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Changing of the guard in Hanoi a mixed blessing

Changing of the guard in Hanoi a mixed blessing

GIVEN the past economic mismanagement in Vietnam, it’s no surprise that this week’s cabinet overhaul has engendered a hope that things may now improve.

Before assessing the specifics, however, it pays to get a few things straight about the overall impact of the reshuffle.

First, it has boosted the conservative wing of the ruling Vietnam Communist Party and marginalised the party’s more progressive, reformist elements.

Impartial observers, and certainly those in the foreign business community, view this as a sadly predictable and retrograde step.

But it has happened, and we must take stock of what it signifies for Vietnam, as well as for Cambodia and the rest of the region.

In a nutshell, it means systemic reform of Vietnam’s oss-ified political and economic regime will not happen in the next five years.

Second, and more positively, it means Vietnam’s festering dispute with China over territorial rights to islands in the South China Sea may have more chance of being resolved.

That’s because the incoming hard-liners are closer to their Chinese comrades than the sidelined reformists and are thus  more likely to reach an accord, even if it is only temporary.

Third, it confirms what is already palpably obvious:  that any liberalisation of Vietnam’s rigidly controlled media is a non-starter.

Now to specifics. The new duo at the top of the VCP are  general secretary and Politburo boss Nguyen Phu Trong, 67, and head of the Secretariat Le Hong Anh, 61, who is effectively the party’s CEO.

The white-haired, grandfatherly Trong, an inscrutable  veteran, was an acceptable compromise leader, much as stodgy porridge is acceptable to hungry workers. He fills a hole, but is hardly savoured.

Anh is the former big brother-in-chief, whose tenure as minister of public security was marked by a deeply sinister and all-pervasive surveill-ance of Vietnam’s citizenry, scores of whom were jailed.

Below those two come the new President, Truong Tan Sang, 62, and the reappointed Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, 61.

Sang loathes Dung, who has been given another five years despite his woeful first-term performance.

Indeed, Dung’s retention as PM is perhaps the most lamentable feature of the new cabinet line-up.

Sang is a skilful wheeler-dealer who has worked his way to the top despite a ser-ious crime-related scandal when he was party boss of Ho Chi Minh City.

Most observers hoped Sang would be made PM and Dung demoted to the largely ceremonial post of president, but it was not to be.

As regards the key money men, it’s a mixed picture.

Vuong Dinh Hue, 54, the new finance minister and former state chief auditor, is a commendable appointment who is viewed as clean and surprisingly competent at handling financial matters.

Regrettably, Nguyen Van Binh, 55, the new governor of the State Bank of Vietnam, is a less wholesome dish. He served for some years as one of the bank’s five deputy governors and is known to be close to Le Duc Thuy, a previous, notoriously corrupt Bank of Vietnam governor.

So there is concern that the nation’s fiscal policies will remain mired in a depressing cycle of currency devaluations, credit restrictions and curbs on access to US dollars.

But let us end on a bright note, for the Vietnamese are an industrious and filial people who deserve better from their government.

And they may just get it from two splendid new figures on the scene.

One is the clean, competent and open new deputy prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 55, who – fingers crossed – may become Vietnam’s next prime minister.

The other is youthful new foreign minister Pham Binh Minh, 52, the only outright liberal in the new cabinet.

He is the son of a revered former foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam’s most senior diplomat for more than a decade during the volatile 1980s.

With luck, his eloquent and sophisticated son Minh will stay in the job even longer.

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