01 December 2005

Changing Gear


I refer to your recent article Changing Gear on the Vietnamese economny (http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5220501).

Your article is generally a good overview, but I have a few objections.

If suffering purifies the soul, then, after half a century of own goals, the Vietnamese are pretty darn pure and thus mighty qualified as deserving of any good things that come their way, and I do not begrudge them, collectively, of any of it.

The problem is, they don't own the new wealth collectively. Rather, they own it very very particularly.

First, and most egregiously, I object to the bare mention and glib dismissal of the plight of ethnic minorities. The fact is that the Vietnamese government has an unspoken policy of cultural genocide towards its hard-done-by and utterly helpless ethnic minorities. At best, it neglects to restrain corrupt and ruthless regional politicians from throwing ethnic minorities off their land in order to distribute that land to their friends. The Western press has been conspicuously silent regarding this matter.

Second, I would be interested to know who owns all the much-vaunted cars. While there are no doubt some self-made car owners, I suspect that most of them are corrupt gate-keepers and rent-seekers, in short Communist versions of robber barons (I often describe the Communist Vietnamese economy as industrial feudalism). For example, professors who for decades have been fleecing students: forcing students to hand over massive bribes to be admitted to university courses, taking bribes to pass failed students, and so on. The reality is that a boy can come from the boonies and make good, but the odds are stacked against him in a way no Westerner has to suffer.

Third, I suspect that very much of the money (and non-monetary benefits) enjoyed in Vietnam today are the result of foreign aid, whether used as intended or not. (It would be useful to know just how much foreign aid, in fact.) In particular, I suspect that very many of the much-vaunted cars were financed by plundered foreign aid. In Vietnam I became utterly convinced of the truth of the witticism that "foreign aid may be described as the transfer of wealth from the poor in rich countries to the rich in poor countries".

Fourth, can I suggest that you give too much credit (when you explicitly gave it none) for the present and future wealth of the Vietnamese to the Vietnamese government? The major contribution of the Communist Party and the government has been to shut up and get back in its box. Any wealth that cannot be credited to oil, foreign remissions and foreign aid is to be credited to the Vietnamese themselves and to their hard work and thrift. To their government they owe nothing.

Fifth, can I suggest that the definition for "poverty" you seem to be using is not a good one, or rather, is a good one only by historical Vietnamese standards. It means "not starving". Poverty in Vietnam outside Saigon (the business hub) and Hanoi (the granddaddy robber baron of them all) is grinding, even among ethnic Vietnamese, let alone among the unimportant ethnic minorities.

Sixth, there are simply too many cars in Hanoi and Saigon. They are now driving three abreast on each side of the major roads in the city, pushing motorbikes up onto the footpath. The roads are utterly unable to cope - many roads in the cities admit at most a single car. The Economist's famous car boom does not signify a success at all, but rather a failure.


[name & address withheld]

(Please withhold my name to protect my friends in Vietnam, where it is illegal to say there is no freedom of speech.)


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