A power struggle between a political maverick and a conservative insider. A show of force by China and a dead mystic turtle.
It’s not usually an occasion for drama but Vietnam’s leadership transition is serving up an unprecedented amount of political intrigue.
Held every five years, the Communist Party National Congress selects the country’s next leaders but what is usually a highly choreographed affair has veered off script.
“You have 1,200 people in a room duking it out. Their cell phones have been taken, their email and Internet access is restricted and they’ve even been restricted from talking to each other. It’s unprecedented in the history of the party,” said Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at City University of Hong Kong.
Vying for power
Until a few months ago, Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s two-term prime minister had the upper hand.
Often cast as a reformer, he has opened up the country’s economy to foreign investment and publicly taken a tougher stance towards giant neighbor and long-time rival China.
He and his allies were expected expected to take control of the Party, Vietnam’s top job, and replace current General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, a more doctrinaire leader ideologically allied to China.
“Dung is a bit of a political maverick and has sought to present himself as a reformer and something of a democrat but has been accused within and outside the party of being power hungry, corrupt and a fake reformer,” said London.
But Dung’s ascent remains uncertain after he wasn’t listed among leadership candidates agreed by top politburo decision makers just before the Party congress began.
And his rival Trong also passed a resolution banning delegates nominating themselves or anyone not on the list.
Phuong Nguyen, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says it looks like Dung’s (pronounced Tzung) political career might be over.
“If he doesn’t make a comeback of some sort, he will be out of the next government. Trong has spoken out very strongly about what he saw about the corruption that’s taken place under leadership of Dung.
“It’s no secret that his faction has been trying to remove Dung dung several times and this Party congress is really the apex of their power struggle.”
The country’s next leaders are expected to be unveiled Thursday, when the congress comes to an end.
Last week, Beijing moved an oil rig into contested waters in the South China Sea, triggering an objection from Vietnam and risking a re-run of a 2014 standoff between the two neighbors that saw China evacuate thousands of its nationals amid rioting.
Nguyen says that China’s timing was not coincidental and that Vietnam’s centuries-old rival is trying to send a signal to Vietnam’s leadership.
“China and Vietnam have longstanding party to party ties, through official and unofficial channels, and I think Chinese leaders are well aware of the power struggle in Hanoi.
“They want Vietnam to make the right choice; the wrong choice being for them a more pro-West and anti-China leader.”
But he said China’s show of force could backfire — especially among ordinary Vietnamese who don’t face the same Internet controls as their Chinese counterparts.
“The delegates have to take into account the public sentiment and a lot of the reporting and the leaked information is being circulated on social media and blogosphere … and it makes for a very interesting dynamic.
“It’s hard for the leadership to know what to do next because they realize anything that involves China turns in to a very dangerous game.
“But at the same time they want to use the China card to somehow remove Dung, who has found a way to boost his appeal among the public.”
China’s state-run media has taken a keen interest in Vietnam’s leadership transition, warning of “Western political infiltration.”
What about that turtle?
Complicating matters further is the death of Cu Rua — an extremely rare, soft-shell turtle that passed away on January 21.
The 100-year-old mystic creature lived in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem lake and a sighting was considered auspicious.
By contrast, Nguyen says the animal’s death is considered a portent.
“In Asian culture, an omen is a sacred sign you pay attention to and I think Trong’s faction might be cautious about their next move.
“Somehow the turtle’s death has impacted the way people think about what’s been happening and if Trong is to win, he needs to come across as not being power-greedy.”