Vietnam’s first generation of communist leaders—Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Le Due Tho among others— came from scholarly backgrounds. Some of their fathers had served the emperors. Ho and his colleagues were seen as morally diligent, adminis¬tratively efficient, incorruptible. Even if they had been thieves, there wouldn’t have been much around to steal. But the second generation that now ran Vietnam encountered many temptations, with big money from donor groups and foreign investors floating around as a result of the gov¬ernment’s doi moi open-door economic policy. Suddenly Vietnam was awash in corruption. It reached from the policeman on the beat to the high levels of government. There had always been perks involved with Party membership—better housing, better jobs, better educational op¬portunity for the elite’s children, funded travel abroad—but now ordinary citizens knew they had to pay the traffic cop to avoid a ticket and bribe a low-paid civil servant to get something done at a ministry. Shopkeepers knew they had to pay to stay in business. Investors knew they had to pay to get a contract approved. In this new atmosphere, the leadership came to be viewed as cynical careerists; the Communist Party itself lost its mythical aura of wisdom and rectitude, which had enabled it to govern.
VIETNAM’S FIRST CONSTITUTION, written in 1946 during the colonial era, provided for freedom of speech, the press, and assembly. Many histo¬rians question whether Ho Chi Minh intended to honor those provisions and believe he included them to give his fledgling republic a democratic flavor that would appeal to the international community. The second constitution, in 1959, after the French had left, had a more typically com¬munist lilt, referring to Vietnam as a “people’s democratic state led by the working class.” The third, drafted in 1980 when Vietnam faced a serious threat from China, resembled the 1977 Soviet constitution. Article 67, however, guaranteed citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, the press, as¬sembly, and association and the right to demonstrate, with one caveat: “No one may misuse democratic freedoms to violate the interests of the state and the people.” Who decided the interests of the state and the peo¬ple? The Party.
Vietnam took a lot of heat from Western civil libertarians and human- rights activists. The condemnation was well deserved during the Dark Years, but the “new” Vietnam I saw emerging was as free as Indonesia had been under Washington’s staunch ally, Suharto. It was less abusive of hu¬man rights than China. Its press was not much more timid tiptoeing around officialdom than Singapore’s. What drove the West, particularly the United States, nuts was that Vietnam was communist. It was obsti¬nate. It didn’t get it. Didn’t see the light, many Westerners clucked. If Vietnam had only turned its back on communism, as Eastern Europe did, Washington’s hard-core anti-Vietnam factions would have embraced the country. “See,” they could have said,“we told you that wasn’t the way to go.” And in the end, they could have convinced themselves that Amer¬ica had won the war.
I was no fan of communism, and I thought the government had a fatal flaw: It offered neither leadership nor decisiveness. But Vietnam had fought its wars for the right to do things its own way, and since Vietnam’s people weren’t clamoring for multiparty democracy and most believed their lives were going pretty well under the current system, I didn’t think U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright served any useful purpose coming to Hanoi and wagging her finger at Le Kha Phieu while she lec¬tured on the need for democratization.
“How much longer do you think communism will be in Vietnam, Mr. Secretary-General?” she asked Phieu on one visit.
Phieu listened to her challenges for a few minutes, then turned to an aide and said in Vietnamese, “I’ve had enough of this lady. Meeting’s over.
HOWEVER CAUTIOUS THE STEPS, Vietnam undeniably was becoming a freer, looser, more relaxed society. I could see the transition taking place in a hundred ways.
Restrictions on fraternizing with foreigners had long since vanished, and I mixed freely with the Vietnamese, made friends, shared dinners with them at my home and theirs. Vietnamese could travel abroad and move unencumbered within their own country. Time, the International Herald-Tribune, USA Today, and other foreign publications were readily available at newsstands. The National Assembly, although hardly a bas¬tion of free debate, became more than a rubber stamp for the politburo and sometimes challenged ministerial appointments and policy. Farmers with grievances sat outside the headquarters of the Hanoi People’s Com¬mittee and, if they were patient, usually got to deliver their complaints to a minor bureaucrat. The Catholic churches and Buddhist pagodas were full on days of worship, and as long as the gatherings had no political overtones, people were generally free to practice their religion. Bao Ninh was allowed to publish his book, The Sorrow of War, that celebrated not the revolutionary glory of the war against the Americans but the distress and loss of ordinary North Vietnamese soldiers and the unfulfilled prom¬ises of an uncertain peace. (He wrote of envying his protagonist’s “opti¬mism in focusing back on the painful but glorious days [of war]. They were caring days, when we knew what we were living and fighting for and why we needed to suffer and sacrifice.”) From time to time newspapers carried articles, albeit approved by Party censors, declaring that corrup¬tion, smuggling, mismanagement, and the slow pace of economic reform were hurting Vietnam. The government started receiving human-rights delegations, and senior officials would at least listen and nod politely when the issue of sixty or so political and religious imprisoned dissidents came up. The activists considered them political prisoners; the govern¬ment said they were common criminals who had misused “democratic freedoms to violate the interests of the state and the people.”