by Serge Berthier

Vietnam leaders are hard to catch. For them, an interview is a lecture. What do they think? What do they want? As the Vice-chairman of the Central Party Ideological and cultural Department, Dao Duy Quat points out, it is the party that thinks and issues guidelines. The government manages the State. Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai, although a respected reform-minded southerner was not prepared to enter a meaningful discussion about the state of affairs in Vietnam. Therefore we consider that there was no interview to speak of. He merely replied to our questions using the politically-correct jargon.

We still think his comments are worth publishing, not for their acumen but for their blandness, and the fact that they are an eerie echo of what others are telling us in this issue. In a way, they are the evidence we were looking for and got from the horse' s mouth. The same can be said of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nguyen Dy Nien. He is not the sort to ponder the situation. He would not agree to a questions and answers session. Probably both are right to be cautious.

We are told, again and again, in and out of government circles, that Vietnam does not have one leader but many. It may mean none at all. The predecessor of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, Vo Van Kiet was very outspoken - but only when it suited the circumstances. As for the General Secretary, Le Kha Phieu, a former general, some says he is under the shadow of a "Standing board" of eight people, among them Do Muoi, his predecessor, what he told Asian Affairs is not really different from his predecessors said at the onset of the reform process. Nevertheless, his blunt assessment about the resistance of the bureaucracy is significant. Clearly, there is a battle going on somewhere and the game is not over.

Currently, the priority is political stability, all the more because the economy is no longer growing at a rapid pace. 6% growth, as the Prime Minister mentions in his lecture is not enough to dent the poverty and put the economy on a new platform. It is a full 25% lower than the average rate of the 90s. It is just enough not to make a poor country poorer.

Le Dang Doanh, Chairman of the only economic think-tank that has some standing, attributes clearly the slowdown to the system. Some say the Vietnam leadership is overcautious in its quest for stability. But who can blame them?

Vietnam has been wrecked by a lack of stability not only during the XXth century, but as far as the Chinese, who meddled throughout the past millennium, can remember, and they have a long memory.

Maybe the right priority is to have Vietnam living in peace for as long as possible, because it never really happened before.

To analyze why Vietnam is war-prone is not for Asian Affairs to discuss. But it may explain why the Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister are giving priority to what elsewhere we take for granted. And it is quite possible that when you do that, you can't be a reformist in Deng Xiaoping's mold. China is large enough to sustain civil strife and come out on top. It has done it many times. Vietnam on its own never did it successfully in the past, and therefore the current situation has no historical precedent (contrary to what the Central party 's ideologue and spokesman, Dao Duy Quat, that we met, is fond of saying).

However, the years of low growth that Vietnam is facing since 1998 have begun to take their toll on the society. Urban unemployment is rising, enterprise profitability declining. The Government has sought to protect social expenditures, which may have helped cushion the impact of the slow growth, that in some quarters looks like a recession, that has engulfed the country. Not much is happening, and it is unlikely that the agriculture, the main engine of growth in the 1990s, can continue to play such a role for long in the coming decade.

Despite many declarations, from the current Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai, from the Chairman of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce, Doan Duy Thanh, and even from Dao Duy Quat, the Central Party's ideologue, the private sector in Vietnam remains more constrained than anywhere else in the region. If such constraints were only technical, and most of them are, they could be tackled easily. Indeed, the government has a three-year agenda to create a supportive environment for private investment and private enterprises.

But it is not the removal of some legal requirements, even if they are welcome, that are going to reverse the decline in foreign investments or the attitude of the private entrepreneurs towards Vietnam. What is needed is a clear commitment, not only to a market-led economy, but also to private ownership as a permanent and essential part of it. And on that point, it is very clear that the lack of strong leadership makes it a half-baked commitment.

It is quite clear from the interviews that the private sector is seen by some leaders as a tool that can be used, then discarded when it is no longer needed. The strangest comment we heard was that there is still a considerable debate about whether a party member can be a the same time a private entrepreneur and a communist. That argument was very much at the core of the theological debates between Trostkysts and Leninists ages ago.

In Vietnam, a private entrepreneur is bound to become a "bourgeois", and a bourgeois cannot be a communist and vice-versa. Therefore, one must conclude that the debate is very much alive . It may seem odd that, after the catastrophic economic failure of the 1970s and 1980s, that there are still people in a position of authority who believe in the communist creed as per the textbook.

The difficulty is that communism is very much a matter of faith as it is a religion. A zealot never blames God for all the problems surrounding his life, but more generally blames himself. The common reaction to failure, in both communism and religious matters, is that man is too weak or not intelligent enough to understand clearly what his social behavior should be. Hence, human beings fail because of their frailty, not because of their beliefs. The Vietnamese adhere very much to such a thinking. Their previous governments failed in economic matters because of their failure to read the "correct" situation. Vietnam was not yet ready for communism when they thought it was. Therefore communism did not bring a better life, but a more miserable one.

In my view, such reading of history is pervert as it easily whitewashes everyone and everything, especially political conscience and the role of the economic system. It implies somehow that at the right time and the right place, whatever was the creed of the day would work wonderfully.

In other words, provided Vietnam sticks long enough to its belief, Vietnam will be rich again. But as Keynes pointed out smartly, in the long run we are all dead. A sense of urgency would do wonder for Vietnam, but it is thoroughly lacking. Deng had such a sense of urgency, maybe just because he was selfish. He wanted to see China rich again when he was alive.

Beyond Vietnam, we are looking at the tale of two cities that are bound to become one in the not so long-run: Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is probably the grand design of Deng Xiao-ping when he coined the concept of "one country-two systems" and pushed for the creation of Special economic zones just at the door-step of Hong Kong. At the time, the Chinese experts, the same ones that predicted so many time the fall of Deng and the fall of China, dismissed the project as ludicrous.

Today, Hong Kong's elite is still trying to pretend nothing is happening. Madame Chan, the top bureaucrat, does not like the idea of Hong Kong being challenged by a Chinese city , and even less the prospect of being gobbled up. Therefore cross-border cooperation is still an administrative nightmare.

While we were preparing this issue, 250,000 Honkong commuters crossed the border for the Easter break. Pandemonium ensued. Next year, the number is likely to be at 300,000.

Hong Kong's elite is still very British. It feels, as Britain, the place is an island. At what number, Hong Kong will realize that this is no longer the case? When is it going to shade its ex-British colonial attitude? In 2002, argues Shiu Sin por, the Executive Director of a Research Institute based in Hong Kong and working on cross-border problems. We'll see if he is right. In the meantime, the costs of the inefficiency created by political obstruction at its best is mounting.

Serge Berthier