Political Culture

Vietnam Table of Contents

Vietnam's political culture has been determined by a number of factors of which communism is but the latest. The country's political tradition is one of applying borrowed ideas to indigenous conditions. In many ways, Marxism-Leninism simply represents a new language in which to express old but consistent cultural orientations and inclinations. Vietnam's political processes, therefore, incorporate as much from the national mythology as from the pragmatic concerns engendered by current issues.

The major influences on Vietnamese political culture were of Chinese origin. Vietnam's political institutions were forged by 1,000 years of Chinese rule (111 B.C. to A.D. 939). The ancient Chinese system, based on Confucianism, established a political center surrounded by loyal subjects. The Confucians stressed the importance of the village, endowing it with autonomy but clearly defining its relationship to the center. Those who ruled did so with the "mandate of heaven." Although they were not themselves considered divine, they ruled by divine right by reason of their virtue, which was manifested in moral righteousness and compassion for the welfare of the people. A monarch possessing these traits received the unconditional loyalty of his subjects. Selection of bureaucratic officials was on the basis of civil service examinations rather than heredity, and government institutions were viewed simply as conduits for the superior wisdom of the rulers.

The Vietnamese adopted this political system rather than one belonging to their Southeast Asian neighbors, whose rulers were identified as gods. Nevertheless, Vietnamese interpretations of the system differed from those of the Chinese both in the degree of loyalty extended to a ruler and in the nature of the relationship between the institutions of government and the men who ruled. In Vietnam, loyalty to a monarch was conditional upon his success in defending national territory. A history of Chinese domination had sensitized the Vietnamese to the importance of retaining their territorial integrity. In China, territorial control did not arouse the same degree of fervor. In interpreting the role of government institutions, Vietnamese beliefs also conflicted with Confucian theory. Whereas the Confucians held that institutions were necessarily subordinate to the virtuous ruler, Vietnamese practice held the opposite to be true. Institutions were endowed with a certain innate authority over the individual, a trait manifested in the Vietnamese penchant for creating complex and redundant institutions. Despite Confucian influence, Vietnamese practice demonstrated a faith in administrative structures and in legalist approaches to political problems that was distinctly Vietnamese, not Confucianist.

Nevertheless, Confucian traits were still discernible in Vietnam in the mid-1980s. To begin with, many of the first- generation communist leaders came from scholar-official backgrounds and were well-versed in the traditional requisites of "talent and virtue" (tai duc) necessary for leadership. Ho Chi Minh's father was a Confucian scholar, and Vo Nguyen Giap and the brothers Le Duc Tho and Mai Chi Tho were from scholarly families. They cultivated an image of being incorruptible and effective administrators as well as moral leaders. The relationship between the government and the governed was also deliberately structured to parallel the Confucian system. Like the Confucians, leaders of the highly centralized Vietnamese ccommunist government stressed the importance of the village and clearly defined its relationship to the center.

In this link between ruler and subjects, the Confucian and communist systems appeared to co-exist more readily among the disciplined peasants of the North than among their reputedly fractious brethren in the South, where the influence of India and France outweighed that of China. Searching for reasons to explain the phenomenon, some observers have suggested that the greater difficulty encountered in transforming Vietnam's southern provinces into a communist society stemmed, in part, from this region's having been the least Sinicized. In addition, Southeast Asian influences in South Vietnam, such as Theravada Buddhism, had created a cultural climate in which relations with a distant center of authority were a norm. Moreover, the South's political systems had tended to isolate the center, in both symbolic and physical terms, from the majority of the people, who had no clear means of access to their government. The South had also been the first to fall to the French, who had extended their influence there by establishing colonial rule. In the North, however, the French had maintained only a protectorate and had allowed a measure of self-government. As a result, French influence in the North was less than in the South and represented a smaller obstacle to the imposition of communism.

The influence of modern China, and particularly the doctrines of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, on Vietnamese political culture is a more complicated issue. Vietnamese leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, spent time in China, but they had formed their impressions of communism in Paris and Moscow and through Moscow-directed Comintern connections. The success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, however, inspired the Vietnamese communists to continue their own revolution. It also enabled them to do so by introducing the People's Republic of China as a critical source of material support. The Second National Party Congress, held in 1951, reflected renewed determination to push ahead with party objectives, including reconstruction of the society to achieve communist aims and land reform.

