Jan Bjerninger, freelance writer and former head of Sida's Asia department, reviews the two books "Vietnam - a subjective view" and "Vietnam. Navigating a Rapidly Changing Economy, Society, and Political Order”. He believes that they provide a unique knowledge of Vietnam's development and how the country looks today. Photo: manhhai. Source: Flickr.


Unique knowledge of what is happening in Vietnam - the country that was the Ukraine of the 60s

Poverty has been radically reduced in Vietnam, but the lack of open discussion and political pluralism is hampering development in what was once one of the biggest recipients of Swedish aid. Two new books provide a unique knowledge of Vietnam, its present and possible future. It writes Jan Bjerninger, freelance writer and former head of Sida's Asia department. 

I came to Vietnam's capital Hanoi for the first time in the spring of 1975. The war against the United States and the regime in South Vietnam had just ended. The media had written as much about that war as is written about Ukraine today. The country was devastated. Hanoi's population was extremely poor. Most were malnourished. Mortality among the elderly rose sharply during the chilly winter. Only every third family owned a bicycle. The Swedish development debate came to be dominated for many years by aid to Vietnam, the most the Bai Bang paper mill - one of Sweden's largest aid project ever. It was much more expensive than expected. At the same time, criticism of Vietnam's political rule grew stronger, as people began to flee the country on a large scale. How did it go then?

Today, Vietnam is a middle-income country. Poverty has been radically reduced. Two new books together provide a probably unique knowledge of the country.

Eva Lindskog has written "Vietnam - a subjective view". Lindskog is one of the very few of Swedish descent who speaks Vietnamese. She has worked with questions about Vietnam almost her entire professional life and lived many years in the country.

Lindskog highlights with concrete examples how corruption distorts a society that lacks open discussion and political pluralism. She gives examples of how the education system, parallel to recognized progress, is characterized by bribes and other abuses, where rich people are given benefits. She describes how both opposition members of the ruling Communist Party and writers such as Nguyen Huy Thiep have shown great courage in protests or in their books, but also how their creative power has been curtailed by threats, censorship and punishments.

The second book is called "Vietnam. Navigating a Rapidly Changing Economy, Society, and Political Order”. It is an anthology edited by Börje Ljunggren and Dwight H. Perkins (hereafter L/P). 24 researchers, some of whom are Swedish, describe the dramatic change that has taken place in the country. A third of the authors are Vietnamese, most active in Vietnam. It is therefore surprising how openly most chapters address the country's problems including the party's responsibility for making it look the way it does.

Ljunggren has been Swedish ambassador to both Vietnam and the country's powerful neighbor China. He analyzes the power of the Leninist party state via what he calls "six mutually supportive pillars". It includes everything from the army and legal system to civil society, the media and the right to interpret the country's history. L/P reviews what is known about the party's role in different eras. Much is in line with what is happening in China, but Vietnam has a more collective leadership. As in China, people critical of the system, who wanted to see an open external debate, have existed all the way into the powerful Politburo, but were thrown out. It is not about "rule of law" via an independent judiciary, but about "rule by law", where it is ultimately the party's rules that apply.

The book highlights how the policy to achieve increased GDP per inhabitant has changed over the years. Growth has varied but been high ever since central planning was gradually replaced by a market economy beginning in 1986, the so-called doi moi. Thus the potential of agriculture was released. The country now supplies its population with food, while exporting rice, coffee and much more. Future economic development still requires policy changes. Productivity is too low. Technological links between foreign companies and local business are too few. South Korean Samsung's investments, which account for a quarter of the country's exports, are an example. The foreign investments create employment, but have very few spillover effects. Will this change in the future? A prerequisite is that higher education and research are given higher priority than now.

Nevertheless, the percentage of poor people has decreased radically down to five to ten percent of the population. The average life expectancy is now 75 years. 95 percent are said to be literate. Vietnam has received international praise for its basic education and preventive health care. However, in recent years, curative care has been given increased priority over preventive health care, but unlike China, Vietnam has not dismantled the public health care system at the local level.

The Swedish aid then? Lindskog talks about Bai Bang both as a success story in the footsteps of the doi moi reforms and as a problem child regarding the conditions of the female forest workers. She gives examples of how aid has tried to introduce democratic rules of the game at the local level. This applies to activities that in the world of the party would have been carried out high above people's heads. Sometimes the attempts have been successful, at least in the short term. "Perhaps we sowed a seed for change" is Lindskog's humble conclusion.

Both books highlight environmental degradation and climate effects as an imminent threat to Vietnam's future. Lindskog describes the effects of "Agent Orange", i.e. the US's chemical warfare, which still reaps victims. L/P states that the increased environmental cost of agricultural production "has been enormous, magnified by the government's policy". Added to that are the climate effects that have already begun to contribute to the salinization of the country's grain (read rice) fields, especially the Mekong River delta. If there is any objection to these two extremely interesting books, it is probably that they have had difficulty integrating questions about the environment, climate and biological diversity into the texts. But the books certainly provide a wealth of new information and a thorough analysis of what is happening in one of Southeast Asia's most important countries.  

This is a review. The writer is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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