Changing political landscape allowing for greater public criticism in Vietnam
By student correspondent Diana Tung
Public criticism of the Vietnamese government has become commonplace in a nation previously known for strict political censorship, according to Emeritus Professor Ben Kerkvliet.
Professor Kerkvliet’s research focuses on data collection from the early 1990s through to 2015 to trace the emergence of increasingly vocal and public political complaints. He presented his findings at a recent talk on political criticism in Vietnam at the Department of Political and Social Change.
“Prior to the 1990s, there was certainly a lot of criticism among citizens in Vietnam, but it was very low key. Since the mid-1990s political criticism in Vietnam has become very, very common,” said Professor Kerkvliet.
In contrast to foreign depictions of Vietnam as totalitarian and authoritarian, Professor Kerkvliet found ample evidence that challenged this simplistic view.
“Some scholars have written that the government tolerates no criticism. Other scholars though, have pointed out that’s really not the case. It’s much more nuanced and much more diverse by way of government reactions” added Professor Kerkvliet.
During the course of his research, Professor Kerkvliet and his assistant Pham Thu Thuy amassed hundreds of news articles, books, essays, blogs, and reports of political criticism. He also identified several themes and decided to explore four: labour, land, nation, and democratisation.
To vent their frustrations, Vietnamese citizens turned to various methods such as protests, petitions, and strikes. Meanwhile, government officials have been trying to navigate a fine line in responding to citizens’ public actions.
“To a considerable degree, authorities either let citizens speak or could not stop them. Moreover, authorities took rather seriously the idea that the government was ‘of the people, for the people, and by the people”, said Professor Kerkvliet.
Still, there have been limits to what the government has tolerated, with authorities resorting to evictions, intimidation and imprisonment.
To date, there has been insufficient attention paid to the changing nature of public political criticism in Vietnam. As Professor Kerkvliet said, “nobody has put it all together and done an analysis of some depth across the different topics.”
Professor Kerkvliet’s upcoming book will address this gap in scholarship and provide an in-depth understanding of contemporary public criticism in Vietnam.