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Vietnam: Crounching Tiger in Trade and Human Industry

Bush’s Trading Partner

“President Bush’s photo in the front page of the Washington Post, beaming under the bust of former U.S. arch-enemy, Ho Chi Minh, sent a “thousand points of light” crushing my heart and those of the hundreds of thousands of former American “lacquers” who, like me, had been jailed, many for over 15 years, after the Americans took off from Saigon 31 years ago,” said Thanh Nguyen.  “But it is the past and for the present, politics is just a yoyo game, which brings enemies together or allies apart in the name of national interests.”  
This symbolic trip, on the other hand, sparks some optimism among the Vietnamese American community, hoping for speedy democratic reforms among the younger elected leadership of the Communist Politburo.  Said Janet Nguyen, a Garden Grove councilwoman in California, “I just hope that President Bush remind Vietnam that if they want to benefit from the free-trade market, they have to abide by the human rights laws.”  This goodwill gesture also sent smiles to the 83 million people in Vietnam, second largest population in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, a vast potential market that yearns for a brighter economic growth and a new ideology: making money, especially U.S. dollars.
The President, accompanied by his wife, Laura, attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that started November 15 with meetings of foreign ministers, then culminating to heads of 21 governments.  The APEC members, which account for about 60 percent of global economic output and nearly half of world trade,  brought an impressive crowd of 10,000 delegates, including 2,000 international journalists and 1,000 U.S. Fortune 500 corporate and NGOs (Non-Government Organization) leaders.  
Bush is the second U.S. President, after Clinton, to visit Viernam after the end of the war.  What will he bring to the bargaining table in Vietnam?  Increase his foreign-policy credentials?  Promoting political and religious openess?  Courting Vietnam to counterbalance China emerging military influence in the region?  Strengthening economic ties and normalize bilateral trade relations?
In the past, the U.S. embargo imposed three decades ago, reversed Vietnam to a new era of renovation in the mid-1980s, then to full diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1995.  U.S. and Vietnam finally reached the Bi-lateral Trade Agreement (BTA) in 2000.  Bush hoped to strengthen economic ties and its support to Vietnam access to WTO in exchange for improvement on Vietnam Communist rights record and ireligious freedom.  Unfortunately, four days before the President embarked on his Asia trip, the U.S. Congress voted 228-161 against extending Permanent Trade Relations (PNTR) to Vietnam.   
Not being able to deliver the PNTR favor to Vietnam, the Administration  removed Vietnam from its CPC (Countries of Particular Concern) list of nations that severely violate religious freedom, stating that it has eased its restrictions record.  Bush wanted to broker more economic deals, one of which was for Vietnam to repeal its “administrative detention decree 31/CP,” which can place a person under detention for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, without charge or trial.  Agence France Presse reported that Vietnam had agreed to scrap the measure – though to date Hanoi has not made a formal announcement.  
As a quid pro quo,  Vietnam-born Thuong Cuc Foshee, an American citizen who was detained without charge for more than a year, was released early from her 15-month sentence for “humanitarian reasons” along with six others as a goodwill  gesture.    
Is there a coincidence that Intel, a U.S. technology firm, decided to triple its Vietnam-based investment from $300 million to a $1 billion last week.  Upon completion, the 500,000 square-foot facility in Ho Chi Mnh City will be the largest of its kind in the world.  And Vietnam is also home to more than 600 software-oriented firms.  The Export-Import Bank made loans to Vietam that will enable it to purchase four Boeing 787s for its national airlines.           
Bush was also eager to see joint military maneuvers with Vietnamese counterparts, urging for greater U.S. naval vessel access to the Vietnam’s ports.  It was speculated that in April, Donald Rumsfeld, then Defense Secretary, paid a high-profile visit to Hanoi, wishing to negotiate access to air-terminal and deepwater-port facilities at Cam Ranh to pressure China’s naval ambitions.  
Bush also announced a $2 million grant from a private group to clean up “hot spots” areas around U.S. bases where defoliants containing toxic dioxin were stored and have leached into the soil and water. 
Karl D. John, Chief Executive of the TCK Group, a Vietnam-based invetsment consulting firm, has this to say, “Over the past decade, economic opening has lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty, falling from 61% to 19%, according to multi aid-agency statistics.  Market reforms ushered in booms in construction, manufacturing and tourism, and Vietnam’s new stock market is up to 75% this year, distinguishing it as one of the world’s best performers.”     
