By Mario Esteban (for Safe Democracy)

Mario Esteban describes how the reforms to democratize the Vietnamese government, being instituted by the Communist Party of Vietnam, could serve as a valuable model for political change in China. Yet, while many liberal voices are applauding Vietnam‘s transformation, many more conservative leaders refuse the idea of following in Vietnam‘s footsteps. Instead of fulfilling his promise to reform, Hu Jintao has chosen to continue the rigid framework established by Deng Xiaoping of economic growth, and party control of army and administration. In Esteban’s opinion, China is still far from democracy.

Mario Esteban is a Doctor and Assistant Professor at the Center of East-Asian Studies at the Autónoma University of Madrid, and is a specialist of International Relations in East Asia and of the political systems of China and Taiwan. He organizes the panel of experts on East Asia of the Spanish Foreign Policy Watch Group, which is a part of the organization Fundación Alternativas (Alternatives Foundation).

AT THE BEGINNING OF 2006 THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF VIETNAM (CPV) introduced important reforms into their governmental framework intended to democratize the workings of the party and make the process of decision making more transparent to the Vietnamese people.

Among these reforms, was the celebration of free and competitive elections for high positions in the party and State. In April at the Tenth National Congress of the CPV, Nguyen Minh Triet, then Secretary of the Committee of the CPV, challenged Nong Duc Manh for his position as Secretary General. Although Nong Duc Manh won the elections and retained his seat, the presence of competition broke with the age-old Leninist tradition of one-candidate elections. For the first time, elections were no longer a formality.

After being beaten by Manh, Triet came back (in June) to be elected as the President of Vietnam by the National Assembly. This victory, along with the appointment of Nguyen Tan Dung as Prime Minister, represents a significant generational change in the government of Vietnam. With newer, younger leaders in charge, the possibility for progressive and democratic reform within the Vietnamese government has drawn closer.

Dung, in fact, is the youngest communist to come to power in Vietnam, the only to have been born after the revolution of August 1945.

When named Chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November of 2002, Hu Jintao promised to institute similar political reforms to the ones currently taking place in Vietnam. Four years later, the Chinese government remains the same and many are wondering if China should make moves to follow the positive example of its neighbors.

Among the more liberal sectors of the regime, the Vietnamese model is viewed with great hope. Progressive voices in government are advocating the presentation of several candidates to the upcoming congressional elections in the fall of 2007, as well as a greater transparency in the actions of the Permanent Committee of the Politburo, and a political framework inclusive of other parties not associated with the CPC.

Yet, the more conservative voices seem to be weighing down the possibility for change, denouncing the idea of following in Vietnam’s footsteps. China is not Vietnam, they declare. Every country must follow its own path, and establish its own models for political reform.

Following this vision, the CPC would maintain its current system of indirect elections to congress, one candidate elections to the highest appointments, and political collaboration restricted only to those individuals belonging to one of the eight legal parties in China.

Despite his promise of reform, upon becoming Chairman of the CPC, Hu Jintao’s wary disposition has made him oppose all democratization for fear that it would open the floodgates of uncontrollable liberal reform. And as is usual in a state that limits the freedom of press, the Chinese media has been virtually silent regarding the political reforms implemented in Vietnam by the CPV.

Hu appears to be following the model of Deng Xiaoping, who decided to institute repressive measures to force economic reform, and strengthen his one party state by seizing control of the army and administration.

In the face of the fall of European communism and the dismemberment of the USSR, Deng Xiaoping reverted to even more conservative measures, fearful of change.

And in the face of democratic change in Vietnam, Hu Jintao appears to be reacting in the exact same way.

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