Corruption in Vietnam and Masures to Combat It: Uneasy Challenge for the CPV

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In Russian science the authors are in the first rows of those who have presented detailed characteristics of corruption in present-day Vietnam, including its definition, the degree and causes of the calamity growth, its main manifestations and consequences. The estimation of the scale and the way to overcome corruption is based on the data of international organizations and experts.The article shows a gradual tightening of the CPV-SRV leadership’s policy in this sphere, including trials of certain high-rank corrupters, the ban on leaving the country for party officials suspected in corruption etc. The anticorruption content of relevant official resolutions has been emphasized. As a whole, the efforts being undertaken have been assessed positively jointly with the conclusion that corruption in the Vietnamese society has become the challenge for the ruling party, the challenge which the party cannot combat efficiently, so far.

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Introduction In January 2021, the 13th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam took place in Hanoi. It formulated the task of making Vietnam a modern, economically wealthy, industrially developed country with a high living standard by 2045, i.e., by the 100th anniversary of its independence. [Nghị quyết Đại hội 2021]. Evidently, a healthy society is implied, too. At the same time, specialists on Vietnam emphasize that strengthening corruption along with other negative processes in the ruling party and in the government interferes significantly in the solution of the task. Documents of the CPV Congresses, including the 13th Congress (January, 2021), state the relevance of the combat against corruption. It is admitted that corruption has achieved the scale of “national calamity” [Nguyễn Văn Hùng: 10.06.2020]. This determines the importance of a deep analysis of accompanying phenomena missing so far in Russian Oriental studies. This article discusses the problem. Objective and detailed researches of the phenomenon in Vietnam are usually conducted jointly with Western researchers and are published in the West. In the 2020s, a set of outstanding works has been published: [Nguyen Thu Thuy, and van Dijk 2012]; [Nguyen T.V. et al. 2016]; [Vu Anh Dao 2017]; [Nguyen Thi Xuan Huong 2018]; [Markussen, Ngo Quang Thanh 2019]. The same problems are addressed in the works by Nguyen Van Hung [2020] and Tran Huu Thang [2019]. The authors of this group believe, that without the efficient anticorruption policy and without its rigorous putting into effect, corruption “can lead to the failure of the Communist regime and of the Communist Party of Vietnam” [Tran Huu Than 2019:11]. Independent Vietnamese experts take the positions like Le Hong Hiep, collaborating with the American CSIS. There are few such works in the RF, because these data are difficult to access. Among Russian colleagues, V.N. Kolotov is the only one who pays the greater attention to the consequences of corruption and measures against it [2019, 2021], but so far, he has not written any special works on the theme. We had to study the current situation on the basis of mass-media materials, on expert estimations and on one of the early researches [Mazyrin 2007: 74-76]. It shows that the serious problem emerged and was addressed many years ago (the opinion of many experts of the CPV circle); it means that for more than twenty years the campaign has been inefficient. In the West, the corruption matter is used to criticize the SRV political system. In academic literature it is a subject of analysis for such prestigious specialists on Vietnam like A. Fford [Fford 2021], C. Thayer [Thayer 01.17.2018], M. Gainsborough [Gainsborough 2013], B. Kerkvliet [Kerkvliet 2001]. There have appeared profile studies of wider specialties researchers [Fritzen 2002], [Rand & Tarp 2012]; [Bai et al 2013]. Kaufmann, Kraay, and Mastruzzi, commenting corruption assessment by Transparency International, the leading organization in this sphere, acknowledged that they cannot be precise, irrespective of whether subjective or objective indicators had been used. The well-founded conclusion has been made: inaccuracy and often subjectivity of the basic data can influence the correctness of scientific conclusions on the theme of research [Korrupciya vo V'etname: 25.06.2021]. Majority of experts analyze the level and manifestations of corruption, the achievements in the combat against it proceeding from the acknowledgement of the urgency of the work and of harm done to society. But as the efficiency of this campaign is low unlike the obvious growth of the Vietnamese economy and the living standard in Vietnam, the US researchers seem to “warrant” the nearest prospect and to direct the means to do the right thing. On Vietnam’s example Jie Bai