In what seems like a paradoxical move, Vietnam, a country that is experiencing significant economic growth, is taking a harder line on academic freedom and freedom of speech more broadly. It is frequently touted as an ideal model for North Korea to follow despite maintaining a dismal record on freedom of expression.
According to the 2018 Freedom Report, Vietnam currently holds an aggregate score of 20 out of 100. For reference, South Korea holds an aggregate score of 84. The report notes that academic freedom is limited, university professors are restricted from criticizing government policies and must stick to the party line when teaching or writing on political topics. Equally concerning, there have been reports that university students who participated in human rights demonstrations have been prevented from graduating.
Escalating Pressure on Academic Freedom
Recent events, including the Communist Party’s decision to expel the Vietnamese Historian Tran Duc Ahn Son from the party, suggest that the climate is growing more restrictive. The government accused Son of writing Facebook posts that were untrue and went against the party’s view and state policies and laws.
Son has been a vocal critic of Beijing’s territorial claim in the south China sea. The state has funded his research while cautioning him in the past about openly criticizing China. The offending Facebook post, though critical of the government, was unrelated to his research. However, it remains unclear if the post is being used as a pretense for his expulsion.
Another foreboding sign is the closing of Phan Chau Trinh Culture Foundation on Feb 20. The foundation was a non-profit organization that managed the Vietnam Union Science and Technology Associations. Established in 2007 to honor individuals and groups for their contribution to Vietnamese culture, translation, research, and Vietnamese studies. The reason for its closure remains a point of contention, however, several key figures from the foundation have had public spats with the communist party leadership.
The tightening of academic freedom tracks Nguyen Phu Trong’s upward trajectory to the top of the political echelon. Trong, a former editor of the party’s ideological journal, was elected General Secretary in 2011. Following the passing of the president in 2018, Trong consolidated power and now acts in the capacity of President and General Secretary. This dual role has not been held in Vietnam for half a century.
Right around the time of Throng’s election, a notable party member became embroiled in a disciplinary procedure. In the fall of 2018, Professor Chu Hao, the former vice-minister of science and technology and an established intellectual was reprimanded for allowing his publishing house to issue books that the party described as “politically and ideologically wrong”. Authors included John Stuart Mill, considered by many as the father of modern liberal thought.
Hao ultimately decided to cut ties to the communist party, after he was informed that he was likely to be expelled . Responding to the event Throng said that it was worth “punishing a few in order to save thousands”. The message was clear: dissidents voices are not acceptable.
Resisting The Threat
Vietnamese intellectuals have pushed back against the silencing from top officials. Developing strategies and working from the inside to force change. However, their efforts put them at significant risk. According to human rights watch, political dissidents often face arrest.
In March 2018 the police prohibited dissident poet Bui Minh Quoc from leaving Vietnam for the US. Quoc was expelled from the party in 1989 for encouraging artists to express their ideas freely. Since this time Quoc has been under house arrest twice.
The new wave anti-intellectualism seems to be a gut response to the surge of western ideas. Vietnam, like China before it, has an appetite only for the capitalist pillar of western democracies. In January 2019, officials accused Facebook of violating a new controversial cybersecurity law by allowing users to post anti-government comments. Facebook serves as the primary platform for dissidents. If the present crack-down continues, Vietnam is at risk of driving academics abroad, which could stagnate innovation and ultimately economic growth.