Vietnam as the third most corrupt country with a score of 8.83, the most corrupt countries were considered to be Indonesia (9.33) and India (9.30), China was not far behind Vietnam with a score of 8.33.
The government has sent out firm messages on religious freedom. The US and the EU have been critical of Vietnam's recent human rights record. However, the country strongly rejected that accusation. The government has moved to prevent future demonstrations over land expropriation.
The slow pace of reform remains a major risk to high economic growth. The private sector has continued to boom, but its development has been hampered. The pace of privatization of state owned enterprises has been slow.
The government has tried to create a more investor-friendly environment, primarily in response to demands from foreign investors. The US and the EU have been supportive of Vietnam's bid to join the World Trade Organisation but have called for greater protection of intellectual property rights. Tariff levels have fallen in accordance with commitments to the ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Nations) free trade area (AFTA).
Real GDP has grown by close to 7 percent so far this year. It is unlikely that Vietnam will be able to push its economic growth rate above 8 percent as planned in the next two years if the government does not speed up its economic reforms. The Prime Minister Phan Van Khai has acknowledged that there are problems that need to be surmounted. Although GDP growth is high, it is of poor quality because of the unduly high investment rate that is needed to achieve such rates. The trade deficit has widened rapidly, budget revenue is unstable and the administrative system is bulky and obstructive.
Industrial output, especially in the private sector has been driving the economy. Consumer price inflation has fallen below 3 percent and the dong has depreciated slowly against the US dollar. Rice exports have been robust despite problems in Iraq, a major export market. Sales of locally made cars have boomed in recent months ahead of tax increases. The US textile quota regime has constrained domestic production. The tourism sector has been picking up.
Foreign trade and payments
Revenue from garments exports surpassed that from crude oil in the first 10 months of the year. Growth in export revenue has been outpaced by the rapid expansion of imports. The trade deficit has therefore widened but it remains manageable. Foreign direct investment has rebounded.
Although economic ties with western nations continue to strengthen, Vietnam's human rights record will ensure that it continues to face severe criticism from governments in these countries. The US has been the most vocal.
The recent decision by the US Department of Commerce to impose punitive tariffs on Vietnam catfish exports, which gained approval from the international trade commission in late July 2003, thus passed their final hurdle, now threatens to disrupt the full implementation of the bilateral trade agreement.
In a recent visit to South Korea of Prime Minister Phai Van Khai, he signed three agreements to boost bilateral ties. A new investment guarantee pact has been signed, replacing the previous one, which was signed in 1993. Vietnam is also keen to maintain its symbolic support for North Korea, so therefore opposed a recent UN resolution alleging human rights violations there. This is not a cost-free policy: Japan has criticised Vietnam's stance, calling it "regrettable".
Vietnam to license new domestic auto makers
The Vietnamese government is set to license new domestic automobile makers, chiefly for the manufacture and export of certain classes of vehicles, Vietnam News Agency reported.
The Ministry of Industry (MoI) announced a new policy under which Vietnamese - as opposed to foreign-invested companies - will receive licenses to produce mainly non-luxury and special-purpose vehicles and parts for export.
However, it also said there is a big demand within Vietnam for non-luxury cars, a category that neither the global giants nor local players produce in large volumes.
The ministry was hopeful that Vietnamese companies could compete with their global counterparts in making special-purpose vehicles considering the segment's low volumes, investment need and prices.
Applicants for the new licenses would have to submit specific plans for sourcing parts locally and for implementing their projects, based on which the MoI would then issue the licenses.
Pointing out that the scheme conformed with the Vietnamese government's strategy for the auto industry to 2010, the MoI said proposed projects must meet all standards stipulated for assembly and manufacture.
To head off fears of over-capacity, the ministry said, inclusive of the new licenses, installed capacity of all Vietnamese car manufacturers should not exceed 140 per cent of the country's total demand for cars.
It did not specify however at which moment demand would be considered for the purpose or if that limit would rise commensurate with an increase in demand.
But it will issue no more licenses to foreign investors, except for projects to export 100 per cent of output. More than 40 Vietnamese investors have been awaiting licenses, mainly to produce light trucks and buses.
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