from the Pennsylvania University and Ben Olken (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) came to the conclusion that corruption is not so serious a problem as they usually believe [Ne nado borot'sya: 25.11.2013]. Their theory argues that gradually economic growth will overcome corruption itself, as corruption and poverty usually go hand in hand. Usually, the high level of corruption is observed in the countries with the low-income level per person. As economy grows and wealth increases, corruption decreases, these countries just “are growing out of” it. As a result, officials, supposedly, lose their wish to take bribes and companies lose their wish to bribe [Bai et al. 2013: 29]. The theory is optimistic. The only question is: How correct are the calculations and when will the effective relief be brought. For the SRV its verification is difficult because of low incomes (the republic belongs to the low subgroup of states with the middle GDP per person) and the plan to achieve the high-income level by 2045, i.e., in a quarter of a century, as the 13th Congress of the CPV declared [Nghị quyết Đại hội 2021]. Other researches argue and the life approves that anticorruption measures assist to increase social wealth of people on the whole, to reduce inequality in incomes and to increase social costs, particularly in public health and education spheres. Also, it is known that corruption level comes down with economic stabilization, including a decline in inflation. There are objective conditions for this in Vietnam [Mazyrin 2016: 259-275]. The main corruption characteristics in Vietnam During the recent decades international and national profile departments have constantly recorded a high corruption level in current Vietnam. Corruption is considered to be a systemic problem, directly touching all aspects of socioeconomic and sociopolitical life of the Vietnamese state. In particular, they point to great casualties inflicted to the state budget, the low quality of the state apparatus work, deterioration of the justice system. The whole thing undermines the foundations of the socialist system in the SRV, show declining citizens’ confidence in the government and the ruling Communist Party, lead to destruction and depreciation of social, ethnic, and other norms [Tran Huu Than 2019: 3]. International organizations call corruption a serious obstacle for the realization of the national development strategy, due to the governing efficiency decrease, it interferes with economic growth and the efforts to reduce poverty, misrepresents competitive conditions in business. The corruption issue is widely discussed in mass media and on Vietnam’s political platforms. Experts and ordinary citizens consider unanimously that corruption will be still more dangerous to the Vietnamese society and create obstacles for its fundamental political and economic modernization. Corruption is reputed the main dangers to social, finance, economic and political stability of the SRV. Vietnamese researchers and prestigeous international organizations assesss that for a long time Vietnam has been seriously affected with corruption at all levels. At the same time, there is no significant progress in combating it. Virtually everywhere corruption penetrated into minds and working style of state officials, and of the high rank CPV members. But specialists cannot determine precisely the essence of this phenomenon, because corruption in the West differs from that in Vietnam. The Vietnamese call it “protection” (clientelism), and it is part of their culture. They say: “Corruption is everywhere in life: if you want to do something quickly and easily, you must bribe. With no bribe the work will not be completed” [Nguyễn Duy Xuân: 04.02.2017.] As there is no generally accepted definition, comprehension and measuring of corruption, it is difficult to establish the degree of corruption in Vietnam. Not all the countries, Vietnam among them, subscribe to the corruption definition by NPO Transparency International, though they accept its rating. The survey done by this international organization in 2016 showed that more than 30% of Vietnam’s population are forced to bribe officials to receive administrative permissions. Some consider the scope to be virtually wider, up to 60-70% of population. Maruichi and Abe state that one has to give bribes of USD 50-500 for a license or for business registration. [Korrupciya vo V'etname: 06.25.2021]. Totally (so in surveys) companies pay informally USD 20-30 thousand annually, i.e., nearly half of their gain, before taxes. [Nguyen T.V. et al. 2016: 362]. State officials and party workers are usually blamed for corruption. They are displeased by the population and business. