In contrast to nearby Burma, which has been freeing political prisoners and starting to implement overdue economic and political reforms, Vietnam's leaders appear to be trying to turn back the clock in hopes of shoring up their power. Over the last year, they have introduced new restrictions on imports and foreign workers, and are finalizing regulations to increase state control of the Internet and to reassert Soviet-style price controls.
The vast scale of the government's repressive apparatus probably assures the Party its grip on power for many years to come. But without a radical shake-up, the Party's political legitimacy will continue to ebb and the country's great economic potential -- only glimpsed to date -- will remain under wraps. Even reform-minded, Western-influenced officials feel caught in a bind. "We need a major crisis if the country is to move forward," says one mid-ranking economic official. "But we're scared about what will happen in such a situation."