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Southeast Asia: Why Communism Has Survived in Laos and Vietnam

By Carl Thayer, C3S Paper No.2067


We are preparing a report on why Communism survived in Southeast Asia following the fall of the Berlin Wall. We request your input. Our questions are:

Q1. “Now traditional Communism is all but dead”, David Priestland wrote in “The Red Flag”; do you think this is the case in Vietnam and Laos?

ANSWER: The key question is what is “traditional communism”? Does it relate to the economic system – ”from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs”? Does it refer to a Leninist-style political system? Or does it refer to a mixture of both?

Vietnam and Laos represent two different economic systems. Vietnam collectivized agriculture into low-level and then high-level agricultural producers’ cooperatives. In the latter all the means of production were owned collectively. Industry was nationalised and subject to central planning.

In 1958 Vietnam adopted its 1st Three Year-Plan; this was followed by five-year plans until 1986 when doi moi was adopted and central planning jettisoned. Vietnam then developed a “market economy with socialist orientations”.

Laos was and remains overwhelmingly a subsistence economy and never carried out a full blown socialist transformation of its agriculture. There was no real industry to nationalize. If “traditional communism” refers to the economy, then the answer is it is dead in Vietnam and was stillborn in Laos.

But if “traditional communism” refers to the political system, then reports of its death are premature. In both Laos and Vietnam the Leninist-styled political system is alive and well. In other words, authoritarianism still rules amidst societies undergoing change.

Q2. To what extent do you think the Vietnam Communist Party still relies on Vietnam’s Confucian traditions to stay in power?

ANSWER: Nguyen Khac Vien, a Vietnamese Marxist historian, penned an influential essay in the 1960s in which he argued that Marxism and Confucianism were compatible. Dr. Vien made a distinction between Confucian mandarins who served the royal court and mandarins who served the people. In Vien’s view the values of serving the people were an area of congruence between Confucianism and Marxism.

The Vietnam Communist Party certainly touts the importance of its cadres serving the people. But in practice corruption is so pervasive that modern day party cadres are morally divorced from their Confucian counterparts.

In other words, the legitimacy of the Vietnam Communist Party rests on its ability to deliver the economic goods to society at large and not on moral grounds. In the eyes of contemporary Vietnamese society the legitimacy of the current regime does not rest on adherence to traditional Confucian values. The current regime fails that test.

Q 3. In a comment piece for The New York Times in 1991, Michael Williams wrote: “Ironically, if communism survives in China and Vietnam, it will be because the capitalist world is prepared to offer both countries an economic lifeline.” Do you think this was an accurate assessment of what happened? If yes, do you think it is still the case?

ANSWER: Communism has survived in Vietnam because it has adapted. Communism is just a synonym for a mixed socialist economy and a Leninist political system (some call it market-Leninism). If Vietnam’s communists had not done away with the Stalinist system of central planning and priority to heavy industry foreign investors would have stayed away. The capitalist world would have had no incentive to invest in Vietnam. Vietnam’s decision to dismantle the system of central planning and approve foreign direct nvestment offered the capitalist world real incentives for investing and doing business with Vietnam. Foreign investment in China and Vietnam has proved largely successful and even with current lowered growth rates both China and Vietnam will continue to attract foreign capital.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Southeast Asia: Why Communism Has Survived in Laos and Vietnam,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 22, 2014. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer).

Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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