Socio-Political Liberalization in Asia and Vietnam:

Trends and Prospects



Doan Viet Hoat


Ladies and Gentlemen,


     This is my second opportunity to exchange my view points with this scholarly audience on this prestigious campus.  On my first encounter two years ago at Harvard’s Law School I discussed Vietnam’s human rights issues in contemporary perspectives.  Today I would like to focus on the prospects of political liberalization in Vietnam in the context of an emerging new Asia-Pacific region –a region characterized by political democratization and economic and cultural liberalization.

      At the turning of the new millennium, democracy, together with market economy, has become one of the most prominent trends of our time.  As Amartya Sen has pointed out, the rise of democracy is the pre-eminent development of the twentieth century.  This is proven by the fact that during five decades of post WWII, the number of democratic nations has increased from less than 30% to more than 60% of sovereign nations in the world –120 countries over 192 in 2000.  As if to culminate this fantastic achievements, two important events mark the end of the century –the establishment of the World Movement for Democracy in India in 1999, and the first meeting of the Community of Democracies and the first World Forum on Democracy in Warsaw in June 2000, with the Warsaw Declaration signed by government representatives of more than 100 countries pledging to promote democracy and human rights.  For the first time the universality of democracy has been formally acknowledged in Warsaw. I think this is one of the most remarkable achievements of mankind since the collapse of the Nazi and the Soviet communist systems. 

       Democracy has been accepted as a universal form of governance because it fulfils the needs for a modern, free and prosperous society, both in the West and in the East.  Democracy may develop earlier in the West but the assumption that democracy is alien to Asian values has not been substantiated both by a thorough ideological scrutiny and by actual developments in Asian countries in the last few decades.  Japan and Asian NICs like Korea and Taiwan have stood out brightly in support of market economy and democracy as positive factors of sustainable development in Asia.  Another assumption, the Lee hypothesis (of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore), which asserts that non-democratic systems are more beneficial to economic development, is only supported by selective and sporadic evidences.  On the contrary, as economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has proven in his thorough researches, democracy is not the result of economic development, but its factor (Development as Freedom, Anchor Books, 2000).  Amartya Sen has contributed greatly to development theory by his work on the role of democracy in tackling efficiently social and economic problems in an under-developed country, which has earned him the economics Nobel prize. Dr. Sen, together with some other new development theorists, including President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, has broadened the scope of development strategy to cover both economic and socio-political aspects.  Democracy plays an important, if not crucial role in alleviating poverty and sustaining development by a political and social system which safeguards human dignity, social justice, human and civil rights, and guarantees equal opportunity for every citizen.   I would like to bring to your attention  two cases  in Asia  to discuss about  the inter- relationship  between democratization and economic development: Taiwan and Korea.

       As we all know, Taiwan 30 years ago was still economically under-developed, and politically authoritarian, with a barely subsistent rural and agricultural economy, and a one-party dictatorship.  Nowadays Taiwan has become an NIC and one of 4 “tigers” in Asia.   It is governed by a popularly- elected government through multi-party free elections.  What impresses us I think is the fact that democracy has emerged through a peaceful process, with neither bloodshed nor violence, and with the ruling party voluntarily relinquishing its monopoly of power and accepting multi-party free elections.  Taiwan can be illustrated as one of the best models in Asia of blending successfully market economy with peaceful democratization process.  Courage and vision of the leadership had played  a decisive role in bringing Taiwan to the world’s level of development.

      The Republic of Korea provides us another case of successful economic and political transformation from backwardness and dictatorship to prosperity and democracy. I visited Seoul the first time in 1966 on the way back to Saigon from an educational observation tour in the United States. At that time, South Korea and South Vietnam had little differences, except that the war forced down to South Vietnam by the North had made it almost impossible for South Vietnam to develop in peace.   Last December I came back to Korea to present a paper on democratization in Vietnam.   I found a completely different Korea, a Korea of prosperity and democracy.  Korea has walked a long way from poverty and dictatorship to development and democracy in quite a short period of time, only three decades.  Many other countries in Africa and Asia, like my own country, Vietnam, have struggled in difficulty, with less success, to bring prosperity and freedom to their people.  Korea and some other Asian NICs have presented a strong case for democracy and human rights.

