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    Friday, December 16, 2005

    Could Vietnam have Chinese Riots 2

    There are two Vietnamese sayings that immediately come to mind when I think of politics and economics in the "Mother Country."

    "Gần mực thì đen; gần đèn thì sáng."
    (If you are near ink you will be black; if you are near a lamp you will be light)

    "Đi cho biết đó, biết đây. Ở nhà  với mẹ biết ngày nào không."
    (Go, for in knowing there, you will know here. If you stay at home with mother, you won't know anything.)

    I have heard from many people in America and Vietnam that Vietnam is just China about 10-15 years behind. When you look in broad generalizations, I can see how this assumption is made. However, I disagree and my reasons are primarily the two idioms above.

    10-15 years ago China was just starting on its path of economic freedom and building of its military. At that time, Chinese goods were cheap, but China did not have the infrastructure to build things that America wanted. Hence, American economists and politicians worried about goods from Taiwan and Japan--not China.

    Today, Vietnam does not occupy that situation. It has become one of the world's leaders in exporting rice and coffee, and businesses, after a premature attempt in the 1990s to pump lots of foreign capital into the economy, are increasingly investing in "the star of Southeast Asia."

    How does this fit with the first saying? Well, as I posted earlier, Vietnam does not have the political ability to stand alone. It needs America to protect it from a very hungry China (and one that has tried to eat Vietnam in the past) and help it enter the World Trade Organization. America provides the "mực" (ink) and the "đèn" (lamp). Americanization brings sometimes unwanted cutural changes to Vietnam, but it also brings freedom of thought and acceptance of differences. America's "đèn" has come recently in the form of changes in Vietnamese law to allow greater religious freedom.

    Yes, Vietnam isn't perfect. Local officials sometimes make great blunders. The Center for Religious Freedom recently published pictures of abuse of Hmong Christians. However, I feel that most religious abuse (not all) is centered on minorities, particularly those that have a history of supporting democracy and fighting the government. A large part of the Vietnamese are Buddhist, Catholic, or Protestant and live their religious lives in general anonymity. The government cares nothing about them going to Nhà Thờ Đức Bà (Virgin Mother Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City) as long as they aren't using the time to do subversive things. Therefore most religious abuses are more aptly defined as racism and political abuses.

    In November 2004, Vietnam passed its Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, with help from a certain law professor I'm familiar with here in America. The Human Rights Watch List has criticized it as tightening controls, but its wording is such that it has already allowed more religions to apply for official recognition.

    I cannot stress how much religion plays a role in Vietnam's difference from China. I didn't touch on it greatly last time, but religion does two things: it provides a stabilizing force for society, and it gives allegiance to a higher power. What are the results of this? First, allegiance to a higher power gives people individual self-worth and the understanding that there is something higher than the government. If they dislike the current regime, they can change it.

    Secondly, and somewhat in opposition to the first point, religion places a lot of responsibility on God. People are more likely to accept reversals and hard times in life as trials from God, or blame God and not the government for natural disasters, when they have religion.

    China does not have this. The percentage of people with an official religion is infinitesimally smaller than in Vietnam, and they are almost all persecuted. China has elminated this potential vehicle for political change, but it has also eliminated this vehicle for social stability.

    Which brings me to the second idiom: "Đi cho biết đó, biết đây. Ở nhà với mẹ biết ngày nào không." It's roughly translated as "Go, for in knowing there, you will know here. If you stay at home with mother, you won't know anything." Intelligence and learning are stressed greatly in Vietnamese culture as in Chinese culture, and the Vietnamese have take advantage of learning in other countries. Many of the sons and daughters of party leaders are learning in Europe and the United States. They are coming over at ever earlier ages--some for junior high even--and that allows both idioms to work on them. They pick up the good and bad of America, but also, they see Vietnam in a different light. By living in the United States and then returning to lead their own country, they understand better where their country stands and what it needs to do to progress.

    These Vietnamese see Ho Chi Minh not as a Communist, but a nationalist. My wife and I had a great discussion about a year ago on Ho Chi Minh's driving force. She feels like many Viets who grew up in Saigon, that Uncle Ho was a nationalist first and communist second. If he had seen what the communists would do to Vietnam in the late 70s and 1980s (hyperinflation and such), he would have gone a different route. Whether people outside Vietnam believe this or not is irrelevant--it shows how utilitarian the up-an-coming generation of Vietnamese view the Communist party. It is a vehicle to progress their country and they will ride it as long as it works. When it doesn't, they have seen the rest of the world and will use their knowledge of "đó" (over there) to better see "đây" (here) and change vehicles.

    That, in summation, is my argument. Vietnam may be 10-15 years behind China, but I doubt it. I think it is on par (for it's size) economically and farther along politically. More importantly, the future is based on decisions, and judging from the outcomes of its young generation's previous decisions, it will slowly transform into the "jewel of Southeast Asia." China's jump will be larger, and heighten the chance for violence and social upheaval. Vietnam's shown the forethought to focus on social stability, and so I think it will probably be gradual and without too much violence.

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