15 March 2013
By Roger Mitton
Vietnam is a sad country these days. Almost every report about the place, whether it concerns the economy, corruption, political repression or the price of beer, is profoundly depressing.
Perhaps the most melancholic item was a story by the journalist Nguyen Phuong Linh in last month’s Financial Times, which described the plight of people termed “zombies”.
They are the tens of thousands of blue-collar workers at the country’s massively inefficient, institutionally corrupt and largely bankrupt state-owned enterprises.
As Ms Linh revealed, many of these workers have not been paid for many months now, and given the huge debts of the companies, it is likely they never will be paid.
Even in the unlikely event that they do eventually get their back pay, the paltry sum will buy even less than usual due to rising inflation and the ever depreciating currency.
Yet in Vietnam’s stagnant labour market, these poor peons are scared to leave the deceptive cocoon of false security provided by being a state employee.
The communist regime cannot sack them. That would only hasten the coming and inevitable revolution.
So the party will do all it can to keep them off the streets and in the factories – even if they get no pay.
It’s always the same. The workers get hit hardest when economies fail, and few have fallen in such a dramatic fashion as that of Vietnam.
GDP growth dropped to barely 5 per cent last year, and in the first two months of this year, foreign direct investment was a paltry $630 million, a year-on-year decrease of 62 per cent.
For a nation with a work force growing by about one million a year, an almost two-thirds drop in new investment is not only calamitous for Vietnam, it makes neighbours worry about violent consequences.
Up to a point, it was all predictable.
In today’s globalised world, a top-down command economy is simply untenable, especially when the leaders allegedly in command are corrupt dunderheads living in some kind of Stakhanovite fantasy land.
But they are on a hiding to nothing. As everyone who has seen Dawn of the Dead knows, those zombies just can’t be beaten.
They may slope around like drudges as they put in their meaningless unpaid factory hours, but they just keep coming back, no matter how much the elite tries to crush them or bash their heads in.
That realisation has yet to be appreciated by the ossified minds sitting around the Politburo table in Hanoi, although some of them are showing signs of becoming uneasy at the restiveness of the plebs.
It is not just the surging waves of wildcat strikes across the country, nor even the alarming rise in snatch robberies on the streets and home break-ins, but the brazen and widely expressed dissent.
In a bid to quieten things down and appear to be tackling the state-owned sector’s woes, the party has drafted some constitutional revisions, and in a rare concession, asked the public to comment on them.
Doubtless they never expected the normally cowed zombies to submit any responses, or if they did, it would only be to suggest mild expressions of approval.
Instead, they have reaped a whirlwind of vituperation, most of it focussed on the Vietnam Communist Party’s abject failures in governance.
The public respondents, who include academics, lawyers and former civil servants, have stressed that they will never relent, even if, like the critic and journalist Nguyen Dac Kien, they are sacked or even jailed.
They want democratic elections and respect for human rights, and most of all, the elimination of Article 4 in the Constitution, which mandates that the only party allowed to exist in Vietnam is the Communist Party.
That provision has to go. The sooner the better. Then the sadness can be lifted and the long-suffering zombies, along with their fellow compatriots, can lead a normal, productive life – and get their wages on time.