Trong uses anti-corruption campaign to assert control

Trong, third from left, has consolidated control over state and party organs as he continues his mission to root out corruption and stifle dissent.

As the de facto leader of a populous, booming nation with a storied history in the heart of Southeast Asia, Nguyen Phu Trong can, nonetheless, count on virtually no name recognition outside Vietnam’s borders.

Rodrigo Duterte, Aung San Suu Kyi, Hun Sen and Jokowi all have an international profile – for better or worse – but Trong could cheerfully stroll the streets of Bangkok or Singapore without anyone taking the slightest notice.

Inside Vietnam, however, his image and persona is undergoing a radical transformation. Long seen as a grey ideologue from the dustier corners of the Communist party, he is now hailed in state media as an inspired leader and redeemer of the nation.

“Hot furnace

The change came abruptly in January two years ago, when Trong turned the tables on the new breed of outward looking, more charismatic and business oriented politicians, exemplified by the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.

The Voice of Vietnam outdid itself in a recent editorial, now hailing the once grandfatherly and bookish bureaucrat as the stoker of a “hot furnace” because of the ferocity of his anti-corruption drive.

Comparing him to great heroes and patriots of the past, the article heaped praise on the current anti-corruption campaign, through which Mr Trong has revived his political fortunes and struck fear into the hearts of would-be adversaries.

Mr Trong has been much in evidence this Tet holiday, appearing centre stage at a series of official functions.

In recent years Vietnamese had come to see the prime minister’s office as the centre of dynamism and leadership in a country embracing global trade and forging close strategic ties with former enemies in the capitalist world.

No longer – Mr Trong has made clear that power now lies with him and the Communist party machine. By taking a leaf from Xi Jinping’s book in China, he has personally associated himself with the current purge of allegedly corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

Lavish praise

The General-Secretary, according to state media, is a beacon of virtue and heroic courage, doing battle with the hideous scourge of corruption that threatens to destroy the nation.

Far from being uncomfortable with such an epic historical role and lavish praise from his nervous subordinates, Mr Trong appears to be revelling in the new found appreciation of his abilities.

The great firefighter certainly appears to have lost much of his earlier caution and inhibitions, staking his reputation on the capture of a fugitive oil executive, a hunt that culminated in a cold war style kidnap in a Berlin park.

In a new year’s address, Mr Trong again rammed home his priorities.

“We need more efforts in building a pure, strong, effective party and political system and resolve to combat corruption, wastefulness and other bad deeds,” he said.

Purity and ideological rectitude are recurrent themes with a man who finds the grubby world of business deals and economic development rather a distraction from his dream of Marxist nirvana.

Sinister side

While many Vietnamese welcome any move to tackle corrupt officials, even if the process is overtly political and utterly lacking in transparency, those hoping for a relaxation of political control see a sinister side to Mr Trong and his new ambitions.

“It’s necessary to …..strengthen national security, social order and safety, proactively prevent plots and sabotage activities of hostile forces,” he said in the same speech.

The implication is that anyone criticising government policies can be labelled a saboteur in hoc to sinister foreign forces bent on the destruction of the state.

It’s no coincidence that the current wave of repression against bloggers and other activists can be dated to Mr Trong’s revival at the head of a clique of other security hawks in the party leadership.

Vietnam’s collective leadership, of course can be confusing for foreigners, with the president, prime minister and party general-secretary, all performing duties on the national and international stage.

In a sense, that provides even more cover for Mr Trong as he seeks to reassert party control and crush opposition.

He’s so far escaped the international vilification that can be irksome for Burmese generals, Thai coup leaders, Cambodian strongmen or Malaysian kleptocrats.

Trong Phu Trong may be destined to remain a cipher on the international stage, but he’s no longer such an anachronistic throwback to his fellow countrymen. They must be asking what happened to propel such a mild mannered apparatchik into the fierce crusader they now see before them.