Vietnam’s Frontrunner for Prime Minister: Bold Leader With Bold Plans
Pham Minh Chinh is the surprise frontrunner to be Vietnam’s next prime minister. He has big shoes to fill.
Pham Minh Chinh, Politburo member and personnel commissioner of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), is expected to become Vietnam’s new Prime Minister, the head of government in Vietnam’s political system, next month. Who is he? What would his prime ministership portend for Vietnam?
According to his official biography, Chinh was born in 1958 in Thanh Hoa province and spent a large part of his career in the public security sector from 1984 to August 2011. In January 2011, he was elected for the first time to the Central Committee at the 11th CPV Congress when he was made Vice-Minister of Public Security.
Since then, he has risen quickly to the top of the CPV. In August 2011, the CPV Politburo assigned him as Secretary of the Party Committee of Quang Ninh, a north-eastern coastal province bordering China. In April 2015, Chinh was recalled back to Hanoi and inducted as Vice-Chairman of the Central Commission for Organisational Affairs (CCOA) that decides who is in or out of the party system. Nine months later he elected by the Central Committee to the CPV Politburo and appointed as head of the CCOA.
Chinh’s rise to become the next prime minister is a surprise to many as he has never served in any senior governmental position unlike Vuong Dinh Hue, a former deputy prime minister earlier touted as a possible prime ministerial candidate. If elected, Chinh will be the first CCOA leader and first CPV Politburo member without a senior governmental background installed in this role since Đổi Mới (economic reform and restoration) in 1986. Chinh’s rapid rise suggests:
- in-fighting within the party over power-sharing before the 13th Congress; and/or
- endorsement from both the party and the government branches, particularly the public security sector with which he still has strong ties; and/or
- appreciation for his short-term experience in transforming Quang Ninh from a “black” economy reliant on coal mining to a “green” economy spearheaded by tourism and manufacturing.
It appears that the state-run media was directed to showcase Chinh’s record in Quang Ninh, clearing the way for his promotion. A few days before the 13th Congress, major national and local newspapers published consecutive articles on the economic success story of Quang Ninh and highlighting Chinh’s role. They portrayed Chinh as a smart, determined, bold-thinking and capable leader. Furthermore, in contrast to his long service in the public security sector and the commonly viewed “serious and stoic face” of a party official overseeing personnel and organisational work, the media recast Chinh as a reformist and transformative leader.
As prime minister, Chinh will need to carefully manage relations with China and the United States and his past dealings with Japan may come in handy.
The Political Report of the 13th Congress lays out three key development goals between 2021 and 2045. The immediate goal for Chinh is to turn Vietnam into a developing nation with a modern-oriented industry and raising GDP per capita to $5,000 by 2025 up from $2,750 at the end of 2020. Vietnam’s success in containing Covid-19 and benefits from the continued trade stand-off between the United States and China, as well as increased exports from its free trade agreements make these economic goals possible. The IMF has forecast that Vietnam will grow nearly 7 per cent on average between 2021 and 2025. If there is no further major disruption, the Chinh government could well reach the 2025 goal.
Chinh’s foreign relations experience is largely confined to his dealings with China and Japan. During his brief term in Quang Ninh, Chinh seems to have offered special treatment to Chinese investors as he wanted Quang Ninh to follow the special economic zone (SEZ) model of Shenzhen, a Chinese coastal city not far from Quang Ninh. In 2013, he hosted a delegation from Shenzhen visiting Quang Ninh to share China’s SEZ experience. In 2018, Chinh, then Vice-Chairperson of the National Steering Committee for the Establishment of Special Administrative-Economic Units, led a delegation of Quang Ninh officials to Shenzhen. Chinh’s fondness for China’s SEZ model prompted rumours that he was behind the idea to set up Quang Ninh’s Van Don SEZ, and the draft SEZ law. The draft law was later withdrawn due to overwhelming public protests that the law would favour China.
Chinh’s chairmanship of the Vietnamese-Japanese Parliamentarians’ Friendship Association gives him a more official role in foreign relations. He visited Japan in 2016 and met Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide when Suga visited Vietnam last year. Chinh though has no experience with Western countries including the United States except for a short visit to Finland and the United Kingdom in 2018. As prime minister, Chinh will need to carefully manage relations with China and the United States and his past dealings with Japan may come in handy.
Chinh’s road to the premiership looks to be set in stone. However, the legacy of his predecessor Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his impressive record of economic growth and fighting the pandemic will loom large. Phuc is set to be elected State President. The spotlight will be on how Chinh steers the country to achieve the socio-economic goals set at the 13th Congress.
Hai Hong Nguyen is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Futures, the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia.