In this webinar, Professor Edmund Malesky and Dr Tuan Ho assessed the performance of Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh over the past six months, focusing on how his government has dealt with the ongoing fourth wave of COVID-19 infections and its consequences.
VIETNAM STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Wednesday, 6 October 2021 — Pham Minh Chinh was elected Vietnam’s eighth prime minister in April 2021 shortly before the surge of the Delta variant in Vietnam presented various challenges for him and his government. Professor Edmund Malesky and Dr Tuan Ho presented a webinar on “Reviewing the First Six Months of Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh” to share their views on Chinh’s first six months in power, especially how he has led Vietnam’s response to the ongoing fourth wave of COVID-19 infections.
Professor Malesky, who is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Science at Duke University and Director of the Duke Center for International Development, started by discussing the prime minister position in Vietnam’s political system. He noted the difficulty of assessing the role of a particular Vietnamese leader since Vietnam’s political system is not personalist. Several actors in Vietnam’s political system possess veto power, notably the top four positions: Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary, State President, Prime Minister, and Chairman of the National Assembly. Each has important constitutional powers that allow them to significantly affect the policymaking process, thereby constraining other actors.
To further highlight that Vietnam is not a personalist regime, Professor Malesky shared the results of a UNDP survey conducted in 2020, which show that few Vietnamese could recall their top leaders’ names. Even though the prime minister was more popular than others due to the nature of his post, only 66% of the respondents could recall the name of then prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
On the impact of COVID-19, Professor Malesky noted the spike in the number of daily infection cases and deaths in Vietnam amid the spread of the Delta variant. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s vaccination rate remains relatively low, with only around 11% of the population fully vaccinated by early October. Vietnam has implemented stringent lockdowns throughout the pandemic, particularly during the fourth wave of infections. The Provincial Competitiveness Index 2020 shows that the public largely supported these measures in the summer of 2020. However, Professor Malesky stressed that the lessons of the previous success were not appropriate in dealing with the current spike. He suggested that Vietnam’s success last year with strict lockdowns and contact tracing regimes led to complacency, contributing to the delayed vaccine rollout.
The Delta variant wave has tremendously impacted Vietnam’s economic performance. Vietnam’s GDP in Quarter 3 of 2021 recorded a contraction of 6.3%. In particular, small-and-medium enterprises have been severely affected. Professor Malesky noted that Vietnam was heading toward a K-shaped recovery, which signifies the uneven recovery rates among the different segments of the economy. Additionally, the foreign business community was unhappy with prolonged lockdowns and urged the government to reopen the economy. However, Pham Minh Chinh and his government have been constrained by several considerations, such as epidemiological risks of a premature reopening.
Professor Malesky concluded by highlighting some other issues in the domestic policy agenda. These include the success of Vietnam’s anti-corruption campaign, continuing civil service reform, and the lack of priority on environmental policy due to Vietnam’s preoccupation with economic recovery.
Dr Tuan Ho, a Senior Lecturer at Bristol University and Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, discussed Vietnam’s economic performance in 2021 thus far and its economic prospects in the upcoming months. According to Dr Tuan, at the beginning of 2021, as Vietnam managed the pandemic relatively well, its economic prospects were bright. However, by August 2021, the situation had changed drastically due to the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, which resulted in lengthy lockdowns and massive business disruptions. Consequently, by the end of August, Vietnam ranked last on the Nikkei COVID-19 Recovery Index.
Dr Tuan highlighted several negative aspects of Vietnam’s 2021 economic performance, including negative growth in Quarter 3 of 2021, the drop in international travellers, and a significant rise in bad debt. However, he also noted some promising signs such as the reopening of the economy at the end of September, resilient export growth, a meagre decline in realised FDI, persistent remittance from overseas, and a healthy balance of payments.
Dr Tuan’s main concern is a potential cycle of reopening and lockdown, which would raise the cost of production for companies. In addition, Vietnam will have to address the issues of low vaccination rate, shortage of labour, manufacturers diversifying away from Vietnam, sluggish disbursement of public investments, and high bad debt. Nonetheless, the current crisis also presents opportunities to implement economic reforms. For instance, the lack of vaccination supplies could drive further development in the healthcare and biotech industry. Dr Tuan also noted that greater public investment in infrastructure and environmental protection was necessary.
Dr Tuan stressed that Vietnam needs an economic stimulus package to support the private sector. A stimulus package will also be important for the development of new economic zones, which has been pursued by Quang Ninh Province, where Pham Minh Chinh used to serve as Party secretary for four years.
During the Q&A session, Professor Malesky and Dr Tuan shared their opinions on the relevance of Pham Minh Chinh’s economic management experience in Quang Ninh Province, the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, the public’s reaction to prolonged lockdowns, and Vietnam’s economic recovery policy. They also responded to questions about the prospects of provincial-central government relations in Vietnam’s post-COVID future and the trajectory of Vietnam’s relations with the United States and China.
A total of 404 people from Singapore and abroad attended the webinar.