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Government changes tack to woo Vietnamese youth

A young customer (R) takes a picture of himself as he consumes a drink during the grand opening ceremony of the first Starbucks store in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City on February 1, 2013.  Increasingly, in a country where about 60 percent of Vietnam's 90 million people are under the age of 35 and concerns over youth crimes and unemployment are rising, authorities seem to be stepping up efforts and adopting fresh approaches to get the youth's attention, experts say.

It happens just once in a country's history, UN experts say.

Vietnam is currently experiencing the rare phenomenon of a "demographic bonus" with two or more persons of working age for every person of dependent age (under 15 or 60 and over), meaning it has a large population of young people.

However, harnessing the energy and dynamism of the youth for the nation's development is easier said than done. The yawning gap between a generation that grew up at a time of prolonged wars and one that has never experienced it poses a daunting challenge for the country's leadership.

Evidence that it is waking up to this fact and trying to reach out was seen last week in the government's approval of a comic book featuring slang popular among the youth.

The book had been recalled in 2011 after some older citizens took umbrage.

Although the approval was given for a revised edition with some of the more "offensive" material removed,  observers say it is a rare, significant move.

In another piece of evidence that the authorities are trying to connect belatedly with the younger generation, the Central Youth Union hired a popular rapper to write a song aimed at conveying the content of a propaganda resolution.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said recently that the government would give the green-light for building a social network on the Internet for young Vietnamese people.

Increasingly, in a country where about 60 percent of Vietnam's 90 million people are under the age of 35 and concerns over youth crimes and unemployment are rising, authorities seem to be stepping up efforts and adopting fresh approaches to get the youth's attention, experts say.

"It is a must for every government to reach out to the youth because they have dynamism and energy," said Tran Tuan Huy, a sociologist who directs a training center that seeks to impart lifes kills and values to young people in Ho Chi Minh City.

But experts and several Vietnamese youth said it is still far too early to judge the effectiveness of this "novel" approach. They say, however, that the effort needs to be sustained to ensure it is more than a flash in the pan.

Le Dang Doanh, former secretary to the late Party chief Nguyen Van Linh (the architect of Vietnam's economic reforms in the late 1980s), said these efforts indicate the widening gap between the youth and the government.

Many old ways of engaging the youth and firing their enthusiasm, especially hard propaganda, do not work anymore, Doanh said.

"I think the government is on the right track. Perhaps it is too late in coming, but it is always better late than never," he told Vietweek.

"Any government that does not try to reach out to a large and critical sector like that is in trouble. [And] they have to do so in a language or in ways that the youth find accessible."


Nguyen Thanh Phong was apparently not very enthusiastic to learn how readers were reacting to the revised version of his controversial comic book, "Sat Thu Dau Mung Mu" (The Murderer with a Festering Head). It hit the shelves again on March 27 with the new title "Phe nhu con Te Te" (Pangolin in a spin).

"I have been busy doing other work since then so have very little time to find out how the readers react," he told Vietweek.

The book was among top five bestsellers during the week of March 25-31, according to the website of a popular online bookstore. But a number of young readers Vietweek spoke to said now they could not feel the same chemistry that they did almost two years ago.

"I think what made the book much sought after was the fact that it was banned," said Nguyen Ngoc Thu Hien, a college junior in HCMC.

"The more the authorities try to ban something, the more young people [like us] try to find out why," she said.

In October 2011, two weeks after its release, the culture ministry's Fine Arts Publishing House yanked the book from stores, blaming the withdrawal on changes made to the approved draft.

The ban had stoked an online-buying frenzy among tech-savvy youth, and the price of the book almost doubled.

The first edition of the book was a collection of illustrations of rhyming one-liners mimicking a street patois. It parodied Vietnamese life and social issues and even broached sensitive issues ranging from wildlife trafficking to domestic violence using frisky, yet chic language and humor, according to the Associated Press.

Phong, who won the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Asian Youth Animation & Comics Contest, was severely criticized by people who said his use of rhyming slang corrupts the Vietnamese language and is a bad influence on the nation's youth.

But to satiate "huge demand" from readers, the book was given the green-light to come out again after some illustrations were removed and replaced with less offensive material.

The new edition of the book, despite selling well, has not impressed some.

"The content and design of the book is more insipid and lackluster than the first one," a senior designer in Ho Chi Minh City said, declining to be named.

Other readers said several "hilarious" illustrations in the first edition were taken out. Among them was the one showing two soldiers kicking a grenade, Vietnam's shuttlecock-kicking style, under the caption "Soldiers must show off."

