PER­SPEC­TIVES

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - OPIN­ION BY CALVIN GOD­FREY

How Viet­nam’s cor­rup­tion crack­down masks the sec­re­tary-gen­eral’s push for power

Viet­nam’s rul­ing party would have the pub­lic be­lieve that it is crack­ing down on cor­rup­tion, but those caught up in the cam­paign see a ruth­less ef­fort by Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Nguyen Phu Trong to con­sol­i­date power THEViet­nam's anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paigns of

Com­mu­nist party al­ways feel like in­scrutable per­for­mance pieces – sym­po­siums on the mer­its of fe­male mod­esty held in strip clubs.

They just don't make sense, given the busi­ness model.

Even as the party over­saw decades of mas­sive eco­nomic growth, it paid its mem­bers pal­try salaries. Some­how, though, even the most ‘anti-cor­rupt' among them lived well be­yond their of­fi­cial means.

Their mo­tor­cades and lux­ury cars shot through cities choked with mo­tor­bikes. Dur­ing one par­tic­u­larly far­ci­cal stretch, close read­ers of the na­tion's news­pa­pers learned more from their stolen-prop­erty re­ports than their fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure forms.

At the top of this lad­der stood Nguyen Tan Dung, who evolved from a 12-year-old com­bat nurse scur­ry­ing through the mud of the Mekong Delta to the na­tion's Te­flon two-term prime min­is­ter. Parachute jour­nal­ists and in­ter­na­tional donors scroung­ing for a good guy called Dung ‘the re­former', a man in­clined to free­dom par­tic­u­larly of mar­kets and nav­i­ga­tion.

In re­al­ity, his ad­min­is­tra­tion presided over an al­pha­bet soup of state banks that gave free money to prof­li­gate state-owned en­ter­prises. Ev­ery once in a while, bad cadre got caught tak­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in loans no one would ever pay back or sell­ing chunks of the state econ­omy to them­selves for a song. News like this never boded well for Dung. In 2012, the party slapped the cuffs on one of the rich­est men in the coun­try – a prom­i­nent banker con­victed of fraud, tax eva­sion, il­le­gal trade and “de­lib­er­ate wrong­do­ing caus­ing se­ri­ous con­se­quences”. Many in­ter­preted it as a warn­ing to Dung, who had thwarted an at­tempt to boot him out of the polit­buro that very year.

Few took note of the cracks widen­ing in Dung's pa­tron­age net­work un­til it fi­nally frac­tured dur­ing the 2016 party congress. It seems the steer­ing com­mit­tee's wily gen­eral sec­re­tary had rewrit­ten the rules of the game to force Dung into re­tire­ment. A plu­ral­ity of the polit­buro had grown suf­fi­ciently grossed­out or jeal­ous of his ex­cesses – per­haps both.

The big man went qui­etly, and his sons con­tinue to hold party po­si­tions in boom­ing beach prov­inces. His daugh­ter and her bil­lion­aire hus­band con­tinue to do well in Ho Chi Minh City. His al­lies, though, sud­denly found them­selves at the mercy of Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Nguyen Phu Trong.

The sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian sil­ver fox dealt dis­grace and de­mo­tion to some. Oth­ers he fed to the Supreme Peo­ple's Procu­racy – a process that of­ten be­gins with ar­ti­cles in the pages of the na­tion's dy­ing news­pa­pers.

En­ter Trinh Xuan Thanh: a bald­ing, ac­nescarred of­fi­cial driv­ing around one of the poor­est Delta prov­inces in a Lexus SUV. Not long af­ter Dung's exit, re­porters wanted to know where he got his sweet ride and how his UK-ed­u­cated 24-year-old son had come to head the mar­ket­ing de­part­ment of a sta­te­owned dis­tillery.

Such ques­tions are like thun­der to peo­ple such as Thanh, who sent the party a doc­tor's note and bugged out to Berlin. By the time light­ning struck, seven of his for­mer col­leagues at PetroViet­nam Con­struc­tion had got­ten snared in the search for about $150m that had ap­par­ently van­ished from the com­pany's books.

Once in Ger­many, the 51-year-old Thanh ap­plied for asy­lum.

While wait­ing for the wheels of jus­tice to turn, he took the un­usual step of grant­ing four in­ter­views to a Viet­namese blog­ger liv­ing in Ger­many. The tran­scripts cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia, openly ques­tion­ing the pur­pose of crush­ing loyal ‘screws' like Thanh: “It is easy to see that many sta­te­owned en­ter­prises suf­fer losses and, of course, the of­fi­cials re­spon­si­ble for these en­ter­prises should be held li­able; also, it's ap­par­ent that a ma­jor­ity of of­fi­cials, both po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic, are cor­rupt. But in my opin­ion, the main prob­lem doesn't lie in these of­fi­cials, but the sys­tem. I used to be a ‘screw' in this sys­tem, so if dur­ing my time as a leader PetroViet­nam Con­struc­tion suf­fered losses, I had to take re­spon­si­bil­ity. But the fact is, dur­ing that time, I was not a greedy per­son, and I def­i­nitely did not com­mit a crime. Cer­tainly not a ‘de­lib­er­ate vi­o­la­tion of state reg­u­la­tions,' as Mr. Trong claims. This pur­suit was ini­ti­ated by Mr. Trong purely to con­sol­i­date his power.”

One bright day in July, the truth-teller van­ished dur­ing a walk through Berlin's Tier­garten Park and re-emerged on Viet­namese tele­vi­sion look­ing like he'd had a rough week. Mono­tone state broad­cast­ers re­ported that he'd come home to as­suage his guilt and face sweet party jus­tice.

“To be­lieve any­one out­side Viet­nam could be­lieve that is just un­be­liev­able,” said Thanh's Berlin-based lawyer, Pe­tra Sch­la­gen­hauf. “This is re­ally like Ge­orge Or­well reloaded.”

Ger­man po­lice have since tracked down a Viet­namese con­struc­tion worker who sup­pos­edly drove from Prague to Berlin to help a team of spooks drag Thanh to his em­bassy and stuff him into an am­bu­lance.

No one's sure where that am­bu­lance went, but one pos­si­bil­ity is Moscow, where Sec­re­tary Trong lit­er­ally earned his PhD in party build­ing. Viet­nam's diplo­mats have said only that they “re­gret” Ger­many's kid­nap­ping al­le­ga­tions.

“The gen­eral sec­re­tary hates my client deeply,” Sch­la­gen­hauf said over the phone. “The at­tack isn't mainly against [Thanh] but oth­ers higher than him. I think there will be more per­se­cu­tions to come. My client is like a piece in this puz­zle for the gen­eral sec­re­tary. I think it's so im­por­tant to have him there in a schauprozess [show trial], like in Stalin's time.”

The at­tack isn’t mainly against Thanh, but oth­ers higher than him. I think there will be more per­se­cu­tions to come. My client is like a piece in this puz­zle for the

gen­eral sec­re­tary

Viet­nam Com­mu­nist party Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Nguyen Phu Trong (cen­tre) with then-Prime Min­is­ter Nguyen Tan Dung (left) and other of­fi­cials at the coun­try's na­tional congress in Hanoi in 2011

Calvin God­frey

has worked as a writer and edi­tor in Ho Chi Minh City for seven years. This April, he won the MFK Fisher Dis­tin­guished Writ­ing Award for his in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the coun­try’s dog meat sup­ply chain.

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