The Soviet model, as well, can be discerned in Vietnamese political practice. In the areas of legal procedure, bureaucratic practice, and industrial management, the Vietnamese system more closely resembles the Soviet system than the Chinese. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, VCP leaders were attracted particularly by advances made in Soviet economic development. In the majority of cases, however, Vietnamese policies and institutions, rather than adhering strictly to either Chinese or Soviet models, have tended to be essentially Vietnamese responses to Vietnamese problems.

Traditional adversarial relationships with neighboring states have also helped define Vietnam's political culture. The country's long-standing rifts with Cambodia and China, which developed into open conflicts in 1978 and 1979 respectively, suggest the need to view contemporary relationships in historical perspective. Hanoi's attitude regarding its relations with these two neighbors is grounded as much in accustomed patterns of interchange as in current concerns for national security. It is also firmly based in the Vietnamese tradition of resistance to foreign rule, which has been a theme of great appeal to Vietnamese patriots since the time of Chinese domination. The founding members of the VCP were the dissenting elite of a colonized country. They were attracted to Marxism- Leninism not only for its social theories but also because of the Leninist response to colonial subjugation. Ho himself was reported to have been more concerned with the problem of French imperialism than with that of class struggle.

Vietnam's agrarian economy also contributed to its political culture. As an agricultural people, the Vietnamese lacked an urban industrial proletariat to carry out their revolution. Leadership, therefore, necessarily passed into the hands of scholar-official intellectuals and peasants.

Vietnam's political culture, in turn, has contributed to its comparative isolation from non-communist states. This isolation is partially a result of the ideology that has created self- imposed political barriers with the West, but it is also the result of the collective mentality of the nation's leadership, which views itself as set apart from communist as well as noncommunist nations. This view stems from years of preoccupation with the struggle for independence and the reunification of the country. Such an ethnocentric focus on domestic affairs resulted in a provincial outlook that continued in the late 1980sand was reinforced by the lack of international experience of many of Vietnam's leaders whose foreign travel was limited to official visits to other communist states. In addition, Vietnam's military victories over reputedly superior military forces, including those of France, the United States, and, in 1979, China, have created a sense of arrogance that a wider world view would not justify.

Communist ideology, particularly as manipulated by the Vietnamese leadership, has also helped to shape Vietnam's political culture. The country's communist leaders have been adept at stressing the continuity of Marxist-Leninist doctrine with Vietnamese history. The VCP successfully identified communism with the historical goals of Vietnamese nationalism and achieved leadership of Vietnam's independence struggle by accommodating the aspirations of a number of ethnic, religious, and political groups. The party has presented the myths and realities of the past in a manner that suggests that they led naturally to the present. In his writings, Ho Chi Minh used classical Vietnamese literary allusions to convey a sense of mystique about the past, and he cultivated the classical Vietnamese image of a leader who reflected uy tin (credibility), a charismatic quality combining elements of compassion, asceticism, and correct demeanor, which legitimized a leader's claim to authority. The communist regime additionally promoted the importance of archaeology, popular literature, and cultural treasures in order to emphasize its ties to Vietnam's classical traditions. VCP historiography views the French colonial period (1858-1954) as more an interruption than a part of Vietnamese history.

Despite the care taken to preserve Vietnamese identity, the party has hesitated to deviate from Marxist-Leninist doctrine even when its application resulted in failure. The planned rapid and total transformation of the South to communism in the 1970s failed because it was almost entirely ideologically inspired and did not sufficiently anticipate the scale of economic and social resistance that such a plan would encounter in the South. This failure paralleled the failure to collectivize the North rapidly in the 1950s. In both cases, however, the party maintained that the predominantly ideological programs had been instituted to attain nationalist goals and that nationalism had not been exploited for the purpose of furthering communism.

Vietnam's political culture represents, therefore, the steadfast survival of what is Vietnamese in the face of a long history of outside influence; integration of historical political ideals with an imported communist organizational model has created a communist identity that is no less Vietnamese.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress