Vietnam’s national leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, implored state investigators this week to speed up their inquiries and convictions into corrupt Communist Party officials, the latest salvo in an anti-graft campaign that has come to define his tenure.

The anti-corruption drive has shaken the foundations of the nation’s ruling Communist Party, a campaign that has netted thousands of wayward officials. They have included a politburo member, heads of powerful state enterprises and regional Party chiefs, and in the process concentrated unprecedented power in Trong’s hands.

At a Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption meeting 2018, Trong boasted that anti-corruption investigators had monitored more than 490 party organizations and 35,000 members since 2016, 1,300 of which were found to have violated regulations.

Hai Hong Nguyen, a researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, has written that “never before in the history of the [Vietnamese Communist Party] had such a large number of high-ranking government and Party officials been disciplined and punished.”

But while Trong’s anti-corruption campaign has made waves and headlines, often overlooked is his just as significant “morality” campaign, which was launched in tandem with the anti-graft drive in 2016.

“Corruption is threatening the survival of the regime…political decadence is even more dangerous,” Trong once said.

In October 2016, the Party introduced a list of 26 “heresies” that can lead to the expulsion of members, which includes corrupt activity as well as questioning Marxist-Leninist philosophy or advocating political reform.

A major part of Trong’s plan is to streamline the Party and promote committed, loyal members – his so-called “strategic cadre” – to positions of power. At the Seventh Plenum of the Central Committee in May 2018, a new 73-page blueprint for selecting new candidates for the next Central Committee was introduced.

Vietnam’s President and Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong chairing a meeting of senior officials in Hanoi. Photo: Vietnam News Agency / AFP)

According to the plan, the number of Party officials and cadres will be cut by a tenth by 2020 and then another 10% every five years until 2030.

By the end of 2018, the party had identified 585 members of these “strategic” cadre, with 61% coming from the central party apparatus, 89% male, and the majority aged above 56 years old.

“It is necessary to build a truly wise, pioneering, clean, strong Party; resolutely remove those who are degenerated, or conduct embezzlement and corruption from the Party,” reads an article in the Communist Review, the party’s theoretical journal, dated July 2019

In October 2018, the party created a new Steering Committee on Strategic-level Cadre Planning for the Term 2021–2026, chaired by Trong, which will decide on which member will stand for the Central Committee at the next National Congress in 2021.

Ministries have also been streamlined, while greater authority has been given to the central party apparatus, often at the expense of provincial officials.

This is all part of a wider plan to grant more power and oversight to a select few senior officials at the Party’s vanguard. In the process, Trong has amassed more power than any other party chief in decades.

In late 2016, he became the first General Secretary to chair both the Central Military Commission and the Central Party Commission for Public Security, which essentially puts him in charge of the military and police. He also commands the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption.

In late 2018, after the death of incumbent State President Tran Dai Quang, Trong was also named the new head of state, traditionally a ceremonial position that he has effectively leveraged to expand his power.

His dual appointment marked the first time since the 1980s that an individual has held both positions simultaneously, a consolidation of power that threatens to dissolve the informal agreement to separate power between four senior positions that has been in place in the Party since the early 1990s.

All this threatens to make the Party more unstable and sectarian in the future, observers and analysts say. With regards to virtue, they say one could not design a more perfect system as Vietnam’s one-party state to incentivize corruption.

Stacks of the Vietnamese currency, the dong, are counted out by a bank employee in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Stacks of the Vietnamese currency, the dong, are counted out by a bank employee in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

The Communist Party is the nation’s only legal party. The courts are dominated by the Party. There is no freedom of the press, as all newspapers are state-run. In other words, there are no independent checks and balances.

Between 2006 and 2016, the person with the most power in Vietnam was then-prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who rose through the party ranks thanks to his ties with state-owned enterprises and provincial authorities. His rise took place as the economy started charting record growth rates and as the private sector blossomed in the 2000s.

Dung was, as some analysts note, primus inter pares of the “rent-seekers”, a section of the party that eschews ideology for self-enrichment and loyalty for patronage. With so much money sloshing around Vietnam and the Party lax to censure corrupt activities, a coalition amassed against Dung heading into the 12th National Congress in 2016.

Headed by Trong, who as the incumbent party chief had tried and failed to tackle corruption over the previous five years, it was joined by other officials worried that public anger against state corruption was growing so potent it could destroy the Party itself.

Other corrupted Party leaders also joined the informal coalition, since removing Dung meant they could challenge or co-opt his rich patronage networks.

In January 2016, Dung failed in his bid to become party chief, and Trong was given a waiver on his advanced age to stay in power for another five years. It took a year or so before his new anti-corruption campaign was up, running and delivering scalps. What Trong has done, however, is to increase oversight power of those at the top even more than previously.

