By all appearances, Vietnam has concluded its Ninth Party Congress with a ringing endorsement of reform. The decision to remove Mr. Le Kha Phieu as Communist Party secretary general and replace him with Mr. Nong Duc Manh is a clear sign of growing impatience with old-style ideologues. Mr. Manh is the right man for the job, but it will take much more than one individual to get the job done.
Mr. Manh brings impressive credentials to his post. He is the first party general secretary with a university degree. During his nine years as chairman of the National Assembly, Mr. Manh transformed the body into a real legislature, with feisty debates and public accountability. He has proven to be a pragmatic politician, capable of forging compromises among the diverse generations in and interests represented by the party. And he is a member of the Tay ethnic minority, which will be important as the government tries to quell growing ethnic unrest in the central highlands.
While Mr. Manh’s selection signals recognition of the need to change, the party’s willingness to go further is unclear. The Congress approved a report endorsing continuation of economic reform, but rhetoric has never been the party’s problem.
Vietnam introduced its Doi Moi reforms 15 years ago, but implementation has been frustrated by conservatives within the party who fear “contamination” and a loosening of their hold over the country. The replacement of Mr. Phieu and the reduction of the influence of four other top advisers, viewed as obstacles to reform, are a good beginning, but real change will be painful. It is telling that one of the most prominent reformers in the government, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, has cautioned against moving too quickly.
Ideological pressures are one barrier to reform. Perhaps more important is the corruption spawned by one-party rule. A high-profile, two-year anticorruption campaign has been largely ineffective; most of the individuals snared were low-level officials. That cancer is the real threat to reform in Vietnam. Until the party is willing to truly clean its own house, Mr. Manh’s good intentions will accomplish little.
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