By clamping down on the Facebook.com social networking service, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is revealing its discomfort with the rapidly expanding avenue for free expression even as it pushes to transform the once poor agrarian nation into a modern industrial society by 2020.
While the Communist Party has recognised the importance of Internet in its mission to modernise the country as part of its “socio-economic strategy”, the months leading up to the Eleventh National Party Congress have seen a slew of measures to censor expression in cyberspace.
“In the run-up to the Party Congress, websites and blogs have been closed, Facebook is blocked, [and] new legislation was introduced to oblige cyber- cafes to install software to monitor their clients on-line activities,” says Vo Van Ai, president of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), a Paris-based rights lobby.
“Although many Vietnamese people enjoy a better standard of living than before, there is growing concern about the wealth disparity and social inequality,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Spaces for debate on this situation are very limited.”
From Jan. 12 to 19, the Communist Party will be meeting in Hanoi for their once-in-five-years congress, where 1,400 delegates representing the 3.6 million members of the party will go through a well-choreographed week of discussions on various subjects including aspects of economic policy.
Party heavyweights want to avoid being embarrassed by public comments while the political hierarchy determines the direction the country will take, say analysts.
An Asian academic in Ho Chi Minh City, who spoke on condition on anonymity, noted that the Eleventh National Party Congress in Vietnam’s capital will help to clarify which of the two factions within the party – the ‘pro-China wing’ or the ‘nationalists wing’ – will emerge dominant.
The direction of Vietnam’s economy, which has seen seven percent annual growth for a decade, is also expected to come under scrutiny in the wake of a divide within the ruling elite over which is best for the country: more free market measures or an expansion of the socialist, state-controlled economy.
The government will keep the likelihood of this debate spilling into cyberspace to a minimum. Vietnam has been described as having one of the fastest growing on-line communities, with 25 million of a population of 86 million – or nearly one in three people – utilising the Internet for information and expression.
The government first blocked Facebook.com in late 2009, and it has followed an intermittent policy towards the popular social networking site since then.
A similar hard line is also followed towards other websites and blogs – even threatening a jail term for some violators. These are threats that have seen the global media rights lobby Reporters Without Borders describe Vietnam in 2010 as having the world’s second largest prison for “netizens” due to the jailing of 17 online activists.
“The opulent lifestyle of many Communist Party cadres and government officials contrast starkly with the poverty of ordinary people in Vietnam, where 77 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture and the unofficial economy,” revealed the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in a report released in late 2010.
Vietnam was recently in the international media spotlight because Vinashin, the state-owned shipbuilder, defaulting on a 600 million U.S. dollar loan.
The Vinashin crisis, coupled with a weakening currency (the dong), in a region where a weak U.S. dollar has seen regional currencies strengthen, has turned the heat on Prime Minister Nguyen Tien Dung. The 61-year-old, who was appointed to his position in 2006, is a key backer of the giant shipbuilder as a symbol of Vietnam’s emerging economy.
“Vietnam has opened up but there are some important differences with more affluent [South-east Asian] neighbours,” says Manu Bhaskaran, council member of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a think tank in the region’s most developed economy. “There still is substantial state involvement in the economy through state regulations [and] state-owned companies.”
“The financial dimension of the economy shows high risks and the Vinashin debt problems could potentially trigger off more problems if the authorities do not manage these issues well,” he told IPS.
For their part, Vietnamese citizens have begun buying gold as a hedge against the declining dong, which has lost a fifth of its value against the U.S. dollar since 2008.
Against this background, calls by Vietnamese academics for more openness and democracy to solve the economic problems are going unheeded, says Ai. “Blogs have opened a new dimension for discussion… but as in every other realm of expression, the Party only tolerates this when criticism does not ‘go too far’… Hanoi’s leaders need Internet for business development, but fear its political outreach.”