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 (Transparency International), taking into account 180 countries and territories, Vietnam is perceived the 104th (ranking a score of 36 out of 100), in 2019 the 96th ranking a score of 37 (Fig.1). This is a progress compared to 2012-2015 [Corruption Perceptions Index 2020]. Among SEA countries Vietnam is the 5th, ceding to Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. As before, the SRV low position in the crucial international rating allows its Western partners to blame Hanoi for inefficient anticorruption measures, to hint at the CPV power monopoly being the cause of this phenomenon and to pressure it to get concessions [Vietnam Corruption Index]. Fig. 1. The assessment of the dynamics of Vietnam’s successes in its combat against corruption (scores) The source: Transparency International [Corruption Perceptions Index 2020] Publications of Vietnamese mass media and researches by specialists point to the following main causes of emergence and development of corruption: - the role of law enforcement, such as police and the prosecutor’s office, is not yet realized fully in the anticorruption combat. Virtually many corruption offences are realized under cover and with the participation of law enforcement itself; - the normative act, obliging all officials to publish information on their property status and incomes is formal, as it is not applied to any relatives, even next of kin, such as children and spouses; - the transition from the state management of economy to the free market, the emergence of individual business, privatization of state enterprises create favorable conditions and preconditions for the growth of corruption; - bribing in order to get offices, posts, diplomas, removal of age restrictions etc. obtains mass character; - corruption is one of the main consequences of deterioration of moral and ethical values and the life mode of some officials in the government and party workers in the CPV; - underestimation of the role of citizens and mass media in the anticorruption combat by state authorities. The opinion exists that mass media information is not always trustworthy and some publications are puff pieces, which complicate the activity of monitoring bodies to detect and suppress corruption cases; - corruption risks are connected with the people’s culture and traditions. In all the countries of SEA (also, in Vietnam) there exists a pronounced tradition to make presents (virtually to bribe); people believe that a good motivation is necessary to address any task. Many of them consider corruption to be useful to maintain harmony in the society, to support individual interests of citizens, including their incomes growth. In their characteristics of concrete economic consequences of corruption in the CPV, mass media and experts point to the following: virtually corruption devours part of means from the state budget, as it usually happens in the construction industry (purchasing materials, financing, audit organization etc.). Contractors are often appointed with no competitive tenders and the budget of construction projects exceed actual costs. The governmental inspection data show that from 2008 to 2015 real competitive tenders in the sphere of transportation and environmental protection in Hanoi related but to one of 15 projects. Contractors of the rest projects were appointed breaking the law. Later these projects’ realization terms extended and the costs exceeded 1 trillion dongs (about USD 50 million) [Hàng loạt dự án: 03.26.2020]. As a result, many objects of the state-owned property fell into hands of high-rank executives. Virtually, in this way the cohort of “red capitalists” is being formed. At the conference (July 12, 2016) on the estimation of the anticorruption law realization from 2005 to 2015 the SRV Government published the data of economic losses due to ten years of corruption: in sum they amounted to USD 3 billion. Only 7.8% of the stolen sum returned to the budget [Nguyên Hà: 04.02.2017]. Corruption brings down competitiveness of enterprises, as some of them having no sufficient capacities cannot implement their commitments, which leads to the loss of confidence and other consequences, such as the low quality of construction. Corruption damages investment and business environment. Due to unofficial expenses (investors bribe to win the contract), the general budget of projects increases and profitability decreases; investors often hesitate about investing. Besides, due to such phenomena as bribing, corruption, privileges, and nepotism, the enterprises which obey the law get into an inequal, disadvantageous economic situation. As a result, in Vietnam, like in other countries with the high corruption level, entrepreneurial and investment activities are at risks, slowing down economic growth. In trade and economic relationships between countries corruption threatens projects efficiency, affecting the partners’ international prestige. It reduces donor’s confidence due to a low utilization of funds having been got for implementation of many projects of social and economic development. It