Vietnam has just finished its 12th National Congress, the five-yearly event that decides the direction of the country. It is largely conducted behind closed doors, with the local press carrying little more than official statements or excitable-yet-boilerplate copy (see here for some communist elan).
Outgoing Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. (Getty/Sasha Mordovets.)
However, there have been some notable changes: two-term Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung failed in his bid to become General Secretary, the ranks of the Politburo and other bodies now have a substantial number of members drawn from the police and security services, and relations with Beijing have been under the spotlight after it moved an oil rig into contested waters just before the Congress began.
I covered the last National Congress in 2011. Like this one, Hanoi was going through an especially miserable winter and the city's mood was low. Corruption and inflation were on everyone's minds and the Government knew citizens' unhappiness couldn't simply be dismissed or managed forever. Dung survived that last Congress and flew into a second term after suggestions he may not have made it. After protests over the Central Highlands bauxite mines he had fought for, and the bullet train project which the legislative National Assembly voted down, it seemed he had been given a second chance to pursue his vision for an industrialised Vietnam by 2020.
I quoted departing General Secretary Nong Duc Manh at the time apologising for the teetering economy and other systemic problems: 'Quality, efficiency and competitiveness remain low. Bureaucracy, corruption, wastefulness, social vices and moral and lifestyle degradation have not been prevented,' he said.
Manh's words bear thinking about now. While much of the coverage has centered on what the latest changes mean for the balancing of US-China relations, the more important story might be how reforms will continue under the new order. With internationalist and 'reformer' Dung not even making it onto the ballot and Secretary Trong staying on for two more years (despite at 72 being seven years over official retirement age), some have questioned Vietnam's direction. However, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will make some economic reforms inevitable.
A Reuters story from Thursday quoted a less-than-dynamic Trong as saying, 'My age is high, health is limited, knowledge is limited. I asked to step down, but because of the responsibility assigned by the party I have to perform my duty.' A certain amount of self-deprecation is not uncommon among Vietnam's older generation, but Trong also said that while work load was 'heavy' he was committed to keep Vietnam on the path of modernisation.
Pham Binh Minh, a man credited with 'balancing' US and China ties, retains his post as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
Much of the foreign coverage centres on the idea of a binary within the Party: a pro-China and a pro-US camp. This is a broadly useful lens; old school Party men who want to stick to a Marxist-Leninist path, or at least keep close to Beijing's version of market-oriented socialism, versus reformers and technocrats who realise the world is changing. However it's a limited way of seeing things.
Firstly, Vietnam's foreign policy has never been simply a zero-sum game between great powers. I've written on Vietnam's long standing multilateralism before, and suggested that Australia might benefit from closer ties. Vietnam pursues strategic relations with all permanent members of the UN Security Council, other Asian nations, has good ties with ASEAN and has a longstanding relationship with India (there is a park named for Indira Gandhi in Hanoi), while still quietly competing for influence with China in Laos and Cambodia.
However it's also certain that Beijing's influence is being questioned in some quarters and the general population remains deeply suspicious of China and furious at any slight against Vietnamese sovereignty. That's why China's placement of its enormous oil rig into disputed waters just before Congress seems even more strange. When HD 981 moved into Vietnam's exclusive economic zone in 2014, protests in Vietnam went beyond the usual group of the angry but educated marching around Hoan Kiem Lake. Factories burned, people were killed, Chinese citizens were actually evacuated from Vietnam and relations badly damaged. This episode, compounded by China's island-building, sent the 'pro-China' General Secretary Trong to Washington last year in an unprecedented visit.
On the deployment of the oil rig, Professor Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy wrote, 'If the deployment of the HD 981 was decided to coincide with the holding of the 12th national congress it was an ill-timed decision that will be counter-productive. In 2014 when China first deployed the HD 981 the first causalty was strategic trust between Hanoi and Beijing.'
Voice of America reported however, that 'Other analysts say the election reveals China's strong hand in the region, and its pressure on its neighbor. Members of Vietnam's General Assembly visited Beijing in December, where some suspect China voiced its concerns about the government's ties with the U.S.'
That visit was less public than Xi Jinping's last year, and certainly garnered less interest than Trong's meeting with Obama. Possibly, real relations between Hanoi and Beijing remain as shadowy as many of the 'grey men' in the Politburo, while ties with the US are always more interesting and showy.
But what else has come from the Congress?
Dung, as Carlyle Thayer said to Bloomberg, didn't have a chance. He 'wasn't even a starter, although he had support earlier in the year.' David Brown, another longtime Vietnam watcher always worth reading, wrote in the Asia Sentinel, 'Chatter on the cybersphere credits Trong with skilful manipulation of party rules and a whispering campaign that caught Dung wrong-footed.'
A southerner, when northerners have always held the top positions, Dung was noted as a reformer when he came to office. But his real taste for reform was economic, not political. A little more freedom of speech might be granted in service of economic goals, such as WTO accession, but as a rule civil liberties remained as curtailed as ever, especially in regards to mentions of his own considerable fortune or family power (Dung's Harvard-educated son-in-law brought McDonald's to Vietnam).
The worry is now with Trong as place-holder General Secretary and a new, less personality-driven Prime Minister in Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the already slow pace of reform and liberalisation may slow further. As I said, the TPP will alleviate some of those issues. It was the Central Committee (which helps decide the Politburo and top positions) which pushed ahead with the trade agreement, in large part to lessen economic dependence on China, a longstanding problem and a thorny political issue. Others, such as chair of the legislative National Assembly Ms Nguyen Kim Ngan, will push ahead with instituting TPP reforms.
What else matters? Arguably, so long as internet use is not curtailed, people care less about freedom of speech than about a strong economy, reducing corruption and an ending police violence. The latter is particularly important. There have been several high profile cases in recent years of citizens being beaten to death by police for minor infractions. However, the former head of the Ministry of Public Security is now President (not a role which carries much power, but it still has clout), and many others drawn from the ranks of the police have assumed important positions. Without sounding prematurely alarmist, this could be cause for worry.
Figuring out Vietnamese politics from the outside is always an imprecise exercise, one reason why the death of Hanoi's sacred and mythical turtle Cu Rua two days before Congress began was greeted with such horror, to the point where the Government initially banned papers from reporting on it. In legend, the creature helped Emperor Le Loi defeat the Chinese, and the creature washed up dead in Hoan Kiem Lake at around the same time the Chinese moved their rig into place. What did that say, wondered a still-superstitious citizenry often kept in the dark by their Government? Was the turtle's death a sign of terrible things to come, or a chance for renewal?