Will China follow Vietnam's lead?

Li Datong
21 February 2007

A quick search on Baidu, mainland China's most popular internet search-engine, for news and comment on the tenth national congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) – held on 18-25 April 2006 - brings up almost 40,000 results. The Chinese news media clearly saw the event as extremely significant. More recently, on 9 February 2007, the media in China was equally avid in reporting that the Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, had gone online for a few hours to talk directly to ordinary internet users.

The People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are among the five countries in the world which retain the socialist system. This is a long way from the time when – for four decades between the late 1940s and the late 1980s, amid the international climate of the cold war – the states of the large "socialist bloc" which shared similar ideologies and political-economic systems kept a close eye on each other's internal transformations.

This mutual inspection was often antagonistic or tense. The Hungarian uprising (1956) and the Prague spring (1968) led to military intervention from the Soviet Union to prevent reform. Changes within the Soviet Union itself had a profound influence on other socialist countries: when, for example, Nikita Khrushchev revealed the extent of Stalin's crimes in a "secret speech" at the twentieth party congress of the Soviet Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956, the effects reverberated across central Europe - helping to light the spark of that Hungarian revolt.

Similarly, when Mikhail Gorbachev unveiled his plans for economic renewal at the CPSU's twenty-seventh national congress in 1986 (plans that soon became known as perestroika), the Chinese leadership watched the live broadcast, underlining how important it was to them.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper.

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a 'great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

"China’s contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)

"Hong Kong's example" (7 February 2007)

Relic or portent?

Times have changed; following the disintegration of the socialist system in the Soviet Union and in east-central Europe after 1989, the bloc competing with the west has become a relic of history.

However, the socialist countries that still cleave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine maintain both their ideological commitment and the reflex of looking closely at each other. Soon after he assumed the leadership of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in September 2004 , for example, Hu Jintao commented that "(when) managing ideology, we have to learn from Cuba and North Korea".

The memo was met with reproach from within the party and from academic circles. People recognised from their own personal experience that North Korea and Cuba are historical remnants that will crumble if they refuse to change. Hu's remarks, going as they did against the consensus both inside and outside the party, were extremely ill-judged.

But if, in contrast to North Korea and Cuba, the other remaining socialist countries carry out reforms similar in nature and direction to those that have been instigated in China, their progress will become a matter of interest to the Chinese Communist Party ( CCP ) and the Chinese people, and they will become one of the external factors influencing China's transformation.

The Communist Party of Vietnam's tenth national congress, with its spirit of reform , has had precisely this effect. The reason is that it caused people to ask: if a country with a single-party system and a similar reform programme to China can do this, then why can't China?

The CPV congress had two characteristics which were interesting to both the Chinese leadership and the public. The first was its spirit of openness. The preliminary party report was shown in advance to the public, which was asked for its comments and suggestions on the draft. People from all levels of society rushed to give their opinions in a variety of ways. News media of all kinds organised symposiums and expert forums and published interviews with citizens and well-known figures - in effect creating a huge public discussion on democratic reform.

Many of the opinions put forward by prominent people dealt with important issues such as the constitution, corruption , democracy, freedom and rights. These are precisely the subjects which interest the Chinese people, and which the authorities forbid them from publicly discussing. Indeed, coverage of the debate in Vietnam on the Chinese web far exceeded what was reported in the official press.

The leadership question

The second way in which the CPV's tenth congress will influence the CCP is in the method of selecting party leaders. For the first time in a country ruled by a communist party, the CPV experimented with limited elections, with two candidates competing for the highest office. There were competitive elections for membership of the CPV central committee and politburo, with the number of candidates exceeding the number of positions to be filled by more than 10%. Also, the number of votes gained by each of the politburo members was publicised, and their positions decided according to the number of votes they received. This method of selecting the party leadership has provided the beginnings of a system for intra-party democracy, and will also have a significant influence on the democratisation of the wider society.

It is common knowledge that socialist countries with a one-party system have never genuinely solved the problem of how to select subsequent generations of leaders. Changes of leadership have always had the air of an imperial palace conspiracy or coup. In the era of Mao Tse-tung after 1949, it was basically Mao himself who decided who would be his successor, with those he grew to dislike - such as Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao - being discarded along the way.

Deng Xiaoping didn't have the same absolute authority as Mao, and his potential successors were appointed after discussions with a group of party "elders" led by Deng. Thus, Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang rose to power before falling out of favour. Deng didn't give Jiang Zemin the opportunity to choose his own successor, directly appointing Hu Jintao himself. Now the stage has been reached where this model of appointing a successor is no longer viable. Hu does not have enough personal authority to choose his own successor. It is clear that in his next term in power, Hu must establish a system for selecting the next CCP leadership.

This is precisely the area in which the CPV is leading the way and acting as a model. Influential figures within the CCP and many well-known academics have begun to write about and discuss the political reform in Vietnam, and are urging that China should emulate Vietnam. Lots of internet users have been joking that in terms of economic reform, China is Vietnam's teacher, but in terms of political reform, Vietnam could teach China a thing or two.

A questionnaire seeking advice and opinions on how to expand intra-party democracy is currently being circulated among senior CCP officials and certain retired cadres. The CCP's seventeenth national congress is to be held in autumn 2007. One might cautiously predict that the example of its Vietnamese counterpart could have a positive influence on the event.

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