Review of: Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, Speaking Out in Vietnam: Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party–Ruled Nation

By Anh-Susann Pham Thi

Speaking Out in Vietnam is a long-awaited contribution to Vietnam studies and will be essential reading for many future projects that aim to focus on the landscape of resistance in non-democratic and repressive contexts. Benedict Kerkvliet investigates the dynamics of public political criticism and state authorities’ responses, showing that public political criticism has evolved into a dominant feature of Vietnam’s political landscape. Drawing on his earlier articles and years of collecting and analysing hundreds of newspaper articles, recordings, video clips and other online material (the analysis ends in 2015), this book features diverse political criticism performed by activists, workers, intellectuals and former or current VCP officials over wide-ranging topics including corruption, land confiscation, labour relations, foreign policy and the political system itself.

The introductory chapter examines Vietnam’s political landscape. Discussing whether Vietnam’s political system can be considered as authoritarian, he draws on Juan J. Linz’s definition: “Authoritarianism is a political system that, among other features, lacks an “elaborate and guiding ideology” and, if there is a political party, it “is not a well-organised ideological organisation”(4). For him, the VCP is ideological and highly organised and hence, not authoritarian. However, questions concerning what makes an ideology hegemonic, let alone legitimate, and to what extent the VCP’s organisation is grounded in the workers’ and less privileged people’s everyday realities, is not scrutinised. Rather, state authorities’ reactions to public criticism is best described in terms of a “responsive-repressive party-state” (6), by which the author means a combination of responsiveness, toleration and repression.

What public political criticism looks like in particular is outlined in four chapters dealing with issues of labour (Ch. 1), land (Ch. 2), nation (Ch. 3) and democratisation (Ch. 4). Before concluding, the book offers a chapter on how state authorities confront and treat regime critics (Ch. 4).

In Chapter 1 Kerkvliet provides an overview of labour conditions, highlighting that the most common demands of workers concern wages and working environments, especially how employers treat employees (17). He also alludes to the role of the party-state’s unions within the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), which has failed to assist workers or coordinate workers’ actions (23). Instead, workers demand independent labour organisations. While striking factory workers have been tolerated by state authorities, key labour activists (27-8) and many other leading democracy and human rights defenders have faced severe repression and long-term incarceration (see Ch. 4).

Furthermore, examples of protests against land appropriation and unjust compensation (Ch. 2) demonstrate that farmers in one locality generally do not collaborate with others elsewhere (43). Interestingly enough, when land confiscations start and residents object, processes ranging from individual to collective resistance evolve (38).

By contrast, Chapter 3 emphasises the role of patriotism against Chinese aggression in Vietnam and shows how different groups organise nation-wide collective actions and develop a nation-wide collective identity on this issue. Demonstrations against Chinese expansionism attract students, intellectuals, workers, retired soldiers and VCP officials (70) indicating that political public criticism by citizens, regardless of their social or political background, are considered to be expressions of love of their country (67-70).

The chapter focusing on democratisation brings to the fore the contributions of regime critics and how their diverse strategies to push the implementation of human rights and democracy are met with harsh repression. The author distinguishes between a party-led approach, confrontational approach, engagement approach and civil society approach and accentuates how individual activists move from one approach to another. Here, individual development and collective learning in the process of building a true democratic future is essential to understand the dynamics of Vietnam’s democracy movement.

This book is a decisive cornerstone for the growing literature on resistance and collective action in Vietnam. Based on the data provided in this book, future work that tries to disentangle underlying ideological perceptions and misperceptions of dissidents, activists and state authorities would make valuable additions to the literature on socio-political realities in “market-socialist” countries.

Image credit: anti-protest by Bikepacking Adventure CC0/Flickr; Licence: CCO 1.0.