By Skyler Inman
In August of last year, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed a decree that had been a long time coming: the country needed young people to study Communist thought, and it was now going to offer them money to do so. The decree established a straightforward program. Any Vietnamese university student who agreed to follow a four-year course on Marxism, Leninism, and the works of Vietnam’s revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh would receive a full scholarship. As long as the student studied communism, university costs would go from about $200 USD per year—a significant sum in Vietnam—to nothing at all.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Pham Tan Ha, director of admissions at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences, put the issue in plain terms: students aren’t interested in studying the history and ideology of the Party. Instead, they prefer degrees that will give them “better chances of employment and better pay when they graduate.”
In other words, a degree in communism won’t get you a career in the free market.
But Vietnamese students are turning in hordes towards business-related careers even if they don’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education. In fact, the explosion of young applicants to business positions has many worrying that the market is bloated with workers who would rather manage than labor, even though blue-collar jobs are still largely what run Vietnam’s developing economy.
Still, this generation’s growing interest in business has happened for more than just practical reasons and has implications beyond the workforce. Students not only consider communism to be an unmarketable course of study, they tend to be disengaged with the ideology as a whole. And since 60% of the country’s ninety million people are under the age of thirty, Vietnam’s millennials matter.
In a multi-story house just outside the center of Hanoi, a woman named Thanh* talks to me over lunch. Breaking the mold of most young Vietnamese professionals, Thanh did not pursue a career in business after graduating from university. Instead, she works at a local charity and is considering going back to school for social work.
According to Thanh, it’s not shocking that young people have fallen out of touch with the ideology of the party.
“Most people don’t care,” she said. “We don’t see that many people who strongly believe in the government anymore.”
As a twenty-something, Thanh is a part of the only living generation of Vietnamese to have been born in a unified, independent, and post-colonial Vietnam. This generation, unlike their parents and grandparents before them, has no personal memory of the colonial roots that inspired Vietnam’s Communist revolution. And while it seems at first that this could explain their apathy towards the government, in truth, it shouldn’t. Under communist governments, like that of the former USSR, loyalty to the Party has historically passed from generation to generation by way of visual propaganda, well-known songs that teach communist values, and institutionalized conventions like communist youth groups.
All of these exist in Vietnam, but the problem still persists, and Thanh says it could boil down to the lack of social and financial support the government provides its citizens.
Transparency International’s Open Budget Index rates Vietnam in the lowest category of budget clarity, defined as offering “scant or no information” about its monetary allocations. While this opaqueness raises questions about corruption—Vietnam likewise ranks 133rd in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, close to the bottom of the list of 177 countries—it is also makes it difficult to tell exactly how much the state allocates to benefits and services for the people.
According to Thanh, though, who works with some of the city’s most marginalized citizens, government benefits today often amount to “next to nothing.” As a result, many social issues fall into the hands of international NGOs and local charities, breaking the basic chain of support from communist state to communist citizen.
But the biggest issue that challenges the government’s legitimacy—education—is one that non-profits cannot directly address. Vietnamese schoolchildren still wear red neckties and learn about Uncle Ho in class, but the system itself is broken. The government only guarantees education until the sixth grade, and Thanh says that for the poorest families, the fees associated with secondary school can be prohibitively expensive.
In other words, something seems wrong when poor Vietnamese parents have to pay for their child’s red scarf. What was once an emblem of the youth’s enthusiasm for the Party is now rendered an ironic symbol of how the Party either cannot or will not serve the best interest of the people.
Because secondary education is not guaranteed, there are not enough spots in public high schools for all Vietnamese students. This means that admissions to high school are overly competitive, and many who wish to attend secondary school must turn to private education, usually of a lesser quality. Those who can afford it sometimes send their children to English or other foreign-language ‘international’ schools in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, while other affluent families opt for boarding schools in other countries.
Dr. Quang Van, a professor of Vietnamese language and literature at Yale, says that for many Vietnamese parents, education is something they will pursue no matter the cost. “I know parents who sold their house to send their children abroad to a private boarding school,” Van said.
According to Thai Nga, a university student in Hanoi majoring in Journalism and Communication, for those students who do attend public Vietnamese high schools, the requisite courses in Ho Chi Minh Thought are “very boring” and unanimously dreaded.
Thanh agreed. “It’s all about obeying and copying what the teacher writes down. It’s not a good environment for kids to develop [to] their full potential and express their opinions.”
The Vietnamese government knows it is at a crossroads. In 2013, just two months before Prime Minister Dung signed the decree that created the communist studies scholarship, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) began its own venture: Vietnam Silicon Valley, an initiative designed to encourage start-ups in the country.
Minh Do, a Vietnamese blogger for the online publication Tech in Asia, says that the government has both embraced the start-up movement and slowed its progress.
“MOST has been very favorable with… its Silicon Valley project,” Do said, whereas “the Ministry of IT has made things a bit worse, with… new regulations that are rather restrictive for startups and IT businesses.” Additionally, he added, the Ministry of Culture has also been “quite restrictive about content.”
It’s tempting to think the Vietnamese government is simply in the throes of growing pains, caught between an aging philosophy and an evolving economy, unsure of how to make the transition—but that isn’t it. The true root of the problem, in the end, is that the current arrangement is lucrative to those in power.
In Vietnam, the people who profit the most from the current system are those who have a hand in both the growing market and the corrupt government—like Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s son in law, Henry Nguyen, who owns the rights to the country’s chain of McDonald’s eateries.
Any change to the status quo—that is, a decisive move towards one system over the other—is a threat to their livelihood, so the state continues to straddle a fine line between communism and capitalism, attempting simultaneously to encourage entrepreneurs and to revitalize support for communist doctrine so as to keep it from becoming entirely obsolete. But given the runaway popularity of business among Vietnamese youth—and their broad disinterest in studying communist doctrine—it remains unclear if the Party can recapture the youth demographic.
And, to its credit, there are signs that not all members of the Party are complacent with this state of affairs. On July 28 of this year, following a territorial dispute with China over the East Sea, sixty-one members of Vietnam’s Communist Party published an open letter calling for the development of Vietnam into “a truly democratic, law-abiding state.”
Ultimately, though, these critiques stem not from a concern for the day-to-day issues facing the Vietnamese people, but from the discontent surrounding the tension with China. In an interview with Bloomberg News this August, one of the letter’s co-authors, Chu Hao, the former Vice Minister of Science and Technology, stated that “[t]he Party needs to get rid of Marxism-Leninism and get out of China’s orbit.”
In the end, the timeline of events can be pared down to two factors: how much of a threat China poses to Vietnam, and how badly the Vietnamese leadership wants to hang on. If the government does decide to make way for further democratization, it will surely be in response to China’s actions and not to the needs of the Vietnamese people.
As far as the younger generation is concerned, though, the future is not necessarily delineated by the ideology of the government. Linh Nguyen, an active member of the entrepreneurial mentorship program VietYouth Entrepreneurs, told me that his dreams for the future align with those of many in his generation.
“In the next ten years, I want to have a company for myself. I think 99% of students want to have their own business,” Linh said. “But actually, I want to build a community more than a business.”
*Last name omitted for privacy reasons
Skyler Inman ’17 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.