Party Congress set for late January

New top leaders are due to emerge from the congress. Photo courtesy Reuters

New top leaders are due to emerge from the congress. Photo courtesy Reuters

The Communist Party has finally confirmed the dates for next month’s long awaited party congress amid signs of growing repression, and little indication that a more transparent political system is emerging.

Members of the Central Committee are due to select a new state president, prime minister and Communist Party boss at the 12th National Congress between 21 and 28 January.

The recent arrest of the human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, and a series of physical attacks on other government critics, leave little optimism about the current political climate at the top levels of the party.

Hanoi has taken significant steps during 2015 to improve relations with the United States. This culminated in the reception at the White House in July of the CPV General-Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, and the conclusion of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in October.

Nguyen Phu Trong is due to be replaced as general-secretary

Nguyen Phu Trong is due to be replaced as general-secretary

However the year closes with an official rebuke from Washington for Vietnam’s lack of progress on human rights, and a stark reminder of the obstacles blocking further progress.

“We’re deeply concerned by the arrest of human rights advocate Nguyen Van Dai under national security-related article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code,” said the U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby.

“We urge Vietnam to ensure its laws and actions are consistent with its international obligations and commitments, and (call) on the government to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience,” he said.

Behind bars

Washington has made clear that it will not lift what remains of its embargo on arms sales to Vietnam until the government eases its repression of independent bloggers, civil rights activists and campaigners for religious freedom.

130 political prisoners remain behind bars despite the release, or forced exile, of some prominent figures this year.

Power struggles inside the Communist Party appear to have left little scope for liberalisation in the run up to the congress.

Party officials who in some circumstances could favour more tolerance of dissent, and closer ties with Washington, appear to be subsumed in a broader power struggle between factional interest groups and patronage networks.

The recent boasting of the Public Security Minister, General Tran Dai Quang, of his success in crushing dissent, was seen as an ominous reflection of the current mood.

Violent attacks

He is regarded as a powerful figure in an opaque political system, where the plots, feuds and manoeuvrings of party bosses remain a taboo subject for the state controlled media.

Until the arrest of Mr Dai, Vietnam had tended this year to avoid high profile legal cases against government critics – a concession, perhaps, to outside critics while high profile trade negotiations were under way.

However, recent weeks have seen an alarming rise in the number of violent attacks by plainclothes agents on prominent dissidents.

Analysts see little sign that the leadership of the Communist Party is capable of bold new initiatives and willing to throw off the conservative reflexes of the past.

The trade deals with Washington and the EU hold out the prospect for accelerated economic growth, and on paper at least, encourage a more outward looking approach.

EU disappointed

There is encouragement in the trade pacts, for example, for the reining in of massive state companies that have proved a significant drag on growth. Vietnam has also agreed, under the TPP, to allow free labour unions.

But the European Union has been as disappointed as the US at the signs of political progress so far.

EU diplomats described their latest meeting with government officials on December 15 as “one of the most challenging human rights dialogues conducted by the EU with any country in the world.”

They said the message they received was the same as in previous years; that Vietnam’s progress in economic development was the key to improving human rights.

Delphine Malaard, the head of the political section of the EU Delegation, said revisions to the Vietnamese penal code were discussed.

“We regret that the revision of this code does not bring some of the provisions into line with international human rights standards,” she said.

And the diplomats expressed concern about recent violent attack on labour activists.

Fear of dissent

“We asked for the Vietnamese authorities to find out who the aggressors were, and told them that we want to see those cases investigated and solved,” said Juan Zaratiegui, the political adviser of the EU Delegation in Vietnam.

Vietnam stands at an important crossroads in its economic and political development.

It has taken significant steps to ease its heavy dependence on China and improve relations with the US and other western countries as well as Japan and India.

But the Communist Party remains inward looking and hidebound.

Its intense secrecy and fear of dissent, all too evident in the run up to the congress, hold out little hope that a new leadership will emerge in January with a bold and innovative approach to political reform