November 15, 2007
Wall Street Journal Asia
Founded in 1930, the Vietnamese Communist Party is struggling with its identity — and role. Take the current debate over whether to change the party’s name. This rebranding exercise stems from a recognition that the communist label is anachronistic, and reflects poorly on officials who travel abroad to pitch trade and investment. And it’s not mere semantics — the party’s name says a lot about the party’s perception of itself and the image it wants to project at home and abroad.
Reports of a possible name change began floating early last year, prior to the 10th Party Congress. The articles, which appeared in Vietnamese-language, state-run Web sites, were probably meant as a trial balloon to gauge public opinion. Like the tough talk on corruption, discussion of the name change ceased right after the party conclave, with no further official action.
Recently, however, Singapore’s Straits Times and local Vietnamese bloggers have reported that party cadres have been instructed to study the issue further. Hanoi-based sources further suggest that two potential names under consideration are the "Labor Party" and "People’s Party."
Owing to the party’s murky decision-making process it’s far too soon to say whether this speculation will become reality. But in many ways, the party has already practically embraced such a change. For most of its life, the Vietnamese Communist Party was of the Marxist-Leninist mold in terms of ideology and organization. Though not officially saying so, it has ditched Marxism in recent years. First for its own survival and then to enrich its members, this ostensibly Leninist party has started to embrace capitalism.
But the challenge for the communist leadership is more serious than finding a new bottle for the old wine. Article 4 of the current constitution enshrines the Communist Party as "the force leading the state and society." So the constitution would probably have to be amended in the event of a name change, with references to "communist party" swapped with a successor name.
If the Party is going to go to that kind of trouble, then what about the name of the country itself? If "Communist Party of Vietnam" is out-dated, the country’s name — "Socialist Republic of Vietnam" — is just as much so. That raises a broader, more uncomfortable question for the party: What is the point of a socialist republic if there is no longer a communist party serving as its vanguard? One solution could be to revert to the former name of the North before 1975, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But that would raise even more difficult questions on what a "democratic republic" really means. For instance, should there be democratic elections in such a political regime?
At a more fundamental level, how can this new entity justify why it should have the automatic right to lead the country? The Communist Party says "history" has bestowed upon it the responsibility of monopoly power. This tenuous claim would appear even more absurd coming from a successor party to the communists.
That is an inconvenient truth that the leadership in Hanoi have tied themselves in knots to rationalize. By discarding a damaged brand, the party would like to renew its supposed mandate. Because the foremost goal is to maintain power, there is no ideological dimension to the internal debate. It is not a question of reformers versus conservatives, but rather how to prolong the party’s control in a post-communist era. In a sign that the party feels threatened by the small but determined democracy movement, a name change would also be an effort to institutionalize power in the face of growing domestic opposition.
Within Vietnam, the communist label no longer makes party membership attractive for young people. While an older generation may have enlisted out of idealism, many twenty-something professionals joining today do so to advance their careers. For many young Vietnamese, especially those who studied abroad, affiliation with communism is an embarrassment.
It’s too soon to say whether the name change will be approved, although it looks possible. Regardless of whether the ruling party in Vietnam is de jure communist or de facto fascist, however, the ultimate impediment for the country’s 85 million people is the one-party dictatorship. The Vietnamese Communist Party can call itself whatever it likes, but the Vietnamese people must have the right to choose the leaders of their country and participate in its political life. Without democracy, Vietnam will never develop to its potential.
Mr. Hoang is a U.S.-based leader of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy, unsanctioned political party active in Vietnam.