Social media machinations in Vietnam

As the country prepares for the 12th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in January 2016, the public attention to power continuity appears natural. A phenomenon of ‘mushrooming’ social media platforms, blogs and information websites starts to play a novel role in the pre-Congress period.

A sequence of articles dedicated to the CPV in a critical tone has been a signature of the foreign-based Vietnamese news outlets for the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the Party. The Voice of America (VOA) Vietnamese featured an article entitled “Where is the CPV going?” expressing skepticism about the longevity of a single party future. On 1 February 2015 the BBC Vietnamese published an article with suggestive title “The Party doesn’t do any good for the country”. The news outlet reinforced this line as the next day it released another piece entitled with “Who is still taking pride of being a member of the CPV?” Based on significantly decreasing interests of young generation in joining the Party, this article spelled out the reluctance of being connected to the Party system among the Vietnamese nowadays. On the same day, the website published another article entitled “The Party and the question of legitimacy” featured a selfie of a Vietnamese young woman holding a banner “I don’t like the CPV”. The article reported growing Facebook groups united under the theme of “Ain’t like CPV”.

Before the power transition within the CPV, there surface new dimensions of political blogging. Chân Dung Quyền Lực (CDQL), translated as Profiles in Power, a website with mysterious sources, but with documentation that is believed to be in the possession within the top of the establishment. The aim of this blog is to provide the people with facts about the current leadership elected in the last 11th Party Congress and to allow them to understand better how the leadership of the approaching 12th Party Congress will decide about the future of Vietnam. The CDQL exposes concrete numbers and cases of illegitimate assets that each member Politburo has gained during the time in power. Cases include the Minister of Defense who used a private company name to ‘empty out’ the army’s budget, or how Deputy Prime Minister’s son-in-law exercised money laundering. Within a month since its inception, the website received over 14 million of visits.

The CDQL is considered as an ‘ace in the sleeve’ in the internal power battle among Party rivals. Although ‘just a blog’, the CDQL has shaken up the domestic stage of public information, forcing the mainstream media to comment on it. The fact that despite such directly confronting messages, the website is still accessible supports the suspicion that this is a project that has the blessing from someone in the top. Another attempt of tackling corruption by The Elderly, a printed newspaper established in 1995, was treated with severer treatment, including dismissing the chief editor, Kim Cuc Hoa. For ‘disseminating the distorted truth’ and ‘revealing state secretsThe Elderly was fined for … publishing inappropriate advertisements.

The accumulation of doubtful voices, not only among the foreign-based news websites, but with a growing number of domestic platforms, suggests that there have started a new stage in the Vietnamese political environment. An indicator of change is that people are no longer afraid of self-identification when posting anti-regime banners, uploading their photos and revealing their online identities. Whether they are political activists managing regular blogs with quality information and discussions, or they are ‘just’ netizens expressing their sporadic opinions on Facebook groups, they have established a new generation of cyber-dissidents. Even Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who in 2013 said that “social media should not be used to share news or opinions on current issues” recently changed his opinion to: It’s impossible to ban information on social media”.

The CPV regime has proven that it has the capability to ‘deal’ with dissidents and limit the access. As a matter of fact, Vietnam is ranked 175 out of 182 in the 2015 World Freedom Press Index by the Reporters without Borders, and the government’s treatment of the prisoners of conscience remains a thorn in the eye of the US-Vietnam relations. However, it is rather doubtful that, with such a widespread number of Internet users in a social media-active young population, the Party will be able to continue to assert absolute control over dissemination of diversification of opinions and assessments towards its performance. Social media has become a form of emancipation through technology that has allowed pluralization of political opinions inside the country, unlike in the past where uncensored content could only be publicized on the exile. In fact, the Party has learned to recognize how social media can be a very efficient tool. It is now not only the domain of the dissidents, but it could also be used by those involved in the power struggle. As the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense towards next January more revealing developments in Vietnam’s political cyberspace are bound to occur.

Huong Le Thu is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore