Last week the head of Vietnam’s Communist Party Nguyễn Phú Trọng paid a historic visit to Washington. Though Vietnamese President Trương Tấn Sang met with President Obama in 2013, Trong’s visit was the first of a Communist Party leader in the two decades-long history of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Vietnamese human rights activists organizing in Washington, D.C., last Tuesday expressed their disappointment with the visit and their hope that the United States will clarify once again its commitment to defending and promoting human rights around the world.
Nguyen Phu Trong has no official government post. He is neither the President nor the Prime Minister and holds no seat in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, he is widely seen as “the top guy” in Vietnam, according to an unnamed source inside the State Department, and U.S. President Barack Obama considered a meeting with Trong a top priority in order to discuss certain “big picture” issues. The insistence on meeting with Trong, and showing him the deference and dignity of a visiting head of state, betrays just how strong the Communist Party’s grip on power in Vietnam really is; for instance, the Communist Party Secretariat controls the military and nominates the president and prime minister. Though the communist state tries to maintain an aura of constitutional legitimacy, with its separate branches and regular elections, the Party’s pride of place speaks volumes about the derelict political culture in that country.
Trong sits atop a single-party power structure that quashes dissent, stifles civil society, and engages in widespread human rights abuses. President Obama’s own State Department acknowledges that recent elections were “neither free nor fair” and that the government is responsible for “severe … restrictions on citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government.” The State Department also reports that up to 4,000 prisoners—including bloggers, activists, and religious and ethnic minorities—are currently detained in the country’s four “reeducation centers.” Amnesty International details how the communist state controls media, the judiciary, and almost all political and religious institutions. The current penal code criminalizes criticism of the government.
Yet this ersatz ally was last week welcomed into the Oval Office like a friend, shared a “cordial” conversation with the President, and cheerily extended an invitation to Obama to visit Vietnam, which he has tentatively accepted. Vietnam’s deeply disordered political and legal realities were referred to vaguely by the President as “significant differences in political philosophy and political systems,” and the conversation instead seemed to focus on trade and defense coordination.
And herein lies the rub: The main reason for Trong’s turn towards Washington is concern over China’s expansionist designs upon the South China Sea. America, for its part, would like to shore up support from other countries in the Asia Pacific against the rising regional rival.
But American policy makers shouldn’t scramble too quickly to accommodate the abusive communist government in Hanoi, especially at a time when Vietnam is particularly vulnerable. Rather, we might think about pressing our advantage more forcefully to insist on the central importance of human rights to any and all of our bilateral relationships, and to obtain deliverable and enforceable commitments to reform from the Communist Party of Vietnam. We should not let prevailing geopolitical considerations blind us to the real and dire need for structural change in the political and legal structures of Vietnamese society.
The nearly 500 Vietnamese-American protestors outside the White House last Tuesday certainly weren’t blind to the realities of their homeland. Though they came from across the U.S. from states including, Ohio, Arkansas, California, Maryland, Virginia, and Illinois, all were united as representatives of the Vietnamese ethnic community, registering their frustration with Trong’s visit to Washington. “We are representing the Vietnamese community within the U.S. to protest the visit of the [Secretary Trong] and to remember the victims of Vietnamese communism,” said Phai Doan, one of the event organizers. Protestors then visited the Victims of Communism Memorial to participate in a prayer vigil, where Doan announced that “we pray for the peace of the [1,00,000] victims of Vietnamese communism” and expressed his “promise that every year we will come to pray for [them] and the overall 100 million victims of communism.”
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation joins them in this commitment, and calls on leaders of good will to stand with the victims of Vietnamese communism, not the communists who victimize them.