“Vietnam’s Anti-corruption Campaign: How much is it about Political Infighting?” by Le Hong Hiep

2018/77, 5 July 2018

On 30 June 2018, the Inspectorate Commission of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) announced that it had expelled former chairman of the Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam (BIDV) Tran Bac Ha and former chairman of state-owned mobile carrier MobiFone Le Nam Tra from the Party for their “serious violations”. While Mr Ha is responsible for violations at BIDV linked to a massive fraud case at Vietnam Construction Bank (VNCB), Mr Tra is held accountable for a shadowy acquisition deal of MobiFone which allegedly caused loss to state capital. In relation to the MobiFone scandal, the Commission also proposed the relevant Party authorities to consider disciplinary actions against Minister of Information and Communication Truong  Minh Tuan and his predecessor Nguyen Bac Son.

The four officials are among the latest casualties of the intensifying anti-corruption campaign led by CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. A national conference to review the campaign last week revealed that over the past two years, 490 party organizations and 35,000 party members were found to have violated state laws and party regulations. Among them, 1,300 people, including 10 incumbent or former members of the CPV Central Committee and one former Politburo member, have been disciplined and/or prosecuted due to corruption and related charges.

The unprecedented depth and breadth of the campaign sends a strong message about the Party’s determination to clean up the system even though the move can be interpreted by some as a tactic to purge cronies and associates of former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Indeed, the four above-mentioned officials are the latest in a string of high-profile politicians and state-owned enterprise (SOE) executives with close connections with Mr Dung that have fallen victim to the campaign.

However, a close look at the campaign as well as the background of these officials show that such a claim is not backed by strong evidence. First, although these officials have connections with Mr Dung, their corruption is established, for which people such as former Politburo member Dinh La Thang and PetroVietnam executive Trinh Xuan Thanh have been brought to justice. Second, high-profile victims of the campaign so far come from different backgrounds, including local and central government officials, SOE executives, bankers, and police and army officials. More importantly, the majority of them do not seem to have a clear connection with Mr Dung. Third, the National Assembly in June deliberated on amendments to the Anti-corruption Law to deal with corruption in the non-state sectors, thus widening the coverage of the anti-corruption exercise.

The campaign is therefore mainly driven by the Party’s efforts to reduce corruption rather than political infighting although it also helps to consolidate the power of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his allies. Anecdotal evidence for this is that Mr Trong still maintains a warm relationship with Mr Dung despite rumours about their rivalry, especially ahead of the 12th Party congress in 2016. At the funeral of the late Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in March 2018 and the opening session of the National Assembly in May 2018, while Mr Trong largely ignored President Tran Dai Quang, he frequently turned to and had friendly conversations with Mr Dung.

The anti-corruption campaign under the watch of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong since 2016 has been a watershed development in Vietnam’s politics. It may even be seen as one of Mr Trong’s most important legacies after he retires in 2021. As the Party head, Mr Trong’s key mission is to maintain the Party’s rule. Fighting corruption, considered by the Party as an existential threat to its own survival, is therefore a cardinal task for him as well as the Party. The anti-corruption campaign has so far shown the Party’s strong political will in dealing with corruption and restored some public trust in the Party’s rule. However, it remains to be seen as to how long the campaign can be sustained, and whether the Party will also be able to reduce corruption at lower levels of government, which directly affects people’s daily life and businesses. Otherwise, no matter what drives the current anti-corruption campaign, it will eventually be seen by the public as a political show only.

Dr Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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