Nguyen Phu Trong’s Rare Appearances: Holding Up?

Speculation about the health of Vietnam’s top leader Nguyen Phu Trong has been rife. The question is whether he will hold up till the upcoming Party Congress in January 2021.

Vietnam’s President and Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (2nd L) arrives to attend the National Assembly’s autumn session at the Parliament house in Hanoi on October 21, 2019. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen, AFP)

Ha Hoang Hop

Lye Liang Fook

14 April 2020

Speculation is now swirling again as to whether the health of Nguyen Phu Trong – Vietnam’s de facto top leader – can hold up before his replacement is announced at the upcoming Party Congress in January next year. Trong, Vietnam’s General Secretary and President, has intermittently appeared in public since suffering a stroke in April 2019. There is less than 10 months to go before the all-important 13th Party Congress convenes in January 2021 to decide on personnel changes to the Politburo, Vietnam’s highest decision-making body.

Trong, who has been General Secretary since January 2011, took over the position of President in October 2018 with the sudden demise of then president Tran Dai Quang. Trong was active in his dual roles from October 2018 till April 2019 when he suffered a stroke. Since then, he has rarely appeared in public. From April to December 2019, Trong had made several notable public appearances. On 21 June, he chaired a Politburo meeting to approve planning matters for the 13th Party Central Committee’s 2021-2026 tenure. On 7 October, he presided over the 11th Plenum of the 12th Party Congress to discuss draft documents to be submitted to the Party Central Committee for approval in 2020 and thereafter to the 13th Party Congress in 2021. On 1 December, he chaired a meeting of the Central Military Commission to review the implementation of military and defence tasks in 2019 and discuss the duties for 2020.

Trong’s public appearances were largely either confined to important Party-related matters such as preparations for the 13th Party Congress or the equally important Central Military Commission that oversees military and defence-related matters. At the same time, however, Trong was absent from other important Party and state-related events. For example, he was not at a National Assembly plenary meeting on 29 May 2019. He was expected to have expounded further on the roles of the Party before the 13th Congress, the fight against corruption, and safeguards to the Party’s ideology. He was also not present at the military-political meeting of the Ministry of National Defence on 9 July 2019, to discuss strategic and planning matters on defence. He was also not at the Party meeting of the Ministry of Public Security on 20 December 2019, to discuss the ministry’s plans and priorities for 2020.

On the bright side, there are indications that Trong’s health is holding up. In 2020, Trong has made a few public appearances in the first quarter. On 10 January, Trong presided over a Politburo meeting that approved disciplinary actions against two senior Party officials, namely Hoang Trung Hai (a Politburo member and Secretary of Hanoi’s Municipal Party Committee; also a former member of the Party Affairs Committee and former Deputy Prime Minister) as well as Trieu Tai Vinh (member of the Party Central Committee, deputy head of the Party Central Committee’s Economic Commission and former Secretary of Hà Giang province Party Committee). This indicates Trong’s determination to persist and perhaps even step up the anti-corruption drive this year.

In addition, on 25 February, Trong extended his Lunar New Year greetings to veteran revolutionaries, current and former leaders of the Party and state. He also extended his greetings to the Vietnam Fatherland Front (an umbrella organisation of groups and individuals aligned with the Party) and to ordinary Vietnamese. A few days earlier, on 22 February, Trong met current and former leaders of the Party and state as well as other invited guests at a get-together event for the Lunar New Year. On 30 March, Trong delivered a nationwide appeal calling on all Vietnamese to unite under the leadership of the Party and state to fight the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in Vietnam.

More importantly, Trong appears to be focusing his energies on preparations for the 13th Party Congress. He is in charge of overseeing the convening of all congresses from the grassroots to provincial levels, involving an estimated four and a half million members being assigned to ten thousand Party cells or organisations. Out of this number, 65 provincial Party organisations are expected to convene their respective congresses latest by November this year. This will pave the way for the nationwide Party Congress in January 2021.

A prevailing view is that the positions of the next General Secretary and President will be held by two different individuals.

Trong has essentially delegated the physically taxing presidential duties to Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh. She has noticeably taken on a higher profile including her attendance at the inauguration of Indonesian President Joko Widodo (October 2019) and her visit to India (February 2020). Trong’s visit to the United States is unlikely to take place although US President Trump’s February 2019 invitation still stands. Apart from his frail condition, the spread of Covid-19 across the world including the United States, provides a convenient excuse for him to avoid the visit altogether. The fight against Covid-19 in Vietnam is largely driven by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, with Trong’s personal seal of approval, as evidenced from his nationwide appeal.

The most ideal scenario is that Trong’s health would hold up till the 13th Party Congress, after which he will retire. A prevailing view is that the positions of the next General Secretary and President will be held by two different individuals. If so, the Party will revert to the principle of collective leadership, which differs from that practiced in China. This difference stems from the tradition of political culture and the legacy of Ho Chi Minh’s style of leadership that favour such a power arrangement. In a way, collective leadership may provide more leeway for Vietnam to strike a better balance between a penchant for control under a Leninist political regime on the one hand and the need for greater liberalisation in order to tap market forces and the ideas of a vibrant society necessary to sustain economic growth on the other hand.

Dr Ha Hoang Hop is a Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Mr Lye Liang Fook is Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme and Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at the same institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/50

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.