is clear, that both direct economic losses and indirect ones, due to corruption, are equally dangerous. Direct losses mean shortfalls in the state budget, indirect ones lead to the general decrease of economic efficiency. The activization of the anticorruption policy Realizing the danger of the current situation, the CPV leadership and the SRV government adopted numerous resolutions, strategies, political and legal measures to prevent and stop corruption. One of the chief champions of restoring order is Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPV. This was the chief reason to elect him for the third term in 2021. He steers a strict and consistent course of uncompromising anti-corruption combat in all its forms (Fig. 2) [Tổng Bí thư Nguyễn Phú Trọng: 07.25.2020]. V.N. Kolotov is of the opinion that Nguyen Phu Trong initiated the anticorruption program Đốt lò (The blazing furnace) on cleansing the country leadership of compromised elements, and that campaign was of great importance in the Party’s self-cleansing [Kolotov 2021: 38-39]. Fig. 2. General Secretary of CC CPV Nguyen Phu Trong speaking at the session on anticorruption measures on July 26, 2019. Photo: VIA The law on anticorruption combat was adopted in 2005. The World Bank estimates that it is one of the best anticorruption legal acts in Asia. Martini, one of the report preparers of Transparency International, mentions that the definitions, frameworks and criteria used in the law are borrowed either from Western sources and organizations or from those sponsored by the West. No surprise, that the law is complicated for Vietnam, but it says a lot about the orientation of Vietnam’s leaders [Korrupciya vo V'etname: 06.25.2021]. On December 9, 2019, updated anticorruption law № 36/2018/QH14 (Luật phòng, chống tham nhũng) came into force in Vietnam. It was the first document that introduced the concept of “conflict of interests” in legislation. The normative acts applied to the law interpret the practice of restrictions imposed for former state officials who aspire to positions in certain organization of the nongovernmental sector. Also, they introduce the updated rules of making and receiving presents by state officials [Vo V'etname vstupil v silu: 06.16.2021]. Commercial organizations are required by the law to adopt the code of conduct and to introduce the internal control to prevent conflicts of interests and corruption, as well as to form the culture of incorruptibility in organizations. Separate organizations of the nongovernmental sector (public companies, credit organizations etc., created by decision of high authorities, as well as public organizations with rules allowing to collect offerings of population) are required by the same regulations as state organizations, i.e., information disclosure and transparence of activity, conflicts of interests, responsibility of leaders and their deputies for corruption in their organizations. In 2009, the SRV ratified the UN Convention against Corruption, having promised to adopt relevant measures. After that the anticorruption campaign in Vietnam acquired more systemic character. As a result, the report for 2010 of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) mentions the partial implementation of various articles of the Convention in Vietnam, such as the tightening the bribery and felony theft laws. The report says that the SRV authorities intensify the anticorruption campaign, having arrested some officials of high rank. However, these arrests could have been politically motivated. Despite some progress, the UNODC report shows that some articles of the Convention have not been implemented. Thus, bribery in the sphere of individual business has not been criminalized, though this sphere is the main one in Vietnam’s economy [UNODC 2010]. Also, the CPV strengthened supervision. Thus, by decision of the 6th CC Plenum of the 12th convocation (2012) there was established a special Party body, namely, the Anticorruption Committee under the CC Politbureau, and the Domestic Policies Department was restored in the CC Secretariat. The same departments were established in all provincial and municipal committees of the Communist Party. In June 2018, the Party control bodies got the right to ban leaving the country to those CPV members who are suspected of being involved in corruption and abusing their authority. This measure is expected to prevent corrupters’ attempts to avoid the Vietnamese justice abroad [Podozrevaemym v korrupcii: 06.17.2021]. Another strict measure for corrupters’ punishment is the right of the Party control bodies to seize the property obtained by criminal means. Further it can be confiscated and returned to the state. This is another possible factor to make officials to think whether it is worth commiting unlawful acts. During the two years after the 12th Congress (by the end of 2018) a disciplinary action had been taken against 53306 Party members in the frameworks of the anticorruption campaign. 