Written by Huong Le Thu.

A deficit of trust seems to be a common problem both on a regional and country-to-country level in East Asia. Within many Asian nations, society’s trust in governments is undergoing serious challenges. Protests have spread across the region: in Thailand months of protests finished with a military coup; in Taiwan students of the Sunflower movement protested against their president; even pragmatic Hong Kongers occupied the Central to express their discontent with the electoral system. In this context, although it is unlikely to witness such dramatic events, Vietnam is also suffering from a deficit of trust. For a country characterized by relative political stability, and where the trust towards the government has been high over the past few decades, recent developments indicate serious concerns for society.

An important case is the confidence vote for the National Assembly that took place on 15 November. 50 key personnel in the Vietnamese political leadership had votes cast on them, including the President, Prime Minister, Vice-Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, Deputy Speakers of the Parliament, the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Police (Home Security). This is the second time that the practice of confidence voting has been exercised and 485 out of 497 parliamentarians were present at voting. This year, President Sang gained 380 votes indicating ‘high confidence’, landing him second place overall.

Sang’s performance was considerably higher than Prime Minister Dung who received 320 votes of “high confidence”. Nevertheless, it can be regarded as a success compared to the previous vote when he received 210 votes, showing his position has regained firmness, especially in the context of his achievements in improving ties with Washington. His foreign policy line of prioritizing and internationalizing the South China Sea disputes as well as embracing the US as a new partner is regarded as the key to the restoration of his popularity. At the ASEAN Summit in Naypidaw last week, President Obama accepted Dung’s invitation to visit Hanoi; such a symbolic ‘achievement’ before the confidence vote could not have failed to influence the level of ‘high confidence’ scores. This is a remarkable turnaround given the fact that in 2012 he faced a serious scandal that risked ending his political career. But because of that scandal, the confidence voting practice started, introducing a new form of self-reflection to the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).

There are different ways to interpret the voting. Voting for confidence in the Vietnamese Parliament is seen as a tool in the internal power struggle between factions in the CPV. While to some observers the results display fairy accurately the state of real political influence, others say that the voting would only make sense if the votes came directly from the citizens. Instead they come from Party members who most likely are involved in the power struggle themselves. Many citizens attach no importance to the results and even call this a theatrical spectacle created for the regime to refurbish its image. Despite these limits, the optimists insist in seeing this practice as a sign of the changing political culture in Vietnam. According to this new practice, if the low confidence votes are consistent, the ‘distrusted’ politician must step down. The vote of confidence, hence, can be seen as an acceptable expression of “to let them stay or to let them go” dilemma.

A constructivist view suggests an additional way to look at it. Notwithstanding the accuracy and meaning of the results, the framing is also interesting. As there was no option to vote for “no confidence”, the options starting from “low confidence” can be seen as a way of giving face too. According to such rhetoric, no one is not trusted here, rather, it’s just a matter of low or high trust.

The questioning of confidence in the top leadership in Vietnam is not disconnected from regional and international affairs. The recent crisis caused by China’s oil rig deployment and how it was resolved had much to add to the existing discontent. Economic slowdown, large-scale public debts and widespread corruption had consistently laid ground for the people’s dissatisfaction with the leadership. The tensions on the international ground with the growing perception of a real threat of conflict added to the societal stress. In some ways, the nationalist wave of protests was seen as a giving vent to public discontent. However, as the example of uncontrolled (the exhaustive explanation is yet to become public despite the conviction of the perpetrators) riots that blotted Vietnam’s reputation as a safe investment environment and caused financial losses for Vietnamese factories, workers and the government, proved that aggression was not the way to release tension.

The oil rig incident created doubts expressed by many political activists and bloggers. Recent months also witnessed many arrests and (in)voluntary exile to other countries of the most prominent opposition bloggers, many of them had been critical about the CPV’s relations with the Chinese Communist Party. The distrust is not uncommon among the ‘open dissidents’. As many as 61 former Party members and intellectuals have signed a petition demanding more a transparent and decisive response to Chinese acts that threaten Vietnamese sovereignty. They also called for political reforms and broadening the space for information access and freedom of expression. This movement is a legacy from a long struggle against government’s decision to mine bauxite – a very environmentally hazardous project that can cause an ecological catastrophe to Vietnam, exhaust the Vietnamese economy–to supply China.

The current external political context makes Vietnam feel even more vulnerable. Those that Hanoi was supposed to be closest with, and has cooperative strategic partnerships with – China and Russia – overnight have become the ‘aggressor’ behind the oil rig ‘invasion’ and the indifferent bystander who did nothing to help, not even on rhetoric level. For a moment, Hanoi felt as it has in the past that there is no one it can trust. Despite cozying up to Washington and Tokyo in recent months, there are certain conditionalities towards which Hanoi remains hesitant and that might still keep the US and Japan away from becoming Vietnam’s new best friends. Trust remains an obstacle for Vietnamese foreign policy – and among certain circles within the CPV – in aligning with ‘the new’ partners. In sum, multiple and long-term elements as well as historical context have built up to a widespread feeling of distrust evident in Vietnam’s external and as internal relations.

Huong Le Thu is a Vietnam specialist based at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. She is also a CPI blog Emerging Scholar. Image Credit: CC by