Vietnam's chattering classes (and a growing number of highly critical, if highly anonymous, bloggers), have laid much of the blame for the country's woes at the door of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Critics inside the Party, foreign diplomats, and academics all argue that Dung amassed unprecedented power in his own office, overturning a consensus-based approach to governing in the Politburo, the Party's 14-member top leadership body. More importantly, they contend that he used his excessive influence to support cronies and to drive the development of the powerful state-owned corporations and banks that have frittered away vast sums and served as a drag on growth.
When the Party's central committee recently met behind closed doors (as always) to thrash out a way forward, there was much speculation (or wishful thinking) that Dung would be deposed. But in the end, the Party opted for a classic "muddle through" solution. It criticized the Politburo and, in particular, "one comrade in the Politburo" -- widely rumored to be Dung, for mismanaging the economy. But it opted not to discipline them, lest "hostile forces" use the occasion to "distort and sabotage the country."
While senior Party members implicitly acknowledged the threat to its survival from poor economic performance, rampant corruption, and a surge in land and labor disputes, they clearly felt that the threat posed by accountability was greater. It is little wonder, then, that as the economy has struggled and social tensions have increased, Vietnam's powerful Ministry of Public Security has stepped up its crackdown on dissent. The latest among dozens to be arrested or jailed this year on catch-all charges of "propaganda against the state" are two songwriters and a bookish student, pictured on blogs hugging a teddy bear.
In the run-up to joining the World Trade Organization in 2007, Vietnam was on its best behavior when it came to human rights, persuading U.S. diplomats and others that it was committed to upholding freedom of speech and religion more seriously. But according to those same U.S. diplomats, the bloom is off the rose; they are now reluctantly chiding a Vietnam they have been keen to court as part of America's "pivot" back to Asia to counter-balance a rising China.
The crackdown hasn't been limited to political boat-rockers. Vietnamese authorities have been busy investigating the heads of state companies and banks who are widely blamed for Vietnam's economic woes. Among those accused or convicted: executives from Vinashin and Vinalines, the two giant state-owned shipping companies that collapsed after amassing billions of dollars in debt; Nguyen Duc Kien, the founder of Asia Commercial Bank (Vietnam's largest private bank) and one of the country's most prominent tycoons; and Tran Xuan Gia, a former investment minister and chairman of the aforementioned ACB.