Webinar on “Vietnam Communist Party’s 13th Congress: Politics of Leadership Succession”

This webinar discusses the Vietnam Communist Party’s upcoming 13th National Congress, which will set the socio-economic agenda for Vietnam for the next 10 years and elect the country’s new crop of leaders.


Friday, 4 September 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and the University of Oregon co-organised a webinar on “Vietnam Communist Party’s 13th Congress: Politics of Leadership Succession” on Friday, delivered by Dr Le Hong Hiep and Prof Vu Tuong. Dr Hiep is Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and an editor of the institute’s flagship journal Contemporary Southeast Asia. Prof Tuong is Professor and Department Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Oregon (USA); and founding director of the US-Vietnam Research Center at the university. This webinar serves as a prelude to the “Vietnamese Communist Party’s 13th Congress: Dilemmas of Development and Global Integration” symposium, organised by the US-Vietnam Research Center, University of Oregon in collaboration with the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, which is set to be held in Singapore at ISEAS in 2021.

Dr Le Hong Hiep and Prof Vu Tuong
Dr Le Hong Hiep and Prof Vu Tuong discussed the legacies of current Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong, likely candidates for new leadership positions, and the implications of this leadership change for Vietnam. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Hiep began his presentation by outlining the key questions surrounding Vietnam’s impending leadership reshuffle: Firstly, whether the country will revert to its ‘four-pillar’ leadership structure – separate appointments for the VCP general secretary, national assembly chair, prime minister, and president – or retain its current three-pillar structure, with an individual holding both the general secretary and president appointments; secondly, whether the age limit of 65 for Politburo members will be strictly adhered to; thirdly, whether the party will be able maintain balanced regional representation in its top leadership; and lastly, how the balance of power between competing camps in the party will pan out.

In reference to these key questions, Dr Hiep noted that it is likely that Vietnam will revert to its four-pillar leadership structure, given the party’s interest in maintaining checks and balances on its top leadership. He also noted that of the 16 current Politburo members, eight are set to retire due to age limits, although some key exceptions should be expected – specifically, if Tran Quoc Vuong is elected as general secretary and possibly if Nguyen Xuan Phuc is returned as prime minister. Dr Hiep added that a regional balance within the four-pillar top leadership, between representatives from the north and south, will likely be hard to maintain in the upcoming congress, given that there is currently no strong candidate from the south. He also noted that while support from the Politburo and Central Committee members will be important for top leadership positions, endorsement from outgoing president and general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong will likely prove to be the deciding factor.

Prof Tuong reviewed Nguyen Phu Trong’s tenure as both president and general secretary of the VCP in the second half of the webinar, focusing on Trong’s accomplishments and legacy. Prof Tuong discussed Trong’s track record in five key domains – diplomacy, defence, economy, party building and anti-corruption, and the building of a police state.

Firstly, Prof Tuong noted that the role of the general secretary in foreign policy making was strengthened during Trong’s tenure. The general secretary, while the most powerful member of the VCP, is not the head of state and thus unable to play an open role in Vietnam’s diplomacy. This changed with a policy issued by the Politburo in February 2012, which enhanced the diplomatic standing of the general secretary and enabled him to pursue party-to-party diplomacy with countries such as China and Cambodia. Party-to-party diplomacy, for instance, was employed during South China Sea negotiations with China, though this did not bear much fruit. Secondly, in the arena of defence, Prof Tuong noted that Trong displayed a naïve trust in China and a poor understanding of the South China Sea’s strategic importance to Vietnam. While successful in maintaining peaceful relations with China and avoiding clashes in the South China Sea, Vietnam ceded much control over the maritime area to its northern neighbour, which in turn chipped away at the VCP’s public legitimacy. These would be issues Trong’s successor will have to grapple with.

Thirdly, Prof Tuong noted that Trong had softened his position on global economic integration since the start of his tenure, which culminated in the passing of a 2014 Central Committee resolution that called for increased international economic integration through trade agreements and foreign investment. While foreign investment has enabled Vietnam’s economy to grow significantly, the country’s economy is still largely uncompetitive due to the lack of economic restructuring, and unable to move up the global production chain. Vietnam has also failed to achieve its goal of industrialisation by 2020, with this goal now pushed back to 2035 or possibly 2045. Fourthly, Prof Tuong noted that Trong has had the most success in his anti-corruption campaign. Trong has reasserted central control over local politics in a bid to stamp out corruption, having prosecuted some 70 high-ranking officials to date – this includes 18 current and former Central Committee members, one former deputy prime minister, as well as five current and former ministers. Lastly, Trong significantly expanded the police state during his tenure. The presence of public security officials in the Politburo is currently at its highest, with four police generals in the Politburo. Hundreds of bloggers and activists have been arrested and prosecuted under new repressive laws issued under Trong, with the number of dissidents arrested and tried rising sharply during Trong’s second term.

The webinar was attended by 232 participants from both Singapore and abroad. Issues that were discussed during the virtual Q&A session included the impact of the ongoing China-US rivalry on Vietnam’s leadership selection, the state of competing “reform” and “conservative” factions in the VCP and Politburo, the size of the Politburo, the emphasis on collective leadership in the VCP, as well as the impact of a relatively successful handling of COVID-19 on the upcoming congress.

Webinar on “Vietnam Communist Party’s 13th Congress: Politics of Leadership Succession”
Over 230 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)