Letter from Vietnam, March 2001

We received a letter from Vietnam which gives a wider and more political view of the situation in Vietnam on the eve of the important forthcoming congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam on "market led socialism".

Dear Comrades,

"With the introduction of "the market economy under state control", social polarisation in Vietnam is rampant. There are those who have accumulated a lot of wealth and there are others, particularly among the peasants and urban poor, have almost nothing.

In the schools and the universities pupils and students are taught about how the 'socialist' economy is far superior to that of capitalism, but that first the material conditions for it must be well established. And the bureaucracy's policy of national industrialisation and modernisation is absolutely right in trying to establish these prerequisites. Large-scale farming, large-scale industry are soon to be established, otherwise backwardness and decline are unavoidable.

However, when you go to the villages and rural areas to see how the peasants work on their land we see the opposite. Although some machinery is used (mainly in the southern delta), most of the work is still done by hand. They use animals to do the ploughing. They cultivate rice and other crops by hand. That is of course no better than their ancestors thousands of years ago. In spite of this they are still able to achieve a big output in rice production. Vietnamese peasants, especially those in the Cuu Long River Delta, can grow enough rice not only for themselves, but also a huge surplus that allows the bureaucracy to pump millions of tons of cheap rice into the world market each year.

But they are reaching the limits. The price of rice and of other agricultural products (coffee, sugar cane, pepper, etc.) is plunging downwards. Sometimes, the amount of money that a farmer can get from selling one kilo of coffee beans is not enough for him to buy a cup of coffee at a modest street cafe'. When farmers do achieve a big harvest they are angered by the behaviour of the bureaucracy! To prevent the price from falling, the bureaucracy buys large quantities of rice, and especially of coffee and hordes it. The regime waits for the prices on the world market to go up. But when will they go up? Obviously many other regimes are now also hoarding products and waiting for the prices to rise. The peasants are still in a dire situation.

Just look at what is happening in the rural areas. The idea of large-scale farming is still a myth. Volunteer collective farming has been almost completely smashed. Each peasant family owns a tiny plot. And the paths along the borders of the rice fields are now virtually a barrier to the introduction of tractors and other advanced farming tools. The introduction of such machinery would certainly free the peasants from a large amount of manual and sweated labour. However, if the peasants were to use tractors this would involve damaging their neighbours' land, which cannot be done. Furthermore, smallholders cannot afford to buy these tractors and other machines and they cannot afford the costs of maintenance and fuel. Thus, the peasants, especially in the north, still use animals to do the ploughing instead. About three to five families share one plough animal between them, and they feed it in turn (usually, their children do this job).

The introduction of machinery and western technology would also have another outcome: millions of Vietnamese peasants who work in cultivating rice would become unnecessary. The amount of time and labour for farming would be greatly reduced and yet large amount of rice would still be produced. It could even be doubled or tripled. Under the anarchy of the capitalist system, would these Vietnamese peasants find a better life from that which they have now? Where would millions of redundant farm labourers find work?

With a clear and conscious plan, these redundant labourers could be organised to participate in other industrial sectors to produce the real wealth and with the help of machinery, technology from the advanced industrial countries, the idea of industrialisation and modernisation could succeed in practice.

In other words, the socialist perspective cannot be achieved in isolation in Vietnam. If the bureaucracy had been aware of this, if they had been capable of giving up the vulgar idea of building socialism in one country, if they had allowed the workers to democratically participate in running the state and the economy, the life of millions peasants and workers would have been greatly improved.

The failure of the bureaucracy to grasp this has meant the rise of 'social devils' and a social impasse, as can be seen in the rural areas and even in the cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. In the cities we see the rise of drug smuggling, a heinous crime against the defenceless. We see the youth drawn into the use of cocaine. Prostitution, child abuse and rape are rampant, and organised crime is spreading everywhere.