1300 of them had been brought to justice, punished for corruption and other crimes. In 2019 the Control Commission of the CPV Central Committee revealed many new serious unlawful acts. In the years between the 12th and 13th Congresses more than 90 officials of the CPV Central Committee nomenclature were submitted to the disciplinary action, 21 former and current Central Committee of the CPV members and two former members of the Politburo among them [Lê Hồng Hiệp: 07.06.2018; Nguyễn Văn Hùng: 06.10.2020]. The authorities are resolute to fight for the victory. They argue that there are no and there must be no “prohibited zones” for the sake of the victory. Thus, the SRV government has completed the program of preventive anticorruption measures for 2020 and is assessing its result now [Thành lập Ban Chỉ đạo: 06.01.2021]. The program for 2021-2025 has been adopted. It emphasizes an increased role and individual responsibility of leaders and employees of governmental institutions in combating corruption and in efficient preventive measures against abuses. The requirement to strengthen the combat against moral degeneration of party leaders and the further corruption growth is the central theme of the recent CPV Congresses documents. Thus, the CC report to the 12th Congress set the task “to fight in every possible way the ideological, political and moral degradation of party members, as well as manifestations of “self-transformations” and “self-degradation”, to take strict measures to stop and eliminate corruption and profligacy” [XII s"ezd Kompartii 2016: 87]. The 12th Congress documents said that cases of corruption and profligacy in the Party still are extremely serious, becoming more refined and complicated. The 13th CPV Congress calls party workers and members “to strengthen the combat against corruption, profligacy, bureaucracy, crime and social vices” [Nghị quyết Đại hội: 02.25.2021]. Before the 13th Congress, Party conferences at all levels elected highly moral and qualified workers for realization of these instructions. In V.N. Kolotov’s opinion, “the delegates having been elected among the true comrades were a kind of a covering force in the way of corrupters and renegades driving for power” [Kolotov 2021: 39]. Western countries actively attracted nongovernmental organizations to reveal corruption cases. The US and its partners are encouraging the NPO activity in the SRV in every way possible [Mazyrin 2007: 103-104], stating that they assist to form civil society here. The CPV-SRV leaders do not dare to attract NPO not to damage political stability in Vietnam and not to lose their power. In response they hear criticism that Hanoi is not aware of constructive role of civil society organizations, and citizens are not mobilized to fight corruption because of the fear that their free initiative will undermine the Communist party monopoly. The most high-impact anticorruption cases Malfeasances by officials of the highest rank and their punishment can be considered such cases [Top 10 vụ tham nhũng: 06.12.2021]. The brightest example was the trial of a group of the state corporation PetroVietnam leaders. They were arrested and got lengthy jail terms. Dinh La Thang, the former Minister of Transport, the Chairman of the Board of the company, was convicted on the case. In December of 2017, when arrested, he was the Deputy Leader of the Central Committee of the CPV Commission on Economy and one of the Politburo members. He was the first official of such a high rank in the CPV history, who served his sentence for corruption. Also, Trinh Xuan Thanh, the former chairman of the Board of PetroVietnam Consrtruction, was severely punished. Besides them, other twenty persons of interest in the corruption case were sentenced. They worked in the state petroleum corporation and in several subsidiary companies. [Byvshie top-menedzhery: 22.01.2018] (Fig. 3). As a result of the corrupters’ actions, the holding companies, including banks, construction firms, power stations, and textile factories, suffered losses of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Party is fighting corruption in security forces, which, due to their great influence and importance for public security, used to be significantly protected against sanctions. As a result, 38 senior officers, including 23 generals (Bui Van Thanh, Deputy Minister of Public Security, and Tran Viet Tan among them) were prosecuted in 2016-2019 [Lê Hồng Hiệp: 30.01.2020]. In 2019, Truong Minh Tuan, the Minister of Information and Communications, his predecessor Nguyen Bac Son and 12 persons of interest in the case of buying 95% of company AVG shares by MobiFone mobile operator, were sentenced to imprisonment for the violence of the rules of state investments and bribery. The same year, there were initiated more than 200 corruption cases, i.e., about 500 persons were involved in the case. Many of them were sentenced for the theft of large amounts of state propriety, violence of economy managing rules and malfeasance [Top 10 vụ tham nhũng: 12.06.2021]. Fig. 3. The trial of convicted Trinh Xuan Thanh and other persons of interest of the PetroVietnam corruption case. Hanoi, January 8, 2018. Photo VIA V.N. Kolotov justly mentions another danger of corruption in current Vietnam, namely, corrupters’ connections with the Western countries, where they conceal their illegal proceeds. As a consequence, the intelligence services recruit those who transferred their capitals to the West and relatives of the corrupters of high rank as well as the management of this spy ring by intelligence services [Kolotov 2019: 7]. The ruling circles and mass-media of the SRV assess these cases as a significant result of anticorruption actions, the evidence of their intensification; the anticorruption law is enforced and the leadership of Vietnam is determined to cleanse the Party rows and the Government. In our opinion, they are important, but fragmentary demonstrations of the anticorruption campaign. Still, it is far from its completion, though it deserves to be assessed as a reassuring one. According to Le Hong Hiep, a political scientist, it is still unclear, how long this campaign will last and if it will be of use to decrease authorities’ corruption at local level, where it affects immediately the everyday life and business. Otherwise, people will consider the campaign to be but a political show [Lê Hồng Hiệp: 07.06.2018]. The institutions being in everyday contact with citizens and business, such as tax and customs bodies, do not show clear signs of improvement, so far. Thus, the survey conducted in the frameworks of the action for transparency showed that only 13% of respondents in Ho Chi Minh City said that during 2019 corruption had been decreasing [Lê Hồng Hiệp: 30.01.2020]. Therefore, experts suggest that the campaign focus should be shifted to a lower level, concentrating not only on high-impact cases. At the same time, they call to reform political and legal institutions to prevent corruption, instead of combating its consequences. This will make the anticorruption campaign more stable and efficient, less dependent on some leaders. At the same time, moderate pace of the anticorruption campaign in Vietnam is probably due to authorities being cautious. Thus, Nguyen Phu Trong is of the opinion that in this case “one must be quiet, sober, very wise and have strategic view”, “to kill the mouse, but not to break the vase”, implying the importance of political stability in the society. As a result, since 2016 the anticorruption campaign in Vietnam has been characterized with “slow but stable approach, combining strong political will and well-thought-out tactics of the combat” [Lê Hồng Hiệp: 05.07.2018]. It is noteworthy that this campaign entails the economic slowdown in some fields. Therefore, the leadership of Vietnam, renovated after the 13th CPV Congress wishes to find balance between the anticorruption combat and the support of initiatives to contribute to the economic growth [Lê Hồng Hiệp: 30.01.2020]. This approach is particularly needed in the conditions of COVID-19 pandemic increase and its consequences for the SRV economy in 2021. Conclusion During 2012-2020, the CPV leadership has taken significant efforts to reveal and put an end to corruption in the state sector. First and foremost, it has taken measures to support the actions legally and to bring them into line with international legal norms. These efforts have brought certain positive shifts assisting to detect a set of big cases in the highest levels of government. Corruption scandals aroused the indignation of the Vietnamese community with the immense scope of financial crimes of high-rank persons. At the same time, they helped to strengthen the positions of the CPV leaders who combatted corruption. Nevertheless, the existing tendency could not be broken, so far. Virtually everywhere corruption penetrated into minds and working style of state officials and the CPV members of high rank, having a strong negative effect on the conditions in Vietnam. To all appearances, one can conclude that the current CPV leadership’s course to strengthen the anticorruption campaign will go on in Vietnam, but it seems to be oriented to grass-roots party and governmental bodies. Big scandals seem to decrease, as they are of great harm to the Party prestige.

About the authors

E. V Kobelev

Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Ph.D. (History), Leading Researcher, Centre for Vietnam and ASEAN Studies

V. M Mazyrin

Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

D.Sc. (Economy), Chair in Centre for Vietnam and ASEAN Studies, IFES RAS; Professor of the Institute of Asian and African Studies, Lomonosov Moscow State University


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