Characterised by its slow but sure approach, Vietnam's anti-corruption campaign has led to the prosecution of an unprecedented number of high-ranking officials. The campaign is set to intensify in the coming years leading up to the Party's 13th national congress in 2021.
On 21 May 2019, a meeting of the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption (CSCAC) was convened in Hanoi under the chairmanship of Standing Member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Tran Quoc Vuong. The meeting reviewed the progress of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign and stressed the need to continue to implement the anti-corruption agenda adopted by the Committee in a timely manner.
Since 2016, an unprecedented number of high-ranking officials have been prosecuted under the CPV’s anti-corruption campaign led by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. The most notable ones include former Politburo member and Party Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City Dinh La Thang, former ministers of information and communication Nguyen Bac Son and Truong Minh Tuan, and former deputy ministers of public security Bui Van Thanh and Tran Nhat Tan. A part from government officials, many bankers and senior executives at major SOEs and private companies have also fallen victim to the campaign.
The unprecedented breadth and depth of the campaign indicate the CPV’s strong political will in fighting corruption. Mr Trong himself stated in August 2018 that there would be no exception and no “no-go zone” in the fight against corruption, and justice would be served no matter who the person in question was. Mr Dinh La Thang became the first Politburo member in the CPV’s history to be prosecuted for corruption charges. Similarly, high-ranking officers in the Ministry of National Defence and Ministry of Public Security, which were previously largely immune to anti-corruption efforts due to their immense power as well as their importance to regime security, have also been targeted during the campaign. Within 2018 alone, a total of 19 generals in the two ministries were disciplined or prosecuted.
The CPV even went as far as risking the country’s important foreign relationships to pursue its fight against corruption. For example, in July 2017, Vietnamese secret agents allegedly abducted Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former senior executive of PetroVietnam who was key to an investigation into corruption charges against Mr Dinh La Thang, in broad daylight in Berlin. Germany put tremendous pressures on the Vietnamese government for the return of Thanh and even suspended the bilateral strategic partnership. However, the Vietnamese government did not cave in to the pressures and Trinh Xuan Thanh and Dinh La Thang have since been trialed and given long jail terms.
The unprecedented breadth and depth of the campaign indicate the CPV’s strong political will in fighting corruption.
The CPV’s strong political will in the fight against corruption is also manifested in its internal anti-corruption policies and regulations. A primary example is the Regulation 102-QĐ/TW dated 15 November 2017. The Regulation states that “all Party members are equal before the Party’s disciplinary regulations. If violating Party regulations, Party members, no matter what position they hold, shall be subject to timely and severe disciplinary sanctions”. More drastically, the Regulation stipulates that even Party officials who have passed away may still be subject to disciplinary actions if their violations are particularly serious. Such provisions not only pave the way for the prosecution of high-ranking officials but also send a strong warning message to others who harbour corruption intentions. More importantly, the Regulation helps stop political interventions to shield well-connected officials from being brought to justice.
Although the campaign has so far considered corrupt high-ranking officials as its primary targets in accordance with the motto of “fighting corruption from top down, from inside out”, various officials of different backgrounds and at different levels have also fallen victim to the campaign. According to official statistics, between January 2016 and June 2018, about 1,300 Party members were disciplined for corruption or deliberate mismanagement charges, and courts conducted preliminary hearings of 436 corruption cases with 1,118 defendants involved. At the same time, the Government Inspectorate undertook inspections into corruption-prone sectors, through which 188 cases and 335 people were referred to the police for criminal investigations.
Despite its aggressive approach in tackling corrupt officials, the campaign has also been characterized by careful, well-coordinated moves in order to make sure that the targeted officials will be brought to justice but no damage will be done to the political system. Mr Trong was quoted as saying that during the fight against corruption, it’s necessary for the Party “to be well-measured, wise and strategic”, so that it can “strike the rats without breaking the vase”, a subtle reference to the need to maintain political stability during the fight against corruption. Fighting corruption, Mr Trong argued, therefore requires great patience and wise strategies to be successful.
This approach accounts for the fact that the pace of Vietnam’s anti-corruption campaign has so far been rather moderate, and many cases have unravelled step by step in a well calculated manner as if they were taken from a carefully written script. A typical example is the prosecution of Trinh Xuan Thanh for his corruption and mismanagement at a subsidiary of PetroVietnam, which ultimately led to the downfall of former Politburo member Dinh La Thang. Thanh’s long saga started off with a seemingly unrelated investigation into allegations that he was using a private luxury car illegally registered as an official car in May 2016.
In sum, Vietnam’s anti-corruption campaign since 2016 has been characterized by a “slow but sure” approach, underpinned by a combination of strong political will and well-measured tactics to tackle corruption while minimizing unwanted impact on social and political stability. The recent meeting of CSCAC is an indication that the campaign will continue to intensify in the coming years, especially in the lead-up to the Party’s 13th national congress in 2021. These developments will have significant implications for personnel arrangements at the congress and therefore deserve close attention from Vietnam watchers.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.