- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

HANOI — Nong Duc Manh, Vietnams new Communist Party chief, faces the same double-barreled challenge that defeated his predecessor: pushing through difficult economic reforms while shoring up a declining party whose corrupt cadres so far have resisted changes.
The elevation of Mr. Manh, 60, to secretary-general of the Communist Party of Vietnam a month ago was televised nationally amid an atmosphere not of gloom, but of hopeful anticipation.
From family-run shops and the stalls along the Red River to the Old Hanoi quarter on Ta Hien street, old and young watched the election of Mr. Manh by delegates waving their red voting cards at the countrys Ninth Party Congress, held in an imposing granite building directly across the street from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where rests the embalmed body of the hero who freed Vietnam from foreign colonialism.
It was in this shadow of Hos legacy that members of the party he founded chose a leader they hope will chart a revolutionary course appropriate to this millennium.

A party in decline

Can Mr. Manh, a nonmilitary leader and relatively unknown — though university educated, and former chairman of the National Assembly — indeed breathe life into promised but unfinished reforms? And can he shore up a demoralized and declining Communist Party whose membership today numbers only 2.4 million in a country of 80 million?
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Manh pointedly acknowledged Ho Chi Minhs influence. "Every party member, regardless of position, must try their best to be worthy of the party that was founded by the late Ho Chi Minh," he said before promising "tougher and tougher" measures against abuses of power. The new secretary-general warned that the long road to reform would continue to be bumpy for a while longer.
For years, people have speculated that this outsider was being groomed for Vietnams top leadership. At least part of the basis for this expectation was the persistent belief among many ordinary Vietnamese that Mr. Manh is a son of Ho Chi Minh, born out of wedlock.
The seeds for these rumors float effortlessly across the still waters of Hanois Hoan Kiem Lake. The most telling point was that Mr. Manhs mother was Hos servant at the time of his birth in the fall of 1940. Hos biographers and others close to Vietnams liberator have all but admitted that he had intimate relationships with young female aides.

An aura of mystery

Fueling the gossip were Mr. Manhs unorthodox and meteoric rise in party ranks without any major experience in the party or service in a leadership position during the Vietnam War. As in a fairy tale, he was given surprising opportunity for educational advancement when he was plucked from a remote northern village and sent to university studies in Russia. All this adds to Mr. Manhs aura of mystery.
William Duiker, in his acclaimed biography of Ho Chi Minh, observes: "Sure, there have been conversations among Vietnamese officials about [Mr. Manhs relationship to Ho] for some time and indeed it may imply something significant about the future direction of the party and the government."
No conclusive evidence has emerged to confirm this belief in the new Vietnamese leaders heroic legend, but many observers have noted that Mr. Manhs response to the media scrutiny and general awareness of this sensitive matter seem reminiscent of Hos ability to deflect questions.
"I want to say that I have a father and mother," Mr. Manh has said. "Unfortunately, they died early. They are no longer here. As to Uncle Ho, I have to say that in Vietnam, we are all Uncle Hos children."

'Red Seed' of hope

This so-called "Red Seed" legend deserves careful examination, not for its sensationalism but for what it says about the Vietnamese people, particularly the current party leadership.
The ruling Politburo has been ineffective for the past six years on the fundamental issue of stability versus reform. Thus it may very well view Mr. Manhs Ho Chi Minh connection — unsubstantiated though it may be — as a valuable historical link and popular symbol to rally support for reforms and party unity.
Today, the National Assembly is struggling to find a balance between control — as evidenced by what many regard as the snails pace of its economic liberalization — and the unpredictability of free markets.
Mr. Manh, a recognized consensus builder while he served in the National Assembly, knows that with the dismissal of his predecessor as party chief, the conservative ex-Gen. Le Kha Phieu, an opportunity has come to step up the pace and enlarge the scope of Vietnams economic transformation.

