I don’t know about you, but when I think of Vietnam, I think of the Vietnam War. I have not done much thinking about Vietnam post-1975. One should. It has been a long time.
I asked Mai Khoi, “Has the Vietnam War played much of a role in your life? It is natural for an American to think about the war, when thinking about Vietnam. Is it a big deal, so to speak, for you and your friends? Does it loom large?” She said no — that her generation does not think much about the war. (Mai Khoi is in her mid 30s.) “What we think is, ‘We have to do something to make a change. We don’t want to live under this system anymore.’”
Mai Khoi is a Vietnamese pop star, known as “the Lady Gaga of Vietnam.” But she risked everything to oppose the dictatorship of her country. So, today, she is effectively banned there. I have written about her in a piece on the homepage: here.
I would like to make a couple of points in this blogpost. One thing you discover, when talking with dissidents throughout the world, is that they hate the rigidity of tyranny, yes. But what they really hate is the arbitrariness. The whimsicality of dictatorship. The unpredictability. The absence of the rule of law. The moving of goalposts. The not knowing.
Let me quote from my piece on Mai Khoi:
Mainly, she chafed against censorship. She always had to submit her songs to censors, who would forbid some of those songs. What’s more, the censors were arbitrary. “The system doesn’t have specific rules for us to follow,” says Mai Khoi, “and the censors have all the power, to do whatever they want.”
I’d also like to go down Memory Lane, as I do in my piece. In 2007, I was part of a small group of journalists who met with the new Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung. This was at Davos. Nguyen would remain in that post until 2016. In my journal, this is what I wrote, in part:
Nguyen has been prime minister for six months, having been deputy prime minister for about ten years. The World Economic Forum official who introduces him says that he is “the first leader born after the revolution in 1945.” Nguyen is continually smiling — smiling and smiling. An amazing performance. …
He tells us that Vietnam went from a “planned economy” to “market mechanisms.” Exports constitute 60 percent of GDP, he says. There are 8,000 foreign-investment projects in his country. And, boy, is Vietnam happy to be in the World Trade Organization. The economy is going great guns, he avers.
At one point, he describes Vietnam as “a log-cabin state.” Come again? You mean, Vietnam is filled with gay Republicans? No: It is “a log-cabin state, of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
This is an amazing evocation of America — and our best man — from the prime minister of Vietnam.
By the way, Nguyen is still smiling — smiling and smiling. I don’t know how he can smile that long, and that broad. My face would hurt, simply as a physical matter. And after he has said something — after he has made a point — he will issue a murmur. It is a kind of affirmative murmur, sounding like “mmh, mmh.” …
Nguyen talks about the “interconnectedness” of the world, and how nations depend on one another. There is no more walling off and hunkering down.
After hearing so much classical liberalism — I could be at the American Enterprise Institute — I am moved to ask the following: What elements of Communism still appeal to the ruling elites of Vietnam? And what about religious and press freedoms?
On hearing my questions, Nguyen smiles just a little less. Before, he has been crisply confident, and now he is slightly hesitant. “May I reassure you,” he says, “that we are a socialist government, and that we continue to pursue the goal of socialism.” I love that “may I reassure you”! He says that “socialism in Vietnam can be characterized as follows: rich people in a strong country with a just, civilized, and advanced society.” He says that, “in Vietnam, the Communist party is the party to lead the country, and socialism is our purpose. This is the historic choice of the Vietnamese people. We have chosen this path on a voluntary basis.”
I can’t help writing in my notes: “BIG LIE.”
I ended this account of our meeting with Nguyen Tan Dung by saying, “There is no doubt that, for Vietnam, as for many countries, this is both an interesting and a hopeful time. The grip of oppression is still in place, but it is looser.”
Yes, it was looser, and it remained looser, for many years. But in the last two years, it has tightened again, and many critics of the government have been imprisoned, including members of the Brotherhood of Democracy. I name one of them in my piece today: Truong Minh Duc. Vietnam is one of the five Communist states remaining in the world. May the list continue to shrink.