     I think we learn two lessons from the Korean experience.  First, swift acceptance of market economy and integration of the country into regional and world economy, characterizing by free competition and equal opportunity for all economic sectors, do not only facilitate economic development but more importantly, open the doors for full and fast development of the country in all aspects of the people’s daily life --social, educational and cultural.   Korea is able to adopt successfully the areas of production requiring the most modern technological know-how such as aircraft and shipbuilding industry.   Second, democratization of the government and liberalization of society are irresistible, and if the governors and the ruling party prevent or delay their peaceful development, popular uprising and violence will have to come to break through the stalemate and to wide-open the doors for liberty and progress.  Although violence and even bloodshed have had to come in Korea, courageous and persistent opposition to dictatorship by visionary opposition leaders like Mr. Kim Dae-jung has shortened the bloody and violent road to democracy and peace.  Korea has set an excellent example of how a country can move on the road to economic development and democracy in a very short time --about two decades.  Now, with a GDP of over US$ 16,000.00 and a strong democracy, the Korean people can be proud of their marvelous achievements.  But more importantly, Korea has sent to other Asian countries a clear message: any developing nation today has the same opportunity and potential as Korea to achieve prosperity and freedom. 

      This message is perfectly relevant to Asian countries like Burma and Vietnam.  Korea shares with them the same so-called Asian values which some Asian policy makers and leaders of authoritarian line of thought want to assert to be alien to democracy. Korea still faces serious problems of national security, with under-developed North Korea still being hostile and possessing nuclear missiles, and with American troops still stationing on the peninsular.   National security, social stability, Asian values –all the arguments against democratization and liberalization do exist in the case of Korea.  And yet a democratic and highly developed Korea refutes all this, and in only two decades, challenging all authoritarian regimes of all forms and under all ideological covers.

       But this is not only a Korean challenge. It is the challenge of our time –the time of globalization.  All peoples and nations around the world now have no choice but adopting the market form of economic development and the democratic form of governance.  And adopting them fast because, as Amartya Sen has put it: “Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity.” (“Democracy as Universal Value”, Journal of Democracy, July 1999).   Liberalization of people’s daily life and democratization of governance are the trends of our time so much that, as Mr. Kofi Annan has stated in his Nobel Lecture, when States violate the rule of law and citizens’ rights  “they become a menace not only to their own people, but also to their neighbours, and indeed the world.”  In our time of globalization when progress and initiative move beyond geographical borders, breaking all physical and ideological barriers, no nation can resist against prosperity and no prosperity can come about without drastic changes in all aspects of society, economic, cultural and political.  If social mobility is a sine qua non condition for internal changes inside any society, today, global mobility, through internet and all means of movement and communication, is breaking up closed societies by “infiltrating” information, knowledge, new ideas and new products into all nations.  Global economy, global free trade and market economy facilitate and accelerate this process of opening up all nations and all societies.  Globalization brings about opportunities and challenges both inspiring and threatening --inspiring to the new horizon of endless development and progress, and threatening to the status quo of dogmatism and authoritarianism.  All developing nations are facing the same opportunities and challenges.

      Vietnam is no exception.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980’s gave the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPVN) no choice but moving toward market economy. This process toward market economy is termed by the CPVN leaders as “doi moi”, renovation.  Although until now, the CPVN leaders still believe that they can hold on with the communist ideology and political system while adopting market economy, they would eventually realize that market economy and democracy go hand in hand.  Freedom is irreversible, as former US President Bill Clinton has put it in speaking to university students in Hanoi when he visited Vietnam in November 2000.  The question in Vietnam now is not why accepting democratic governance but how to transform the present communist one-party authoritarian system into a multi-party democratic system.  The question now is: what is the most feasible road map to democracy in Vietnam.  Answer to this question is crucial to peace and sustainable development not for Vietnam alone but for ASEAN and Asia-Pacific region too, in our age of regional and global inter-relationship.  That’s why Vietnam, together with China and North Korea, has again captured the attention and concern of international community and international conferences like this. 