Difficulties anticipated

While addressing Communist Party members and the country after his election, Mr. Manh seemed confident, saying that "the future of our nation is very bright, but we will still have to overcome many difficulties and trials along the way."
Vietnams transformation from a command economy to one driven by market forces, officially called "doi moi" (renovation), was declared a success soon after it was undertaken in 1986.
Coincidentally, this was the pivotal year in which Mr. Manh was catapulted to membership on the Central Committee. Over the past decade, Vietnams economy experienced annual growth at 8 percent to 9 percent, resulting in drastic reduction of poverty and a new veneer of wealth in the cities — particularly in the south, a region dominated by Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by most South Vietnamese.
In fact, though, much of the optimism and growth was generated by foreign direct investment, particularly in the hotel and resort business, and was dependent on an anticipated tourist boom that never materialized.

Rhetoric versus reality

A chasm still divides rhetoric and reality in Vietnam, so that even if the rumors about Mr. Manhs relationship to Ho Chi Minh proved to be false, they already have exerted a beneficial psychological impact.
For Vietnamese, Mr. Manhs dramatic rise to the countrys highest position echoes Ho Chi Minhs popularity during the struggle for independence from France, and later against the United States. Like Ho, Mr. Manh is seen as the man who will get things done.
"I feel quite positive about the appointment. After all, hes not from the ideological wing of the party, and his stewardship as chairman of the National Assembly should have helped him hone skills necessary to compromise all factional and ideological differences," said Sesto E. Vecchi, an American lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City, who has spent years in Vietnam.
The secretary-general recognizes that he must put Vietnams economic and social agenda on a fast track. Specifically, this calls for Vietnam to widen its relations with all its neighbors — especially China, at times a historical foe — and to establish an expanded dialogue with the United States that goes far beyond accounting for American soldiers still listed as missing in action.

U.S. trade sought

Hanois task regarding Washington will include championing the present U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement, which may get derailed or at least delayed in the U.S. Congress since it is now part of an omnibus trade package prepared by the Bush administration.
Also on the agenda are establishing closer cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), removing trade and investment barriers, curbing rampant party corruption, and encouraging the development of private enterprise in the country.
Frederick Brown, associate director of Southeast Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins Universitys School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), agrees that Mr. Manh "is a most clever and pragmatic loyal party cadre, who recognizes that he must … encourage business development so that Vietnam can compete globally."
Privatization carries high internal political risks. This is not only because it will bring higher unemployment amid the closing of bankrupt and inefficient state-run companies, but it also undercuts the party and the governments ability to manage the economy.

'Grasp opportunities'

"The success of the reform process depends on our ability to grasp opportunities and overcome dangers, and at the same time broaden our relations with our friends in the world," Mr. Manh said.
The new secretary-general is aware that he needs friends who span the political spectrum. He was put at the helm and his predecessor forced out despite Gen. Phieus powerful military ties, indicating clearly that the Communist Party sees a need to change with the times.
As part of last months changing of the guard, six other Politbureau members were retired with Gen. Phieu.
More than half of Vietnams 80 million people are younger than 25. As the first generation in nearly 150 years to come of age in a time of peace, their dreams for the future challenge Communist Party slogans. Many aspire to prove that nimble new Communists can be effective capitalists too.

Optimism is widespread

In Vietnam today, even amid flagging foreign investment, optimism reigns. Ask a resident of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City about the 1997 Asian currency collapse or the recent stock-market slump, and hell tell you that 15 years ago his family went barefoot.
Young Vietnamese relish their newfound freedom to establish new enterprises.
Yet, Mr. Manh and the party do not have a blank check. They need to reach out to the young people the party needs as members and to the peasants whose disaffection becomes more glaring each year.
Many delegates at the Ninth Party Congress used language like "dan chu tan goc" (grass-roots democracy). For these cadres, democracy means participation in decision-making and linking party promotions to direct public feedback. In a collective state, no single leader can easily take exclusive responsibility for sweeping changes in national politics.
The mystery and legend that hovers near Mr. Manh, however, might enable him to do that.


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