AWAITING THE PASSING OF THE TORCH 7

Since then Decree 216 has been resuscitated, and the government’s family planning program has been one of the most successful in South¬east Asia. Its goal, for the sake of child welfare and national development, is the creation of “small, happy families,” of two children each. Having three can result in a government employee losing his or her job or surren¬dering some perks. Sometimes there is a $12 one-time tax for a third child.
The government’s plan worked. In 1989, the average woman gave birth to 3.8 children. By 2001, the figure was 2.3. In villages, the People’s Com¬mittee loudspeakers boomed out the names of women who were to report to the clinic that morning to receive a fresh supply of pills and condoms. High schools began teaching courses on reproductive health and advising students where they could get condoms. A youth counseling center in Hanoi was set up. One of the questions teenage girls asked most often was whether kissing would make them pregnant. Condoms fell in such short supply that the government couldn’t keep up with demand, and condoms replaced Johnnie Walker scotch as the most popular product smuggled across the border witli China. The government plastered the cities with billboards and TV spots pushing condoms as a desirable alter¬native to abortion.
But Vietnam continued to have the world’s highest abortion rate, ac¬cording to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit New York research center, and abortion remained Vietnam’s favored means of birth control. Nearly 50 percent of all pregnancies were aborted, the Vietnam Institute of Sociology reported, and on average women had 2.5 abortions in a lifetime. They were performed quickly and privately in government hospitals and private clinics for $3-8. They did not require parental permission, and the patient did not have to supply information about herself.

I COVERED THE STUDENT-LED RIOTS in Jakarta that ended President Suharto’s long reign of power as well as the middle-class protests in Manila that pushed President Joseph Estrada from power. I wondered if anything like that could happen in Vietnam. Was there any scenario that would bring young people into the streets to challenge the government? I thought not. As much respect as I had for the postwar generation, its members seemed obedient to authority, almost passive in accepting the hand they had been dealt. But Western friends, who had been in Vietnam longer than I, said I had misread an important part of the culture: The Vietnamese will not be pushed around indefinitely, by foreigners or their rulers.
Emperors had come and gone over hundreds of years, and while I was in Hanoi peasant revolts had rocked Thai Binh and Pleiku Provinces, throwing the fear of God into the politburo. Thai Binh—where farmers protesting mismanagement and official corruption had stormed the Party headquarters, closed down the marketplace, and basically taken over the town of Quynh Hoa—was particularly worrisome to the government. The province was the very heartland of Ho Chi Minh’s revolution, and the protesting peasants were mostly former veterans who had served their homeland dutifully. Thai Binh had a population of 1.8 million, and it had sent a half-million of its young men off to fight the Japanese, French, Americans, and South Vietnamese between 1940 and 1975. Forty-seven thousand were killed. More than 1,800 mothers lost two or more sons. One mother lost all seven. If it could happen in Thai Binh … well, that was a thought the politburo didn’t want to think through in its worst nightmare.
I came to understand that Vietnam’s society operated at extremes. It could be unruly and undisciplined or quiet and controlled. There was no middle road. In some respects it seemed the former. You could see it in the chaos on the motor scooter-jammed streets, where drivers careened the wrong way down one-way thoroughfares, roared through red stop signals, and drove on sidewalks when kids turned boulevards into soccer fields. Traffic cops were few and far between, and most could be bribed, so in the absence of legitimate authority, people did as they pleased. But beneath the surface, Vietnam was quiet and orderly, because the govern¬ment kept a firm grip on the levers of control it deemed important in maintaining power.
One New Year’s Eve, I stood on the third-floor balcony of a restaurant on Ly Thai To Street. In the streets below, tens of thousands of young Vietnamese were packed shoulder to shoulder. They seemed good-na¬tured, festive, well-dressed, but when I had edged through the throng thirty minutes earlier to get to the restaurant, I had sensed—for the first and only time in peacetime Vietnam—the chill of tension. A cordon of policemen had blocked Ly Thai To and all the streets leading to the nincty-ycar-old French-built Opera House a block away. There huge spotlights lit up the night, and the echo of drums swept through the streets. A chorus of dancers and singers was already on the outdoor stage to welcome in the new year. The youths on the street thought this was to be a celebration for all Hanoi. They were wrong. The celebration was for the Party elite and invited guests. There was jostling as the students pushed against police barricades.
Then I heard a bottle shatter against the pavement. Stones bounced off or through the windows of the stately Mctropole Hotel across the street. I saw a policeman clutch his bloodied face with both hands. A roar came up from the throats of the crowd. The police line broke, and the cops ran in disarray. The crowd surged down the street toward the Opera House, shouting triumphantly as it moved.
Seeing a confrontation between kids and cops in Vietnam amazed me. I raced down the stairs from the restaurant to follow. Surely there would be big trouble at the Opera House as the momentum of disorder grew and the kids knew they had control. Then I saw something remarkable. As soon as they got to the Opera House, the kids dropped their stones. They stopped shouting. They slowed to a walk and melded quietly into the throng of invited guests, applauding the performers enthusiastically. They were spectators now, and that’s all they had wanted. They had not come to cause trouble. Whether intended or not, their message was clear: The pleasures of the evening were not the exclusive domain of invited guests. The Party crashers, too, were participants—in the celebration and in all that would come with the new year.
The scene reminded me that the third phase of Vietnam’s revolution had started, it could prove to be the toughest one of all. The first phase had been the wars against France and the United States. That had been won and relegated to the past. The second had been the transition into the global economy that had enabled Vietnam to rejoin the international community. And now the final phase was for the soul of Vietnam: Who would participate? Who would lead? Who would reap the benefits? Who held the right to decide what Vietnam would become?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Categories

Meta