Another illustration that has been removed shows a man who became a monk after he felt dismayed at life, but later on flees the pagoda with the donation box, saying: " It's better to go to jail."

Phong, 27, said it was the publisher that had the final say on which illustrations were to be removed. Speaking for himself, he said: "I didn't want to remove any of those illustrations. I liked them all."

He maintained that the recall was all a paperwork problem.

Meanwhile, experts said allowing the comic book to be published again was a "very good move". 

"It"¦ reflects what really goes on in society, and it allows the youth an outlet and to tell the world that their government is tolerant towards society, and towards youth in particular," said David Koh, a former Vietnam analyst with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore who speaks fluent Vietnamese.

But Phong declined to comment whether he saw his book being allowed to appear again as the new approach to youth by authorities.

"That's a hypothetical political question. But"¦ obviously, if the authorities want to reach out more to the youth, they have to change the way they convey their messages."

Rapping the message

In another explicit and rare effort to communicate to the youth, the Central Youth Union last month hired a Vietnamese rapper write a song to convey the content of a youth resolution marking the founding anniversary of the union (March 26, 1931).

The song has been released along with a music video to rave reviews. Experts say it does a great job in conveying that civic responsibility and core values (education, public service, family, respect for elders) are completely in sync with being modern, trendy and worldly. 

Phong, the author of the comic book, also said he found the idea a bit "strange". But "that might imply that there are some fresh faces in high places [at the Central Youth Union]," he said.

Asked if he would agree to author another book of similar content, Phong said he would have to think twice.

"I only do what excites and inspires me. If they ask me to write a book only for the purpose of sheer propaganda, just forget it."

"˜Increasingly difficult'

Vietnam's young and highly literate workforce is the country's best hope for riding out the global economic crisis and sustaining future growth, experts say.

The "demographic bonus" is likely to last until 2040, the UN says.

Today, young people between 10 to 24 years represent almost a third of the total population of around 90 million people, it said in a report, which also noted that two-thirds of the country's population was born after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Given the widely different circumstances in which the different generations have lived, it is inevitable that the young people feel a disconnect from the leadership that secured Vietnam's independence and sovereignty, said Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst.

"Anyone born in the past 24 years has known nothing but peace," he said.

Meanwhile, several studies have shown a lack of public citizenship among young people. Youth leaders are also finding it increasingly difficult to convey their messages to a generation that is comfortable with the Internet, Facebook, and smart phones.

"Campaigns to enlist the youth in public activities are still too much about formalism rather than concrete actions," said Huy, the HCMC-based sociologist.

"The younger generation is always looking around and seeing a lot of options to choose from.

"The Youth Union has tried to change their approach to the youth but I haven't seen any evidence of a coherent policy being formulated and implemented."

The government does need to worry about the cynicism and skepticism that could arise from the lack of progress in Vietnam, particularly with regard to issues of rising disparity, corruption and the lack of a decent educational system, ethical teachers, and so on, experts say.

"It would not be too far to say that they are skeptical because what they learn in school is not necessarily applicable or true in society. Naturally, there would be discontentment and restlessness," Koh said.

Parental care

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said at a meeting with the Central Youth Union last month that it is essential to build an online social network for Vietnamese youth as many developed countries have recognized this as a way to engage the younger population.

With almost 31 million Internet users, Vietnam's social, digital and mobile landscape is evolving at an "astonishing rate," We Are Social, a global independent social media agency, said in a report last year. 73 percent of Vietnamese Internet users are under 35, it said.

The idea of building the online social network has not impressed Vietnamese and foreign experts who wonder why the government wants to spend money on it when they can just use existing social networks like Facebook.

"It would be quite hard for the government to create a social network specifically for Vietnamese youth that could compete against already established networks," a foreign diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

"I think it is likely the project will waste taxpayers' money," she said.

At the meeting, Dung also urged greater efforts to further increase patriotism and love for the country among the youth.

Vietnam's older generation has been lamenting that a growing number of students are neglecting their studies, lacking political consciousness and indulging in excessive materialism.

But the youth say that their concerns and needs have been ignored for the most part.

A college student in HCMC, who only revealed her first name as Thanh, said the youth are always patriotic, though it could "wobble" at times.

Hien, the college junior, agreed. Both Thanh and Hien are Facebook buffs and doubt if they will ever switch to a new online social network.

But they were excited that the idea might be part of a government campaign to engage the youth.

"I also want to be friendlier with the government," Hien said, passing along the comic book with youth slang to friends at a café in HCMC.

She said the best way to engage youth is not through slogans and banners, but through "sustained goodwill to us, listening to us and caring about our interests.

"It's just like parental care. You have to provide that every day to your children."

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