Published in The Nation (Bangkok) on Wednesday, November 29, 2000
By Daniel Gawthrop
HANOI – Last week, as US President Bill Clinton was wrapping up his historic trip to Vietnam, his Communist hosts issued an abrupt ideological broadside.
Calling on the country’s citizens to embrace their socialist future and the state’s “primary role” in business matters, Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu said: “The future of the Vietnamese nation is independence and socialism… Socialism [will] not only exist but further develop.”
Coming on the heels of Clinton’s triumphant visit, in which hordes of ecstatic Vietnamese gathered in the streets to welcome the leader of their once sworn enemy like a chart-topping rock star, Phieu’s gesture seemed more than a little defensive.
But perhaps he had good reason to fear that the party’s influence might be slipping.
Vietnamese police officers accompanying Clinton, unaccustomed to such spontaneous displays of public enthusiasm, could do little but watch as the leader of the free world worked his magic on the crowds.
During my own visit to Hanoi the same week, the vast generation gap between the hard-liners and the people most likely to benefit from the thaw in US-Vietnam relations became more apparent each day.
At the Dae Woo Hotel, where the Clinton family was staying, crowds of young people waited for hours just to get a glimpse of the US leader. The next day, when I arrived at Hanoi’s National University, about 90 minutes before Clinton’s scheduled 3.30pm speech, the sidewalks along Xuan Thuy Street were filled for more than two blocks, mostly with people under 30.
“I’ve seen him on CNN,” said 21-year-old Han, a second year finance and accounting student, as Clinton’s limousine approached the campus gates. “He’s a very effective man, known to everyone in the world.”
One girl, who said her grandmother had been killed by a bomb in the war, told me she wanted to meet the US president because he was “handsome” and “romantic”. (She clearly hadn’t read the Starr Report.)
But many of the students had serious inquiries about the purpose and impact of Clinton’s visit – some asking more questions of visiting journalists than they were being asked themselves. Just outside the campus gates, a reporter from California’s Orange County Register and I were grilled for our opinions on everything from Vietnam’s people and culture to more philosophical matters such as why countries go to war in the first place.
The moment seemed strikingly similar to encounters between Westerners and Eastern Europeans before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
One young woman wanted to know why I had taken a photo of an ageing military officer roughing up some students. I offered, somewhat lamely, that such scenes were unusual in my native Canada. Several times I saw officers shoving and kicking people on bicycles and using electronic teaser sticks to shock students and keep them behind a rope barrier. And perhaps it was no coincidence that the cruelest of these were military and party officers approaching retirement age.
Although the young people who had gathered to welcome Clinton were anything but disorderly, some party old-timers appeared to be harking back to a more authoritarian past with their excessive use of force. But perhaps crowds in Vietnam are no longer as compliant as they used to be. Many young people were undeterred by the police thuggery, often crossing the street for a better look the moment the officers turned their backs.
Statistically, it’s no surprise that young people would be the most visible citizens welcoming Clinton. The majority of Vietnam’s 70 million people were born in a post-war baby boom that followed the collapse of the Saigon regime.
But what the Hanoi regime appears not to have prepared for, while expanding its doi moi (“openness”) programme to improve relations with the US, is the inevitable maturing of that baby boom. Only now does it seem to be awakening to the implications of this process coinciding with the birth of globalisation and the Internet age, in which CNN broadcasts and other poisonous Western thought now extend to every corner of the planet. Vietnam’s current status as the most highly developed of the three former Indochinese countries will only bring more pressure on its leaders from the growing workforce.
Their message, as Vietnam continues its slow but remarkable economic recovery, is: look outward and embrace change.
Of course, Phieu and his fellow cadres want it both ways: increased trade and cooperation with the West while maintaining tight state control over the economy and a single-party political system.
But if the behaviour of Vietnamese youth during Bill Clinton’s visit was more than just a passing fancy, the hard-liners may not be able to enjoy that luxury for much longer.