by Frank Joyce
Southeast Asian nations could offer a way for countries like ours to become more democratic and prosperous.
Vietnam is mentioned in the news quite often these days. But the references are almost always in relation to Iraq. What’s not being covered is what’s going on in Vietnam itself — which is unfortunate, because economically, politically and socially, it might just be the most interesting and inspiring nation on the planet.
In the interest of full disclosure, my affection for Vietnam goes way back. As an anti-war activist I met with Vietnamese liaisons to the anti-war movement on several occasions. In 1970 I visited Hanoi and was profoundly impressed with the character and resolve of the people, not to mention the beauty of the country itself. Even then, during wartime, the food was terrific, too.
It still is, as I discovered earlier this year when I returned to Vietnam. The people are open, friendly and confident, just as they were before. But now, not only is the war over, Vietnam is the second-fastest-growing economy in the world. (China is first.) The standard of living of millions of people is improving at a rapid pace.
From the remote countryside to the cities, it is fascinating to witness an economy developing so quickly. It’s like looking at one of those medical scale models of the human body minus the skin covering. You can see the equivalent of the arteries, the kidneys, the stomach, the liver — virtually the whole economic circulation system and digestive tract before your very eyes. Building is going on everywhere. I’ve never seen so many brick factories in my life. Scooter traffic is intense. Internet cafes and appliance stores abound. All of that activity is cheek to jowl with the agricultural production that still dominates the economy. It’s changing fast, but 80 percent of the population is still peasants. One reason the energy is so high is because the country is so young. The overwhelming majority is under 25.
Is it utopia? Of course not. People are proud of the gains that are being made in income, education and health. But no one is shy about telling you there are problems. During part of my trip, I attended a “Consequences of the Changing World Economy” seminar. It was cohosted by the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy and the Journal of Nature, Society and Thought , an American Marxist political journal. The scholars of the National Academy spoke quite openly of limitations and problems to be addressed. So did our tour guides, the very well done English language newspaper Viet Nam News , and others.
One Vietnamese speaker at the conference framed the challenge as trying to figure out how to get the good from the “market economy” while avoiding the bad.
Isn’t that what we’re all trying to figure out?
But the Vietnamese are starting from a quite different place to answer the question. The structure of their economy and their politics — not to mention their culture — is decidedly not the same as ours.
What is happening in Vietnam (and in China and Laos, too) is unprecedented in the evolution of economic development of our planet. Never before has a market economy been deliberately introduced into a one-party, state-ruled, socialist economy. This is a significant structural development.
The 20th century taught us to associate mass consumption with capitalism and the absence of personal consumption with socialism. Now things are starting to look different. A twenty-something Vietnamese person with a Nokia cell phone, an iPod and a car looks just like a twenty-something in Chicago with a Nokia cell phone, an iPod and a car. That does not, however, mean they represent exactly the same economic forces at work, or that they have identical values and aspirations. Sometimes a thing that walks like a duck and talks like a duck ain’t no duck.
Vietnam did not start its transformation with much capital in the traditional sense of the term. That’s why, in 1986, it adopted the Moi Doi policy of opening up to foreign investment in the first place. But accepting foreign investment does not mean that Vietnam has a capitalist class that rules the country. That doesn’t mean they don’t have “rulers,” just that the rulers didn’t acquire their power from their private ownership of the means of production.
Further, most of the foreign investment in Vietnam is not from the United States or, as is the case in China, even from Europe. It is from Asian “tigers,” such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. (It’s worth noting that two of these, Taiwan and South Korea, are U.S.-approved “alternatives” to “communist” states.)
U.S. investment is growing rapidly, as symbolized by the construction of an Intel chip-making plant near Hanoi. But it’s likely to be quite some time, if ever, that investment from U.S.-based companies dominates investment from other nations. Does that make a difference? It certainly could. Malaysia has one of the most aggressive government plans to reduce poverty of any capitalist country in the world. The incomes and living standards of workers in Taiwan and South Korea have been rising significantly for a number of years. The incomes of U.S. workers, as we all know, are stagnant or falling. Different values and different economic dynamics produce different priorities and different polices.
Finally, what’s also interesting in Vietnam and China is that a lot of attention is being paid both to “traditional” socialist values and to developing what one Vietnamese called “realistic socialism.” Others use the term “socialist market economy.” The New York Times reported in a front page story back in March, (“A Sharp Debate Erupts in China Over Ideologies “) that there is a lot of conflict and “soul searching” going on in China these days. Ross Terrill made a similar, albeit hostile point just a few days ago in a Times op-ed piece titled “China Is Not Just Rising, but Also Changing,”
Vietnam is soul searching, too. Many of the conversations underway there decidedly do not conform to our assumptions about socialist societies. Consider, for example, this story a few months ago in the Viet Nam News about a National Assembly debate on revising the labor code. Keep in mind that this is from the government newspaper.
