Monday, 18 February 2013

Hayton: Vietnam

Bill Hayton (2010) Vietnam, Rising Dragon Yale University Press, New Haven; 272 pp.; ISBN 978-0-30017814-2

In 1999, Robert Templer published Shadows and Wind, a book that struck me then as a very perceptive account of Vietnam. Bill Hayton refers to Templer’s book both at the beginning and end of Vietnam, Rising Dragon, perhaps understanding that his book will be seen to some degree as an update of Templer’s work. I do not think that Hayton equals Templer in terms of style and insight, but this is nonetheless a readable and well organised overview of a fascinating and fast-changing country.

In 1996, my Vietnamese teacher in Hanoi told me that the country would be an industrialised nation by the year 2000. While her assessment was a little over-enthusiastic, the change since the mid-1990s has been extraordinary. From being a relatively poor country Vietnam has graduated to middle income status and its economy is continuing to grow despite the global recession since 2008. Hayton provides an overview of the economic progress and notes the role of state companies in this. While the private sector has grown, the state sector remains dominant and foreign direct investment is often in cooperation with state-owned enterprises. Rapid industrialisation has seen an acceleration of rural-urban migration, spurred by the pull of better paid jobs in the cities, but also by the push of industrialisation of agriculture which has meant fewer rural jobs and continuing takeovers of small farms by agribusiness.

Hayton has an interesting analysis of public behaviour in Vietnam, arguing that urban migration and overcrowding in the past made for a more diverse, if chaotic, street life. Increasing wealth has seen petty traders removed from the streets as cities undergo gentrification, and fewer public games and activities as people join clubs or spend more time indoors. Poor street people are routinely rounded up and taken away to detention centres where they are mistreated and punished for their poverty – another activity moved behind closed doors. Twenty years ago they were simply beaten on the streets, though Hayton does not mention this.

Hayton writes about youth culture and prostitution as if these things are relatively new in the country, but this part of the book needed more research. Display of status is a strong element in Vietnamese culture and young people have done this even before the country started getting rich. They were also hitting night spots like the long-gone Roxy and street racing motorbikes many years before the activities that Hayton describes. Similarly, prostitution has been around for far longer than Hayton assumes. He talks about ‘bia om’ or ‘cuddle beer’ – a combination of drinking and prostitution – as if it grew out of the new economy, but during the 1960s and 70s men say they had to resort to ‘ca phe om’ or ‘cuddle coffee’ because they could not afford anything else at that time.

A few chapters are devoted to the Party’s surveillance and control of the population, including foreigners, though there is no discussion of the changes that have taken place in attitudes towards overseas Vietnamese returning to the country. As small-scale private enterprise has increased, there are more opportunities for people to avoid the watchful eye of the Party – a change that is also evident in China – but the Party’s control of the education and health systems, of business licences and permits, means that the room for freedom is still limited. The Party has a hierarchy that parallels the government bureaucracy at all levels, and the Party hierarchy sits outside the law, unlike the government apparatus. As Hayton notes, the Party has embraced the idea of ‘rule of law’ pushed by international donors because it allows better control of the government system while the Party remains above and outside it.

This is not to say that the Party’s role is unchallenged. Inside the Party there are factions that compete for power and argue about its role, and there are also divisions between Party members at central and local levels. There have been external challenges to the Party’s version of public events from lobby groups, political dissidents and the state-owned media. Hayton discusses a number of cases in detail to examine how the Party has responded. To date it has maintained its control and has not allowed any potential threat to prosper, but the challenges of new media and the internet mean the Party’s continued attempts to control all information is a futile task. You can’t have your propaganda and eat it too.

Industrialisation has brought increasing environmental degradation. Whenever I read a story about a new species discovered in Vietnam I always assume it is because its habitat has been decimated, leaving the poor animal exposed. Forests were destroyed by Agent Orange during the war with the United States, but the Vietnamese have continued to destroy them ever since. Waterways have become choked and lifeless, and coastal fish stocks are in rapid decline. The threat to the environment is now being exacerbated by climate change, though the government still appears to be sceptical about the likely impacts.

It seems an irony that Vietnam, once the bitter enemy of the United States and excoriated by the Chinese for its role in overthrowing the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge, is now developing ever closer ties with both the US and China, as well as integrating itself more closely into ASEAN. Hayton makes an odd argument that rapprochement with the US in particular is only possible because the Party has forced people to ‘forget’ the atrocities committed by the Americans during the war. But this seems to me like a complete misreading of the culture. Vietnamese people have a strong sense of history and feel deep emotions, but they are also very forward looking, as opposed say to the nostalgia so strong in European cultures.

The chapter on international relations also talks about the Vietnamese seeing themselves in opposition to China. This is true, but is only part of the story. There is certainly a strong resentment that the Vietnamese were the subjects of Chinese overlords for a thousand years, but like many ex-colonial populations, they have a love-hate relationship with their former rulers. Chinese actions are often criticised and seen as arrogant, but there is also great admiration for Chinese culture and fine arts, Chinese food and literature. Overall, Hayton’s depiction of Vietnam’s international relations shows that the government has been very strategic, recognising its own position as a small player, but pushing issues of concern when it feels it can do so. Hayton for some reason seems reluctant to acknowledge this.

Hayton finishes his narrative with a look at the ethnic diversity of Vietnam. Like many nations, Vietnam is a multicultural country with an ideology that privileges the ruling ethnic group. What is now modern Vietnam was created by the conquest of two major empires – the Chams and the Khmers – and domination of scores of smaller ethnic populations within its modern borders. Hayton could have said more about the mechanisms of subjugation and control (he does not mention the government’s Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, for example), but he seems to imply that the Party alone drives the process. I think this is one area where the Party’s chauvinism reflects very much the majority view in the ruling ethnic group. A broader cultural analysis would have made this clear.

This interesting book is enriched by maps and illustrations, useful notes and a personal selection of further reading. (However, buyers of the e-book should note that the illustrations have for some reason been removed.) While there are some areas where Hayton needed to explore in greater historical depth and others where I think he has just misread aspects of the culture, the book overall provides a useful introduction to Vietnam and conveys the dynamism that drives its development. The optimism and humour of the people, as well as their dogged determination and sense of national pride, are less well documented but are nonetheless key elements in the country’s success. And yes, it is still party, party, party – just don't forget it's a capital ‘P’.

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