Kay Johnson of Asia Time Magazine reported that although Vietnam’s economy is still relatively small at $53 billion last year, it is vibrant with a growing entrepreneurial class (40,000 private businesses were launched in 2005) and thiriving commodity businesses.  She furthered noted that Vietnam is now the world’s largest pepper exporter and second-largest.exporter of coffee, cashews and rice.  
Johnson continued, “Multi-national companies are increasingly selecting the country as a manufacturing base such as Canon, Inc.with three printer factories, Nike with an annual production of 70 million pairs of shoes, making the country the world’s second-largest source of sneakers after China.” 
Nowadays, Vietnam boasts a 7.5 percent GNP growth, second fastest to China. Although its average income is just $638 a year.  In the first ten months of 2006, foreign direct investment was estimated at $6.5 billion, surpassing the $6.1 billion total for all of last year. Vietnam shows strong credentials to join the world’s trading partners.  
After 11 long years of negotiations and with U.S. strong support, Vietnam’s petition to join the Geneva-based WTO (World Trade Organization) was finally approved this month and formally join the trade club in January 2007 as its 150th member.  Johnson said that Vietnam hopes to get more access to overseas markets for its agricultural and maufactured exports and attract more foreign investments.  Tim Tucker, country manager for Ford Vietnam, which ahs an assembly plant outside Hanoi said,“The WTO is the stamp of approval  that many, many large companies have been wai ting for.”
But it has a price attached.  Vietnam has to move fast to bring its legal system and infrasturcture up to speed if the country hopes to attract more multinationals.  Vietnam has to make greater concessions than other nations, agreeing to lower trade barriers, reduce many subsidies and allow virtually unfettered foreign competition in some sectors of its domestic economy.   
Jonhathan Pincus, a Hanoi-based economist for the United Nations Development Programme declared that Vietnam must allow foreign banks to set up their own branch offices in the country, without requiring them to partner with domestic lenders as they had been obligated to do.  Less than 5% of Vietnamese now have bank accounts or insurance, so the potential market is enormous.  State-owned companies and small-shop owners alike are certain to feel the pinch as foreign chains, big supermarkets, big resturant chains, big auto-repair shops will come in and offer better service and customers will flock to them.”    
Ben Wilkinson, head of Harvard’s Fullbright program in Vietnam, contends that Vietnam needs to start tapping the experience at foreign firms to move up various value-added ladders and develop an indiginous class of skilled managers.  So the country has consequently expedited many significant reforms, including revisions in foreign-ownership to hire foreign managers and land-usage laws.  It has also hired a team of foreign consultants at its Tax Department to help it improve collections.  
Perhaps Vietnam’s biggest adjustment in joining the global economy will be changing its culture of corruption, secrecy and state intervention.  The country ranks in the bottom third of Transparency Internaional’s corruption index.  Carl Thayer, a political professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy, calls “kicking the foreigner in the shin and demanding compensation.”  
Will Vietnam be treated with fairness by the international trading community?  By joining WTO, Vietnam hopes to be free from trade restrictions such as garment quotas to the U.S. and Europe.  Its textile manufacturing employs 2 million Vietnamese, the largest export earner after crude oil.  Martin Crutsinger, an AP Economics writer aid that under WTO terms, Vietnam will be required to reduce its tariffs on American and other foreign goods to 15 percent of less, a move that would cover 94 percent of U.S. manufatured goods and 75 percent of U.S. farm goods.   
The U.S., which imported $6.4 billion of goods from Vietnam last year, exported only $724 million to Vietnam, giving the U.S. a $5.7 billion trade deficit with Vietnam.  Was the U.S. Congress holding up legislation on PNTR to Vietnam to protect textile manufacturers in their home states, or was it to punish Vietnam for its poor human-rights record?   Pincus concluded, “They don’t know how dirty the U.S. is going to play.  Is the U.S. going to raise antidumping barriers every time Vietnam increases its market share?”  
For over two years of the capital’s extravagant face-lift to welcome the APEC leaders, a sharp contrast of openeness and repression, capitalism and communism is still looming ahead.  Has the extraordinary economic progress initiated significant political and social changes in Vietnam?

