Hoang Minh Chinh: the honourable dissident

Sophie Quinn-Judge
30 April 2008

A reproachful ghost hovers over the events marking the fortieth anniversary of the Tet offensive in Vietnam launched in January 1968, and the thirty-third anniversary of the unification of the country heralded by the military victory of 30 April 1975. His name is Hoang Minh Chinh, Hanoi's perennial dissident, who died on 7 February 2008 at the age of 88.

Sophie Quinn-Judge is associate director of the Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society, Temple University. She is the author of Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919-1941 (Hurst, 2002)

Also by Sophie Quinn-Judge in openDemocracy:

"Who are the Vietnamese in 2005?" (29 April 2005)

"Vietnam: the necessary voices" (30 April 2007)

The oft-renamed Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) never forgave Chinh for advocating peaceful coexistence as the build-up to war began in 1963; then they threw him in prison in July 1967, when they suspected that he was plotting with Moscow to prevent the new year's insurgency that swept over South Vietnam at the start of 1968.

The charges against him were never made public; he and those arrested with him were tried and convicted by a secretive seven-man party committee, with no legal status. Once he was allowed to return to Hanoi in 1976 as a non-person, he devoted himself to demanding an open hearing for his case, in line with the provisions of Vietnam's constitution. He became a test-case for democratisation in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (as it became in 1976); although his struggle was never successful, he acquitted himself with more honour than the Communist Party.

A Moscow-trained Marxist philosopher, Hoang Minh Chinh proved over his long life that he could match the party itself in stubborn self-defence: he never stopped trying to clear his name, as well as those of his associates (including military men, journalists and one former private secretary of Ho Chi Minh) arrested in the autumn of 1967. He spent six years in prison, followed by three of restricted residence in Son Tay province. He would be re-arrested two more times, once as late as 1995, on the grounds that he was violating his civic rights by petitioning to have his good name restored. Altogether he spent twelve years in prison, and another six under house arrest or restricted residence.

A purge in Hanoi

Hoang Minh Chinh was born Tran Ngoc Nghiem in the northern province of Nam Dinh in 1920 (several sources say 1922). He began his revolutionary career during the Popular Front era in 1937 and was initiated into the party in 1939, with just before the second world war broke out. From 1940 to 1943 the French held him in Son La prison, along with many others who would become the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), including his future nemesis, Le Duc Tho. He was present at the first national congress in Tan Trao village in August 1945, where Ho Chi Minh's provisional Viet Minh government was introduced.

After the Japanese surrender and the Viet Minh proclamation of independence, Hoang Minh Chinh became the general secretary of the Democratic Party, largely a front to attract intellectuals and members of the bourgeoisie into the ranks of the nationalist movement. When the war against France resumed, Chinh led a successful attack on Gia Lam airport outside Hanoi, for which he was decorated.

Also in openDemocracy on aspects of Vietnam and echoes of its conflicts:

Pham Thi Hoai, "What remains: Vietnam in my heart" (29 April 2005)

Philip Jones Griffiths, "'Viet Nam at Peace': the empire strikes back" (29 April 2005)

Li Datong, "Will China follow Vietnam's lead?" (21 February 2007)

Martin Shaw, "My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (17 March 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent" (17 April 2008)

His life's path was decided when he was sent to Moscow's higher party school in 1957, for a three-year course in Marxism-Leninism. These were the years of the post-Stalin thaw under Nikita Khrushchev's leadership, years which would shape Chinh's ideas on peaceful coexistence between east and west. Once he returned to Hanoi in 1960 to become head of the Institute of Philosophy, these ideas would mark him as a "revisionist" in the struggles between pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese Marxists. This label became a strong liability by 1963; at the end of that year the ninth plenum of what was then the Vietnam Workers' Party passed Resolution Nine, condemning "modern revisionism" and aligning Vietnam's internal and foreign policies with China's.

By this time the build-up to war in South Vietnam was pushing Hanoi towards armed confrontation with the United States; Khrushchev's reluctance to support the DRV's war to reunify the country had temporarily put an end to Hanoi's efforts to remain neutral in the Sino-Soviet split. In late 1963 Hoang Minh Chinh and a number of other second-rank leaders were removed from their posts.

It was the continuing heat of these ideological disputes that led to "the Hoang Minh Chinh affair" (also known in Hanoi as the "anti-party affair"), in the late summer of 1967. This involved the secretive arrests between July and December 1967 of Chinh and a group of around thirty other Hanoi officials and military officers, on the grounds that they were opposing party policy (for a deeper discussion of the issues involved in the Hoang Minh Chinh affair, see Sophie Quinn-Judge, "The Ideological Debate in the DRV and the Significance of the Anti-Party Affair, 1967-1968", Cold War History, 5/4, November 2005).

In January 1972, Le Duc Tho - politburo member and head of the party's powerful control commission - finally gave a central-committee plenum an idea of the gravity of the charge: he claimed that there had been a conspiracy to overthrow the party leadership in 1967, linking the Soviet ambassador and his second secretary to the plotters. A 1994 document circulated by the Hanoi party committee gave more details: it claimed that Hoang Minh Chinh had acquired a transcript of a secret Chinese-Vietnamese consultation and then passed this to a foreign power.

A feverish moment

At the bottom of this multi-layered political crisis were personal, as well as political, rivalries that reached into the politburo. At least three of those arrested and subjected to long interrogations were questioned about the activities of General Vo Nguyen Giap, known around the world as the hero of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. They were pressured to link General Giap to an anti-government plot. None of them did. Possibly Giap's rivals believed that he favoured peace negotiations with the United States in summer 1967. Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin and US President Lyndon Johnson had discussed Vietnam at their summit in Glassboro, New Jersey in June of that year. During Kosygin's US trip he received a promise via telephone from Pham Van Dong that the Vietnamese were ready to begin negotiations if Washington would call a halt to the bombing.

As it turned out, this offer was never put to the test. The US air force continued to bomb targets close to Hanoi that summer and autumn, inducing what a British diplomat called a "spy fever" in Hanoi. The Chinese reaction to the Soviet-US discussions was to denounce the "insidious collaboration policy" of the Soviet Union towards the US. The Tet offensive of January 1968 proceeded, and although far from a clear-cut military victory, it shocked the United States, as the Vietnamese planners hoped it would. President Johnson declined to run for a second term and announced the beginning of peace negotiations in Paris that May.

A country of one

The upshot of the Hoang Minh Chinh affair was that a great deal of power remained in the hands of the party's seven-man "committee for investigation and sentencing", led by Le Duc Tho. Although they did not approve of the chaos of the cultural revolution, those in the leadership who leaned towards Maoist policies had more freedom to promote the "class character" of the party, the "two-line struggle" between capitalism and communism and the pursuit of violent revolutionary victory in South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh's death in September 1969 meant that his moral influence was no longer present to soften the hard edges of these policies. Following the final communist victory in 1975, some of these were clearly in evidence, in particular the strong prejudice against the urban bourgeoisie.

Hoang Minh Chinh himself continued to suffer humiliation, harassment and close police surveillance, especially after he travelled to the United States for cancer treatment in 2005 and joined forces with advocates of democracy among the overseas Vietnamese. But he still had some last words of advice for the government. In a final testament he called for more openness regarding the disputed border issues under discussion with the Chinese, justice for ordinary people and true solidarity among all Vietnamese. As many Vietnamese have reminded their leaders in recent years, he pointed out that the country does not belong to any particular party or person.

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