The daily papers are full of articles about drug smuggling, drug abuse, cases of rape, official corruption, and complaints from the peasants and the poor. There are reports about young people who commit suicide by setting themselves on fire, as a way of escaping from the cocaine addiction. Not long ago, a father in a village not far from Hanoi, in the hope that his soon would not take drugs any more, poured liquid acid into his son's eyes to blind him. Isn't this the germ of barbarism? Many may think that these examples may be 'one-sided' and argue simply that "that is life". However, in some streets of Hanoi you can buy a dose of cocaine much easier than you can buy a cigarette. Not long ago in a campaign to clean up a "dangerous district" in the centre of Hanoi, they found about 30 bags of syringes that people (mainly youth and migrant poor) had used to inject cocaine into their veins.

In the cities, at rush hour, thousands of people get on their motorbikes and flood the narrow roads congested with traffic. They pump toxic dust into the air, together with carbon dioxide and they also create a lot of noise pollution. They are suffocating the cities. The urban poor live in very bad housing.

Yet, while all this goes on, the new rich, that have emerged as a result of the "market economy" live in luxury. The private sector is developing fast. In particular, private medical centres are mushrooming everywhere. This is because in the state-run hospitals the mass of officials do not hide their defiant, greedy, corrupt and superior manner. So the logic (for those who can pay) is "you might as well go to the private clinics where you pay for healthcare, where the client is god, and where you are treated far more pleasantly. Within this context a layer of degenerate hedonistic youth is developing. They are of course the children of the rich. These are just a few examples of the situation in the cities.

Another recent development have been the ethnic clashes in the South. But the authorities have tried to stop any information on these events from being circulated.

The irrational use of pesticides and fertilisers in small-scale family industrial production in many villages and rural areas of Vietnam is contaminating and poisoning the water, the air and the land. Along the highways countryside sweatshops are appearing everywhere, just like mushrooms after the rain. They are drawing thousands of rural youth from the villages to work in the IZs and EPZs to produce profit for the private bosses. However, the bureaucracy does not plan to urbanise the areas around these sweatshops. But the youth and the peasants coming into these areas are converting themselves into urban poor by setting up living accommodation in terrible slum conditions. (You can see this in the article "Houses for workers..."). They cannot wait for the regime to build houses for them. This is the case even for those workers who are "under contract". When the contract expires they are simply forced to sign another, and another, and so on. This means the boss has little responsibility towards these "workers under contract".

The second article I am sending you (Vietnamese girls marrying Taiwanese men...) is about women, young poor girls from the rural areas. Again, young girls in the rural areas seem to suffer the worst.

It's curious to see how now the bureaucracy is now attempting to give the Vietnamese people a feeling that there is democracy in the country. Everyone, from young children to the aged, can have some feedback on the drafting of political documents (I highly recommend you visit www.cpv.org.vn or www.nhandan.org.vn). Those who want to change some words can just send a letter to the media (press, television and so on). All ideas or criticism are welcome. They even broadcast live an interactive TV-show where they discuss the draft about socialism in Vietnam.

A rather funny thing happened on that show. The draft document contains some sentences about the "road towards socialism in Vietnam (see my suggested site). It uses both the words "plan" and the word "market". A high ranking bureaucrat was invited to take part in this live TV show, and he argued that we should not use the word "plan" here because it reflects the planned and centralised economy and, with that, the hardship of the past. The word "plan" can lead to a misunderstanding and ordinary people do not like that, the word "market" would be enough.Confusion is heavily ingrained even in this so-called "expert". There are many other funny stories like that one.

The bureaucrats are well aware that their is hardly any democracy in their system, so they are now offering some kind of glasnost themselves in an attempt to avoid the demand for glasnost or any other complaints coming from below. It is an absurd situation where the government's behind-the-scenes actions are almost unknown to the ordinary people. While everyone knows all about Clinton, who his wife is, who his daughter is and so on very little is known about the high ranking bureaucrats in Vietnam. There are two moments in the life of a high ranking bureaucrat when you can hear something about who they are in the media: when they first come to power and when they... die.

There is still much to say, but I have to end this letter here. I hope that the above lines at least help you to understand what I (and probably my friends and many youth in Vietnam) think."

Comradely greetings,
Nguyen Ki,
March 2001