Vietnam – Political Culture

Vietnam – 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

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

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

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

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

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
(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

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