Vietnam’s Double Identity

Newly-elected Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, 56, groomed for more than nine years for the top spot, has impressed foreign investors for his approach to implementing economic reforms.  But human rights advocates and Vietnamese exile groups have condemned Hanoi’s leadership when it comes to civil liberties of the one-party system.      Vietnam’s education system devotes considerable time to Marxist Leninist and Ho Chi Minh’s thoughts. .
London-base Amnesty International say hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain in Vietnam’s jails.  The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters W ithout Borders (RSF) said that many of Vietnam’s dissidents had been harased for expressing their political views online of in underground newspapers.  
Before and during the APEC summit, harsh repressive measures against Vietnamese dissidents have taken place.  Vietnam’s Pro-Democracy Movement, known as Bloc 8406, declared publicky in Ausgut, its four-phase proposal for democratization, includingthe  restoration of civil liberties, the establishment of political parties, the drafting of a new constitution and, finally democratic eletions for a new National Assembly.  Vietnamese authorities have cracked down on the group’s members through physical abuse, harassment, lengthy interrogations and two cases of detention without trial.  
The security forces jammed their moblie-phone reception, stepped up durveillance around dissidents’ homes, put up signs that say “No Foreigners”, “No Pictures”, “Restricted Area – No Passing.”  They also posted guards to monitor and limit the dissidents’ movements.  They even threatened and assaulted a few well-known activists.
Attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan, spokeswoman of the newly formed Progressive Party was brought in by the police for questioning may times.  On October 26, she was prevented from going to Poland to attend a “Conference on Labor Organizing.”  On November, the polic forced her employer to terminate her job.  Currently, five  undercover agents surrounded her apartment and forbade her to go out of her house.  Her cell phone was also cut off.
Another case in point is medical doctor Pham Hong Son.  After four years in jail on espionage charges for his pro-democracy internet writings, he was beaten up on November 18 by security forces, bundled up in a police van and assaulted before releasing him late in the evening.  
Lawyer Bui Thi Kim thanh of the banned United Workers-Farmers Organization was sent to a mental asylum for treatment.  Do Nam Hai, a writer and member of the Alliance for Democracy and Human Rights, was stripped of his home computer, was harassed by the police who took him for questioning and accused him falsely for attempting to overthrow the government.
Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh of the mennonite Church was seized on September 13 by the police at an internet café in Pleiku.  They stripped search him and summoned him constantly to the police station for questioning, disrupting his life,There are over 4,000 ethnic minorities Christian “house churches” in the mountainous regions of the Northeast of Vietnam.  In October, the government allowed 18 “house churches” to register their religious activities and subject them to list their members.  They have to register again each year and are subject of denial of their ID citizenship, of refusal of job application, of denial of passport for travel and work overseas.  .        .    
Human Rights Watch also urged the APEC leaders, especially George Bush, to express themselves clearly on the serious failings in Vietnam in respecting freedom of expresiion.  The economic development cannot be at the price of forgetting the still precarious state of press freedom.  APEC delegates shouldn’t assume that economic gains have translated into greater respect of human rights..  Vietnam track record on basic human rights remain abysmal.”  
This organization is also concerned about the government rounding up street  children, landing then in rehabilitation centers for two weeks to six months.  Some are beaten up with rubber truncheons and subject to other forms of abuse.  They are locked up in filthy, overcrowded cells for 23 hours a day, with only a bucket of excrements.   
Abortion rate is around 1.5 million a year, many unwanted teenage pregnancies.  Prostitution is rampant with about 300,000 in the country.  Vietnam accounts for 10% of trafficked women and children worldwide.  UNICEF and the Ministry of Justice said as many as 400,000 women and children have been trafficked overseas, excluding mail order brides sent to Taiwan and Korea to work in brothels.  
As Vietnam’s Communism has given way to Capitalism,  making money at any price, Vietnam seems to have a double identity of itself, distinct and contradictory at the same time.  Red banners glorifying the war against foreign imperial powers and idolizing Ho Chi Minh, hang side by side with glaring billboards advertizing Cocal Cola, Tiger Beer and Toyota.  Loudspeakers on telephone poles blare out Communist propaganda on the streets were drowned out by stereos from private homes or neighborhood bars that play American and foreing music.  While Communist officials give monotonous speehes warning against Western decadent values, they sent their children to study and live in the U.S. and Europe.  
In a recent poll, Bill Gates was named as a hero by the Vietnamese.  When he visited in April, young men wearing “I (heart) Bill Gates” T-shirts lined the streets and cheered.  Vietnam had won the war against the U.S. but the U.S. has slowly won a  “peaceful evolution” in Vietnam.  Nevertheless, the fight for democracy and human rights still continue.

© 2022 Jackie Bong Wright. Designed and Developed by Đỗ Mạnh Hùng.