       To understand the potentials and the challenges facing Vietnam today and in the near future, both economically and politically, we should look back to the past.  The present Vietnam has gone through two historical periods since 1975 when the country was forcefully and militarily united by the communist North Vietnam.  The first period ended with the renovation policy initiated by party leader Nguyen van Linh in 1986, and legalized by 1992 Constitution.  In this first post-war period the CPVN staged a new war against Khmer Rouge Cambodia and consequently turned China into an enemy.  The country, not yet recovered from war damages, was on the edge of total collapse economically. Antagonism to former South Vietnamese government officials and military officers has caused suffering, loss and death of hundreds of thousands of people in this dark post-war period, of which the consequences last until today and require remedial measures.  It also forced millions of people, mostly from the South, to despite the danger of deadly ocean as “boat people” to seek liberty in foreign countries.  Nowadays about three million Vietnamese are living in about 70 countries around the world, including Korea, of which about one million are living in the United States. They form a strong overseas Vietnamese community, full of potentials for a new Vietnam --a community which must be reckoned with in any program of modernizing Vietnam. 

       The second period of unified post-war Vietnam was characterized by “doi moi”, the renovation policy. With little support from the new Russia and former communist Eastern countries, communist Vietnam had to adopt a new policy in economy and in foreign affairs.  Private economy, flourishing in the South before 1975, and being completely abolished after 1975, was allowed to revive in a five-sector economic system which includes state enterprises, cooperative economy, private business, joint venture business, and foreign investments.  The Constitution of 1992 sets the legal foundation for this renovation.  Vietnam survived from an economic collapse.  Many observers even expected Vietnam to become a new Asian tiger, but unfortunately it remains to be a “sleeping tiger” (*) until nowadays. After about five years of fantastic economic achievements, Vietnam now frustrates many donor countries and international financial organizations by its reluctance to fully adopt market economy.

        All this will have to change soon. Vietnam is moving to its third period of development. The US-VN Bilateral Trade Agreement ratified recently by US Congress and Vietnamese National Assembly will open a new phase for Vietnam –the phase of market economy.  The Constitution of 1992 has been modified  to officially adopt market system and  to set up law-run government. The CPVN   leadership  is preparing  the  country  to move  into  its  third  period  which  also   foresees Vietnam as member of AFTA and WTO only within a few more years.

         However. in line with the new policy resolution passed by the IXth party congress in April 2001, the CPVN leaders sees the next period, beginning from 2002, only as a further step in their economic renovation program. Although changes will be carried out to establish the rule-by-law government (not rule of law yet), no shift from the present policy of political and cultural monopoly can be seen in the next five years.  Efforts to diversify ideological and political thinking, and cultural, educational and intellectual activities will still face with strong measures of oppression. No challenges against the authoritarian leadership will be allowed, even within the party membership. Political and cultural diversification and openness will have to wait for prosperity. But, as Amartya Sen has said, democracy cannot wait for prosperity, will prosperity foster in Vietnam before diversification and openness will have to force for their own way, out of the control of the hard-liners?  Can stability be sustained without freedom and basic human and civil rights?  And more relevantly, can market economy per se develop in a closed society, without free access to and free exchange of diversified information and ideas?

      Those questions need to be answered, and answered fast, so that the third period of development in Vietnam would not lead to violence and chaos; so that Vietnam will soon become an equitable and prosperous country --prosperous for all Vietnamese people of all walks of life, regardless of their differences in beliefs and political leanings, and not for the communists and for the privileged people in power.  I don’t believe that the present policy of renovation of the CPVN will pave the way for a stable, equitable and prosperous Vietnam.  I do not see in the present policy of renovation of the leaders in Vietnam any preparation for the emergence of an open, free and democratic society.  Even market economy itself would not become reality without more drastic changes in cultural and political areas in the direction of liberalization.  Market economy can hardly develop in a closed society.  Without a government responsible and accountable to the people market economy and free trade will benefit the powerful and not the powerless. Discrepancy between the rich and the poor will increase; frustration of the people will become so high that it might lead to popular violence.

       I think the best possible scenario would be as follows: market system, developed to some extent, will create social and economic environment and conditions functional to the emergence of an open and free society, and as such challenging the existing authoritarian system.  Eventually, two possible outcomes might happen: either the communist leadership will abide by the new circumstances and adopt a new policy, accepting multi-party democracy; or open society and democracy will have to force their way out, in despite of the leadership’s status quo. Violence and popular uprising will have to break out as in Indonesia, and in Korea, to open the doors for democratic governance.  I believe that no one would want to see democracy and freedom to be born out of chaos and violence.  We should learn the lessons from Korea and Indonesia to avoid this to happen in Vietnam, particularly in view of the present security situation in Southeast Asia.  But to avoid this a lot of things need to be done.  I envision a road map to democracy for Vietnam with the following plan of actions for all concerned.

       First, democratic governments and international business and financial   institutions help strengthen private sectors in Vietnam and empower the people economically and culturally, while pressing the communist government for more liberalization of society.  Korea plays an important role both in helping create a positive economic, cultural and social environment, and in sharing its own experiences of liberalization and democratization.

      Second, the communist leaders should carry out transitional programs to pave the way for liberalization of society and democratization of the government.  This includes abolition of all measures of oppression, allowing dissent voices to exist inside the country, and carrying out a policy of national reconciliation, of which reconciliation with former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) officials and officers plays an important part. These self-appraisal measures initiated by the party leaders and the government will create a new political atmosphere conducive to national reconciliation and consensus.  The past must be overcome before the future can be shared. Those self-appraisal measures will also create the environment and conditions favorable for the emergence of a constructive opposition political movement inside the country necessary for peaceful democratization of Vietnam.

     Third, democracy advocates and organizations, both inside and outside the country, should initiate a forum of national dialogue to find a peaceful process of democratization for Vietnam. People-to-people interaction between the Vietnamese overseas and the people inside the country should be encouraged to enrich and empower the people to form a strong economic and cultural popular support and foundation for a democratic Vietnam.

      Fourth, the communist leaders and the pro-democracy movement inside VN and abroad will agree upon an agenda of democratization of the government and liberalization of society.  This agenda includes, as the first step, acceptance by the government of basic freedoms such as freedom of association, and free press.

       Fifth, multi-party free elections will be held to set up a democratic government.  International observers and supervisors may be needed.

       I realize that the proposed road map of democracy for Vietnam is not an easy and smooth road.  It requires both vision and strong leadership.  It might even demand painful sacrifices from all parties involved, especially from the present powerful communist leadership.  But a new Asia-Pacific has emerged with the existence of more NIC’s both economically developed and politically stabilized and liberalized.  In this new social and political regional environment, Vietnam has no other choice if it wants to avoid a violent and painful event.  I also believe that time has come when more people, both inside and outside Vietnam, agree that this is the best way out for a stable and modern Vietnam.  And more importantly this peaceful road map is feasible.  Market economy, formally established from 2002, will facilitate and accelerate the process of liberalization and democratization, and in turn, will develop fully and smoothly in this process.  Socio-political liberalization and market economy do not contrast.  On the contrary, they will develop side by side and reinforce each other to uphold the emergence of a new, democratic Vietnam –-a Vietnam of peace, justice, freedom and prosperity for all Vietnamese people of different religious and political leanings.



Doan Viet Hoat, Ph.D.

Harvard University

March 14, 2002



(*) “Con Rồng Ngủ Quên” --Vietnamese title of a book on Vietnamese economy written by Vietnamese economists living inside the country and overseas, and published in Vietnam in 2001.