AWAITING THE PASSING OF THE TORCH 3

We talked for a couple of hours that day. I said I could not understand why people his age didn’t find the idea of democracy more appealing. “I have enough freedom to live,” he said. “I understand what I can do and can’t do.” For now, a monoparty system was best for Vietnam, Hung said. So what did people want? “Just peace,” he answered. “No more fighting, please.”
“What do people of your generation think about communism, Hung?” “A lot of my friends say communism is bad, stupid. But I say, careful. You were born a communist. You were taught under the communist sys¬tem. Everything in your head is communist. You don’t understand capi¬talism. I am a communist naturally, just like I am a Vietnamese naturally. That’s how I was born. It’s like you can only have one mother.” .
Hung’s reason for embracing communism sounded no more radical than would that of an American explaining why he was a Republican or a Democrat. Hung wasn’t talking about Marxism-Leninism. No one be¬lieved in that any more, except a handful of Communist Party hacks. If a young Vietnamese called a colleague “comrade,” it was only to tease him and imply that he was out of step with the times. The fact was that Hung did not need the Party as people of his father’s generation had. In his fa¬ther’s time, when there was no private enterprise, Vietnamese had to have Party support to get a career, a job, a promotion, a house. If an artist wanted to exhibit his paintings, he could do it only if he had a Party spon¬sor. Only members of the Communist Youth League could sit for univer¬sity entrance examinations. But in the new Vietnam that was emerging, people only needed the Party to advance in jobs in government, the mili-tary, or the state-run business sector. Young men like Hung could get ahead on their ability, and when a sampling of young Vietnamese was asked by pollsters what quality they found most appealing in a person, more than half answered “talent.” After that, the most respected qualities were “self-respect and high-mindedness,” “altruism,” and “decisiveness.” “By the time I joined the Party in 1984, it had changed,” said Nguyen Khuyen, who was the editor of the English-language Vietnam News and showed courage pushing government censorship to its limits. “There was a time when it was doctrinaire, rigid, when intellectuals were looked down on with suspicion. Now the Party has people like me. What does it offer the young? A chance to move ahead. It’s a strong link to my genera¬tion. It was the Party that won independence, not some alien body im¬ported into our midst as in Eastern Europe. It was born from the people. A native Party.
“But things are changing. I’m sixty-three and you might say I’m quite conservative. Before, I couldn’t dream of living away from my family. But one daughter is married to a German and lives in Germany. My second daughter is very vocal—liberal you might say—on everything. She stays out late, does what she likes. But I’ve managed to accept it so far. I’ve managed to make my children remember our family tradition for honesty, loyalty, respect for elders. So I’m reconciled to change. But I’m more comfortable with traditions being preserved.”
Several of my younger friends were Party members who worked for the government, having passed up the risks and potential rewards of the private sector in favor of a job with lifetime security and poverty wages. Joining the Party was an arduous process that could take many years. Each prospective member had to find a sponsor, usually the chief of a neighborhood or village Party cell. The applicant’s personal history was checked. Did he or she do well at work? How did he get along with oth¬ers? Had he made a contribution to his community? Could he be critical of himself? Had he ever violated the law? If the candidate were consid¬ered worthy, he or she would be invited to begin political training within a cell and would serve an apprenticeship of six months to two years. I had many rational exchanges with friends who had joined. The discussions weren’t about ideology. Rather they were about seeking change from within the system, about building the nation, about leading commend¬able lives, about finding a network of support. Some of my friends saw the possibility that the Vietnamese Communist Party would evolve one day into a socialist system such as Sweden’s.
“There’s a big difference between how the old and the present genera¬tions view the Party,” Tran Le Tien told me after becoming a member. Tien, the son of Vietnam’s former ambassador to Algeria, was studying to get an economics degree and hoped one day to be a diplomat himself. “In the past the Party dominated everything. It was sacred, like a religion. It was the ideal way of life. But a lot of the new generation wants to get out of the Party. They don’t pay dues. They drop their membership. In the south, people don’t want the Party to come into the workplace because it just means endless meetings. I think it’s tragic they don’t understand how much the Party has done for Vietnam. But the Party is facing a problem: How does it make itself suitable for the young?

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