There were alternative courses. Former Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh gave what one state-run newspaper termed a “frank speech” ahead of the 2016 National Congress when he implored the party to create “a modern rule-of-law state with a full market economy and democratic development at a high level.” He was, no doubt, speaking the mind of several Party members.

Trong appears to understand the institutional problems that allow corruption to thrive. He was dubbed the “great fireman” by the state-run press after he commented that “when the furnace is hot enough, even green firewood will burn,” an insinuation that moral officials can also be caught up in corruption.

But meaningful institutional reform, such as providing more autonomy to the courts and the press, or granting elected National Assembly delegates more power to scrutinize officials, would severely weaken the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.

Performers dance with large national flags marking an anniversary of Vietnam's communist regime in Hanoi, February 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Performers dance with large national flags marking an anniversary of Vietnam’s communist regime in Hanoi, February 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Trong has raised the dichotomy of not wanting “to break the vase when catching the mice.” In other words, one must not destroy the Communist Party by trying to rid it of corruption.

So rather than focusing on the institutional situation that has allowed corruption to become endemic, Trong has instead focused on trying to change the nature of the individual within the party.

Many analysts have portrayed Trong as a conservative, almost reactionary, political figure. While mostly true, his anti-corruption campaign reveals a large measure of idealism in his philosophy – even a non-Marxist belief in the individual, which is surprising given that Trong rose through the ranks as a party theoretician.

“A mechanism must be set up to control…people who are vested with power and authority based on the principle that all powers must be strictly controlled by the mechanism,” he stated in 2018. “Power must be bound to responsibility, authority corresponds to responsibility, the higher the authority the heavier the responsibility.”

In other words, in Trong’s view, it is those at the head of the Party who must keep those below in check, rather than an institutional system of checks and balances.

For him, officials can be perfected. And it is only by developing a small band of moral individuals loyal to his own ideas that the Party can be clean and honest.

His isn’t a novel concept. “[Corruption] is an illness of government, and it can be cured only by the people. It will be severely punished, even by execution, no matter what position the person was holding,” once said the late
Do Muoi, the Party’s chief between 1991 and 1997.

What is different, however, is the scale of Trong’s anti-corruption campaign and how he has changed the Party to achieve it.

Cu Huy Ha Vu, an exiled, dissident legal scholar, observed last November that “for the time being, the prestige of the Vietnamese government is due to the widely perceived integrity of [Trong]. We cannot exclude the possibility that corruption could rise again, even with stronger intensity than before, after Trong has retired.”

Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong applauds after delivering a speech at the closing ceremony on the final day of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam's Communist Party in Hanoi on January 28, 2016. country. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Nguyen Phu Trong at the 12th National Congress of Vietnam’s Communist Party in Hanoi, January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Indeed, at present, those ensuring that the anti-corruption campaign stays on course are also the ones directing it. But what happens if a corrupt leader takes over the anti-corruption campaign?

Anti-corruption purges, after all, often and easily turn into exhortation rackets. To prevent this, Trong will no doubt try to ensure his own protégées are in positions of power after the 2021 National Congress.

Indeed, the jockeying has commenced for Trong and his allies to ensure their chosen successors and the “strategic cadre” he has tapped are selected at the apex of power.

It is almost certain that Trong will step down as Party chief, as his two-term limit would have come to an end, and, at 75 years old, he is currently well above the expected retirement age.

There is nothing to guarantee Trong and his allies will have their way. While the anti-corruption campaign has removed some Party leaders and officials from power, its scale can be exaggerated.

Only two Central Committee members have been removed for corruption from the 200-strong body since 2016, compared to three who have died.

Trong has also lost some committed allies in recent years. Dinh The Huynh, the former propaganda chief who became executive secretary of the Party Secretariat in 2016, would have been a contender to succeed him. But he has been out-of-action since 2017 because of ill-health.

Trong would most probably prefer his successor to be Tran Quoc Vuong, the Central Committee’s Secretariat and anti-corruption czar, though it is unclear how popular he is with the rest of the Party’s rank-and-file.

There are also lingering suggestions that Trong’s health might not hold up until 2021. He is thought to have suffered a stroke while touring Kien Giang province in mid-April. He was out of the limelight for several weeks before reappearing to chair a Central Committee plenum.

All the while, his anti-corruption campaign will likely never succeed as long as the country remains a one-party state with so much power concentrated at the top. Indeed, some think Trong is too preoccupied in not breaking the vase, rather than catching the mice.

But as the Party faces a percolating underground pro-democracy movement, and with its own position weakened by its ever-loosening grip on the economy, giving up its political monopoly would probably spell its downfall.

Much like the Soviet Union’s ruling communists, the risk for Trong and the Party is that they reform themselves to death.

David Hutt is writing a book about contemporary Vietnamese politics entitled “Vietnam’s Last Communists”