Vietnam’s 8th Party Plenum underscores Hanoi’s two-pronged bid to maintain solid relations with external powers in the West and tightening the screws on civil society at home.
In early October, the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) convened for its 8th Plenum. Serving as the central governing body in the one-party state, the CC, made up of 165 full and 20 alternate members, dictates the policy direction that other state organs, including the government and the National Assembly, must follow. The proceedings indicate that Hanoi has taken quite different — yet logical — approaches with regard to domestic politics and external relations.
During its five-year term, the CPV usually holds 15 meetings known as plenums. The 8th Plenum is particularly significant, as it often focuses on long-term policy planning and kicks off preparations for the next CPV Congress. This year, it revolved around the themes of national security and anti-corruption, evident from both new policy initiatives and key personnel changes.
The first major development is a new resolution on national security strategy, the first of its kind in 10 years. This signals Hanoi’s growing caution towards its domestic and external environments. While Vietnam has generally benefited from the U.S.-China strategic competition, the CPV is well aware that it is not risk-free in today’s complex geopolitical climate.
In his closing remarks at the Plenum, CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong articulated two pressing concerns. First, the influence of great powers in the domestic affairs of smaller nations, and second, the threat of “anti-revolutionaries both inside and outside” who are stoking a “peaceful revolution” in the era of internet activism. Both are not new, but this is the first time the two problems are seen as inter-connected in the new “circumstances” which require the CPV to revisit their stance and strategy.
This line of thinking explains tensions and dilemmas in Vietnam’s policy puzzle in the past few years. While continuing to strengthen its ties with the democratic West, bringing the U.S. and two of its most trusted allies – South Korea in 2022 and soon Australia – to its top diplomatic hierarchy, Vietnam has simultaneously tightened its grip on civil society. Activism in areas once considered “safe”, like environmental protection and labour advocacy, is no longer tolerated. One of Vietnam’s most popular online news media, Zingnews.vn, was suspended in July and may cease operation indefinitely.
The CPV wants to make sure that opening its doors to the West does not invite unwanted influence – similar to what Deng Xiaoping once said about China’s reforms. Moreover, Hanoi has little to worry about the repercussions for its domestic actions. As Vietnam becomes more important geopolitically, the European Union (EU) and the U.S., two of the most critical voices on issues of democratic freedoms and human rights, have been largely muted in their responses to its recent civil society crackdowns.
The emphasis on stability is also reflected in key promotions. Le Hoai Trung, the head of the Central Committee’s External Relations, was promoted to the powerful Secretariat of the committee. Trung was the mastermind behind the recent double upgrade in the relationship with the U.S., and this promotion is likely his reward. Given the lack of diplomacy expertise in the current leadership, Trung is now a prime candidate for a Politburo seat and vice PM responsible for foreign affairs in 2026.
Activism in areas once considered “safe”, like environmental protection and labour advocacy, is no longer tolerated. One of Vietnam’s most popular online news media, Zingnews.vn, was suspended in July and may cease operation indefinitely.
Another noteworthy promotion is the election of Major General Vu Hong Van, Director of the Internal Political Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), to the Central Inspection Commission (CIC). Van was the first MPS official to be elected to the CIC since at least 2006. His inclusion in the CIC suggests that anti-corruption efforts – known in Vietnam as the “Blazing furnace” – are central to the regime’s survival strategy and will likely sustain the current pace through at least the end of this term.
This is evident in the disciplinary measures taken at the 8th Plenum. Two CC members, Dak Nong Province’s vice party secretary Dieu K’re and Ben Tre Province’s party secretary Le Duc Tho, were dismissed from the CC after investigations by the CIC. They were the 14th and 15th CC members to lose their seats, just three years into the committee’s current term. This is remarkable, even by Nguyen Phu Trong’s standards. In his first tenure (2011-16), not a single CC member was removed. In his second term (2016 – 21), six CC members were axed. This constituted an unprecedented number at that time, but comes nowhere near the current level.
The 8th Plenum also formally kicks off the selection process for new CC members for the 14th Congress. Both current members aspiring to retain their seats and potential new candidates need to avoid any risks to secure their nominations. This puts the whole system at the risk of inaction when nobody wants to make a decision, but given the stakes and the general political mood, it is hard to blame them.
The policy initiative and personnel changes highlight the CPV’s security-first approach amidst a complex geopolitical backdrop. This can be summarised as a dual strategy: “outward-looking” for economic integration and foreign policy, while “inward-focused” on domestic affairs. The first aspect has shown success, but the latter yields mixed results, especially given the negative impacts of the anti-corruption campaign on Vietnam’s recent social and economic performance. This approach will likely continue until 2026, but its viability beyond that depends on the outcomes of the 14th Congress.
Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow at the Vietnam Center for Economic and Strategic Studies.