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Party chief warns rising disparity, individualism and corruption pose existential threat

A General Motors Co. Chevrolet Camaro is on display at a shopping center in the My Dinh area of Hanoi. Widening rich-poor gulf is hurting the Party and weakening its support base, leaders admit.

Sitting in an alley in a rough and starkly poor neighborhood in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Van Hung looked pensive as he considered finding another job to make ends meet.

"Three years ago, I got VND2 million a month and was able to take care of my family of six. Now I earn VND3.5 million but can hardly fend for myself," said Hung, a 52-year-old security guard at a restaurant in HCMC's District 1. He also moonlights as a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver.

Not too far away from where Hung is sitting, the streets teem with cars and sport utility vehicles. All the luxury brands - Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maybach, Rolls-Royce and Bentley could be found on the streets.

For more than two decades that Vietnam has enjoyed rapid and stunning economic growth, there have been comments made about the yawning gap between the rich and the poor. But these concerns have largely been ignored in the euphoria of being the latest Asian economic tiger on the block.

Now the gulf has widened, leaving the Vietnamese leadership deeply concerned.

"The rich-poor divide has even emerged inside the Party"¦ Some members have got richer so quickly, leading a lavish life which is a far cry from that of the workers," Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said at a conference this week. "This is the most worrying threat to the survival of the Party."

It is not uncommon for the nation's leaders to admit that social disparity, individualism, corruption, and degradation in morality and lifestyle among Party members are undermining public trust. But that this concern is being taken seriously can be seen in the fact that around 1,000 people, including the Party's top echelons, convened in Hanoi for a three-day conference which Trong called "the biggest-ever" of its kind to deliberate measures to tackle the problems and restore public confidence in the Party.

"Without rectifying these shortcomings, the leadership of the Party and the survival of the regime will be challenged," Trong told the plenum that wrapped up Wednesday (February 29).

The main thrust of Trong's message was crystal clear, according to analysts.

"General Secretary Trong put his finger on the problem: the [Party] must reform in order to keep up with changes from within Vietnam," said Benedict Kerkvliet, a Vietnam expert at the Australian National University.

Trong urged all party members to embark on "self-criticism" seriously, saying it was indispensable to retain the support of the people. He also warned them against "getting bogged down in the muddy marsh of individualism and selfishness."

But analysts argue that "individualism" is not foreign to Vietnam and that the damage is already done.

"There is no doubt it has already done so, as almost every Vietnamese citizen can relate an experience of corrupt practices encountered, large or small, involving a Party member or person in authority," said Lisa Drummond, a Vietnam analyst at the York University in Canada.

"The large incidents are shocking, but it is the small, daily, mundane practices of "˜opportunism' [that] wear away at trust and support."

Carl Thayer, a Canberra-based Vietnam expert, painted an even grimmer picture.

"Vietnam faces a serious problem not just of individualism by a single person [but] networks of corruption that foster individualism," Thayer said. "This is particularly serious at the local level."

Righting the wrong

With Trong saying personal agendas and widespread corruption among Party members was a major indicator of their moral decline, Drummond said the question now is how the Party acts to "assuage the anger of the many who have seen themselves cheated in the matter of land rights and compensation, the very many who find themselves much worse off, their complaints unheeded, while a very few have profited vastly and visibly."

The Party conference took place in the aftermath of an illegal land eviction that ended in a shootout in the northern port city of Hai Phong in January that evoked anger against authorities and sympathy for the evicted farmer.

"The"¦ case in Hai Phong, although unusual in several respects, does illustrate some of the Party's shortcomings - using brute force to destroy people's property, leaving up in the air important policy issues, e.g., land and how will it be allocated, land [usage] rights adjusted as 20-year leases draw to an end, and corruption," Kerkvliet said.

"Corruption is the number one manifestation, but there are others [such as] favoritism, giving positions and advancement to undeserving underlings.

Attacking corruption "vigorously and thoroughly" is central to helping the Party remaining "relevant and legitimate," he added.

Last year, Vietnam's Corruption Perception Index has slightly improved four spots from 2010 to 112 out of 183 nations surveyed, according to Transparency International.

Hard choices

While corruption has always been a concern, it could have been shadowed by the impressive economic growth Vietnam has achieved, analysts said.

But this will not last, they added.

"Robust economic growth in an economy such as Vietnam's - which is highly based on exports - is not assured," said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia specialist at the National War College in Washington.

"The party has very good reason to be concerned.

"The Party leadership has a range of options to deal with this. Some are easy and"¦ will be done - and the most important ones are hard."

Among the easy options are publicizing concerns and pledging action, and the slightly more difficult choices have to do with disciplining cadre with stiff punishments, Abuza said.

Full disclosure and audit of assets of Party members, and more mechanisms for denouncing abusive cadres, would be "really hard" options that test the resolve of the Party, he added.

Meanwhile, Hung, the security guard cum xe om driver, said he has always kept a close watch on latest developments of the Party.

But what he expects from it is very simple.

"I only hope the financial difficulties of poor people like me would not get worse in the next five years."

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