NA debates Labor Code, Notaries Law(08-06-2006) HANOI — National Assembly deputies yesterday debated revisions of the Labor Code and the draft Law on Notaries.
Amid the controversy over adjustments to the Labor Code, the deputies focused on matters relating to strikes.
According to delegate Nguyen Thi Hong Khanh from southern Dong Nai Province, most of the strikes that occurred recently were spontaneous and did not comply with Labor Code regulations.
She said this was because the Labor Code was not suitable to the realities and had a low feasibility.
Most of the strikes were struggles to claim legitimate interests and rights of workers. Khanh said it was time to revise the code to make strikes legal.
Like many other deputies, Khanh also proposed that the code not divide collective Labor disputes into two types — rights and interests — because it was difficult to clearly distinguish between rights and interests.
Striking was workers’ “last weapon” to protect their legitimate rights and benefits. Going on strike was one of the rights of workers, so the code could avoid limiting the right to strike. The code should revise articles to limit illegal strikes only, she added.
Sharing Khanh’s opinion, Bui Sy Loi, northern Thanh Hoa Province delegate, said the root of spontaneous strikes was not only the Labor Code’s low feasibility but also trade unions’ weakness.
At present, both employers and employees did not obey regulations on strikes as regulated in the Labor Code, he added.
Many deputies affirmed that noncompliancy with Labor Code regulations was also a reason for strikes happening. Notably, violations of legal regulations had not yet been penalized properly.
In terms of matters of who should organize and lead strikes, deputy Khanh said, “I am very worried about assigning trade unions to organize and lead strikes.”
The fact was that the 1,200 strikes that occurred in recent years had not been organised and led by any trade union, Khanh said. So would it be feasible to assign responsibilities to an organization that had not yet led any strike?
Moreover, trade unions’ personnel were paid by employers, so sometimes they dared not struggle for the protection of employees’ rights and benefits, she added.
Khanh proposed that the code should create an open mechanism which would allow other bodies to organize and lead strikes.
In China we know of labor disputes that have been brutally repressed, and labor leaders who are in jail. That does not seem to be the case in Vietnam. Several strikes took place at foreign-owned factories near Ho Chi Minh City while I was there. As far as I could tell, all were reported in the press. None were suppressed. No strike leaders were threatened, arrested or otherwise punished. A high-ranking official of the Ministry of Labor told our delegation that the strikes were strengthening the hand of those in the government who had long been advocating a nationwide increase in the minimum wage. And, sure enough, a few days later an increase was announced.
The issues raised by the Viet Nam News Labor Code story are fascinating. The Vietnamese seem to be adapting to the new economic reality in which they find themselves. For all the rhetoric about the “new!, new!, new! global economic reality!,” labor law reform in the United States seems to consist almost entirely of old-fashioned union busting.
What if the “hybrid” economies of Vietnam, China and Laos evolve in ways that make equitable, prosperous and, over time, genuinely democratic societies? What if long-term socialist societies incorporating elements of capitalism are more successful than capitalist societies incorporating some “socialism” — or none? At the very least, isn’t it healthy for the global economy to have more than one model of economic development?
For all of Tom Friedman’s cheerleading for the pace of economic development in India, UNICEF not long ago reported the following: “China has surpassed the United Nations goal for 2015, halving its percentage of underweight children and reducing the death rate for children under 5 by more than one-third, the report shows. In India, on the other hand, the share of children who are undernourished dropped by only six percentage points since 1990, leaving a staggering 47 percent of children under 5 underweight.” ( New York Times , May 3, 2006)
It all reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw the other day that said, “I love my country, but I think we need to see other people.”
What kind of society do we want? Can we even give ourselves permission to ask? Just because the 20th century was all about the triumph of capitalism over communism, does that mean that deep down we really want capitalism as it is currently practiced, or do we just think we’re stuck with it?
Is this it? A hundred years from now will Adam Smith still be required reading worldwide? Will there be statues of Ronald Reagan be in every town on this planet and maybe some other planets too?
Maybe. Maybe not. Me? I think a better world is possible. A better world is necessary. A better world is already happening. Who knows, maybe a hundred years from now the statues will be of Arundhati Roy, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro and Nong Duc Manh (the Viet Nam Party general secretary).
*Note: Originally found on AlterNet. The author’s mention of labour leaders being jailed in China should not be exaggerated – this is a very rare phenomenon.