Crony Commies

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on January 25, 2010

Until the security police knocked on their doors last year, Le Cong Dinh, Le Thang Long, and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc represented the best-and-brightest of Vietnam’s emerging new professional generation. Dinh, 41, an American-educated lawyer, had moved in elite Vietnamese corporate and legal circles since his early 30s; he was an active member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City. To Dinh’s admirers in the US business community, he personified Vietnam’s progress along the road to the rule of law. Dinh’s friends Long and Thuc were young Internet entrepreneurs who played important roles over the past decade in developing Vietnam’s emerging information-technology sector. They became involved with technology aimed at facilitating the ability of Vietnamese people to communicate freely with each other with telephones and computers, wherever they happened to be in the world. Long and Thuc likewise enjoyed good connections with the US high-tech business community, most notably involving their partnership with the U.S. networking powerhouse from America’s Silicon Valley, Cisco Systems (also a prominent member of the American Chamber in Vietnam). The three young Vietnamese friends’ professional careers demonstrated their shared belief that their poor Third World country could become an increasingly prosperous entrepreneurial society.

As part of their country’s modernization, Dinh, Long and Thuc also made no secret of their belief that Vietnam’s best interests were in developing into a free multi-party democracy. They looked forward to the day when Vietnamese citizens, like their counterparts in other modern societies where the rule of law prevails, will enjoy the freedoms of speech and assembly that presently the ruling Communist Party denies them. Of course, the Politburo — dominated by hardliners who are jockeying for position as next year’s party congress gets closer — was having none of that. On Jan. 20, after a classic communist show trial in Ho Chi Minh City (still better known as Saigon) the three peaceable democracy advocates received stiff prison terms. Thuc, now 43, got 16 years, apparently being punished for vehemently protesting his innocence. According to a translation by the BBC’s authoritative Vietnamese language service, Thuc charged that his “confession” had been made under duress that involved unspecified “corporal punishment,” a charge that the court was not interested in entertaining. Long, 42, got five years as an accomplice. Dinh — who, like his friends, could have been given the death sentence — also got off a bit easier, with a five-year sentence. The judges seemed to be swayed by Dinh’s contrite acknowledgment that he had been influenced by western notions of freedom while studying abroad, and that as a lawyer he could now see that advocating multi-party democracy violated Vietnamese law.

Because such a notion is, on its face, offensive, reaction to the verdicts was as swift as it was critical. U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak protested on Jan. 21 that the “convictions run counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they also raise serious questions about Vietnam’s commitment to rule of law and reform.” The European Union’s heads of mission in Hanoi issued a joint statement calling the trial and verdicts “a major and regrettable step backwards for Vietnam.” The EU ambassadors noted that the convictions “are not consistent with the fundamental right of all persons to hold opinions and freely and peacefully express them, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party.” Respected advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also voiced their deep concerns over the injustice.

But Dinh’s, Long’s, and Thuc’s former friends in the American business community were conspicuous for their silence. Top leaders of the American Chamber of Commerce sister chapters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City adamantly refused to express any concerns whatsoever — even off-the-record — about the fate of their former esteemed colleagues. This is not just happenstance, but a carefully considered stance. The AmCham leaders have rebuffed requests for the past six months for their comment on the current Vietnamese crackdown on dissenters (for further details, see An Inconvenient Man, The Rushford Report. Sept. 21, 2009). In an e-mail last week, I asked AmCham’s executive director in the organization’s Ho Chi Minh City chapter if he were concerned that the inevitable impression that he and his colleagues were creating was that the top priority for the American business community is in political stability, Politburo-style. Herb Cochran said he would check again with his board, and also with that of his sister AmCham in Hanoi. It turned out that neither board cared to deny the perceptions, even privately. The inescapable conclusion is that the signal that the American business community in Vietnam has sent to the top leadership in Hanoi is deliberate. The crackdown on dissenters enjoys the tacit support of corporate America.

The explanation, at first blush, looks simple enough. Corporations like ExxonMobil, Citi, Emerson Electric, and Chevron which are on the AmCham Vietnam boards in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city aren’t on anyone’s list of bleeding hearts. But for anyone interested in where the Vietnamese economy is presently headed, and how the US business community fit in, there’s much more to the story. The American business community has developed deep ties with the ruling Communist authorities and the government-owned enterprises and (corrupt) government agencies they control. These ties appear to be deep enough that the Americans now see their mutual economic interests with Vietnam’s leaders as essentially parallel. The way that Vietnam’s economy is developing, one doesn’t have to share anti-corporate filmmaker Michael Moore’s conspiratorial view of the world to perceive a disturbing economic and political convergence. You could call it, Crony Communism.

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