To date, Vietnam is technically still a communist country having one-party rule, that is the Communist Party of Vietnam, under Marxist-Leninist governance. In fact, Vietnam is among five remaining communist countries today, together with China, Laos, Cuba and, to a large extent, North Korea.
However, like other communist countries, Vietnam has to adopt some capitalist principles to survive. As a matter of fact, Vietnam, since implementing a series of free-market reforms in mid-1980s, has now become one of the world’s fastest growing economies and has set its sights on becoming a modern and industrialized nation by 2020.
1945 – 1975
Back on May 19, 1941 when Ho Chi Minh formed the League for the Independence of Vietnam (best known as Viet Minh Front) at Pac Bo, Viet Minh was supposed to be an umbrella organization for all parties fighting for Vietnam’s independence against the colonial power France and later Japan during the World War II. Nonetheless, after a power struggle in 1945, the dominated Communist Party suppressed all other non-communist parties inside the Viet Minh. Following Ho’s declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945, Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) or North Vietnam became a communist country recognized by China, Soviet Union and its communist allies.
In return, non-communist Vietnamese nationalists formed a rival anti-communist government in the South in 1949 called “State of Vietnam” led by former emperor Bao Dai, which would become known as South Vietnam following 1954 Geneva Accords which temporarily divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam.
Following three decades of bitter wars, Vietnam was reunified under the communist rule after the North communist forces seized Saigon on April 30, 1975. Vietnam officially became a communist country on July 2, 1976.
1976 – 1986
For the first ten years as a communist country, Vietnam stayed true to the principles of Marxist-Leninist. Both its government and economy were strictly central-controlled. People were put to work under government programs after massive campaigns of collectivization of farms and factories were conducted. Wars’ destruction, inefficient programs and policies as well as political isolation pushed Vietnam into an economic crisis. A decade after unification Vietnam still remained impoverished.
1986 – present
A historic shift came in 1986 when Vietnamese government introduced a series of economic and political reforms best known as “Doi Moi” (Renovation) in an attempt to revive the economy that had been hindered by three decades of war and another decade of economic crisis. Doi Moi policies shifted the planned centralized economy to the so-called “socialist-oriented market economy” – a multi-sectoral market economy based on state-owned industry. Private enterprise, decontrol and foreign investment were now highly encouraged.
Thanks to Doi Moi, Vietnam has seen a rapid economic growth in various fields from agriculture, construction to exports and investment with an average annual GDP growth of roughly 7% up to the global financial crisis in 2008 and remained more than 5% since 2010, making Vietnam one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The economic reforms, together with rapid and significant growth, earned Vietnam a place in the World Trade Organization in January 2007, after 12 years of negotiations. Before that, Vietnam has also established diplomatic relations with all countries by 2000.
Based on what is happening, one could now argue Vietnam is no longer a pure communist country. However, despite those economic reforms, human rights and freedom of speech are still limited in Vietnam. All news media and press are still under control of the government. Although some press and online websites do report on political corruption sometimes, they would risk sanctions for criticizing the government and broaching politically sensitive topics, e.g. about territorial disputes with China. In fact, 16 journalists were in prison at the end of 2014, fifth-most in the world, according to Committee to Protect Journalists.
Freedom of religion is monitored and restricted by requiring all religious groups to register with the government. There are a number of churches and groups permitted to gather and worship yet the government has banned a number of activities deemed harmful to “national interests and unity”. According to Human Rights Watch, there were at least 20 citizens convicted in 2014 for participating in independent religious groups not approved by the communist government. At least 241 activists were behind bars in 2011 with all but one being convicted of “conducting propaganda against the state.” Although fewer human rights activists and bloggers were arrested since then, police has increased various forms of intimidation and harassment to silence critics.
Having said that, Vietnamese people do have freedoms in a number of ways including the free market system mentioned above. Vietnamese citizens are now able to start their own businesses as well as purchase goods from other privately owned businesses instead of going through a state owned company as last time. The number of internet users also rises significantly to 49 million in 2016, which is 52% of its population.
Even though it sounds odd with only one political party, non-party members and non-partisans are allowed to participate in local elections and could possibly gain a seat in the National Assembly. In the 2011 election, out of the 500 seats available in the Parliament, 42 seats were won by independents and non-communist party members as opposed to the 2007 election where there were only 493 seats available and 100% of those were won by the Communist Party candidates.
After all, the ruling communist party shows little willingness to give up its monopoly on political power. Its central role over all organs of government remains unchallenged and there is little sign that real democracy is coming to Vietnam anytime soon.