Vietnam picks Western-trained technocrat as new Ho Chi Minh City leader

By Dien Luong   May 10, 2017 | 08:08 am GMT+7

Politburo member Nguyen Thien Nhan returns to his former political playground.

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has appointed a high-ranking official who studied in former East Germany and the U.S. to replace the recently ousted top leader of Ho Chi Minh City as part of a major reshuffle.

Nguyen Thien Nhan, 63, has been the president of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella organization of all political and social groups in Vietnam, since 2013. He has also been a member of the Politburo, the decision-making body of the Communist Party, since that year.

His predecessor Dinh La Thang was removed from the Politburo last Sunday after the Communist Party’s top watchdog held him accountable for a raft of “serious violations” while he was the chairman of the state-owned energy giant PetroVietnam several years ago. 

Pham Minh Chinh, head of a central organ advising the Party on personnel issues, said at an announcement ceremony Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City that Thang, 56, would be appointed deputy head of the Party's Central Economic Committe.

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Dinh La Thang (L) and his successor Nguyen Thien Nhan at the announcement ceremony on Wednesday. Photo by VnExpress

At the ceremony, Thang said the punitive measures against him are "reasonable". In his first-ever public apology, Thang said he was well aware of the seriousness of his violations at PetroVietnam.

It is not immediately clear if his vacancy in the Politburo will be filled.

Like Thang, Nhan is also a familiar face to the business and diplomatic communities. Once an educator, he served as vice chairman of Ho Chi Minh City from 2001 to 2006, a period marked by strong economic growth and openness to foreign investors.

“I recall when he was vice mayor he called a team of interested stakeholders to work extra hours on Saturdays in order to resolve the obstacles that were blocking Vietnam’s emergence as a software exporter,” Fred Burke, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s longest-serving American lawyers and a board member of the American Chamber of Commerce here, told VnExpress International, “and that effort lead to the emergence of what is today a multi-billion dollar outsourcing industry.”

Accompanying Nhan on a trade mission to the U.S. during the same period, Burke said Nhan really impressed American business leaders there with his English skills.

“It is a good sign that the Party can mobilize such capable leaders to take the country forward into the future, and his commitment to public service is really admirable,” Burke said. “He is highly respected in the foreign business community.”

Nhan got his PhD in cybernetics from a university in East Germany in 1979. After that, he earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of Oregon in 1995 on a Fulbright scholarship sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

When the first wave of wildcat strike hit HCMC in 2005, the municipal administration set up a steering committee on strike settlement and appointed Nhan as its head. City hall said at the time that strikes had spiraled out of control and threatened "to have a serious bearing on the investment climate if employers [of strike-hit enterprises] ... have to close down their companies.” One of the solutions city authorities hammered out at that time was to increase the minimum wage.

In 2006, the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, approved his appointment as the education minister. A year later, Nhan was promoted to also serve as one of the deputies to the then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

One of a handful of senior Vietnamese officials who speak fluent English, his legacy as education minister included a campaign in 2007 called "Say No to Negative Phenomena in Exams," dealing with the problems of cheating and corruption that had plagued Vietnam's education system for years.

The same year he also promised higher salaries for teachers struggling to make ends meet. “By the year 2010, all teachers will be able to live on their salaries,” he said. These issues have not been completely resolved by Nhan and his successors.

Nhan is not immune to criticism. His critics said he fell short of expectations while at the helm of the education ministry, fixated about combating exam cheating and honoring whistleblowers.

The Tra Vinh-native was voted into the 16-member Politburo in 2013. Soon later he left the cabinet and became the new chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front.

"Of key interest was why Nhan, despite being one of the most cosmopolitan and westernized Politburo members, is being sent to look after a very domestic-oriented organization," a foreign diplomat said at that time.

The authority and purview of the four-decade-old Fatherland Front is vast and includes oversight of all nationally-recognized religions, trade and other social unions and associations. It is also charged with vetting candidates for the legislative National Assembly and plays a check and balance role on government policies.

As the Front president, he has endorsed campaigns that promote Vietnamese goods and improve the Vietnamese physique and height. 

Most recently, Nhan publicly disparaged a bill by the Ministry of Public Security that sought to ban the use of secret recording apps in the name of national security. Bowing to public pressure, the ministry scrapped its proposal in late April.

Coming back to the city where his political career began more than three decades ago, Nhan is facing the daunting task of addressing the very challenges his predecessor had been promising to solve with soundbite-ready statements: corruption, crimes and traffic jams.

At Wednesday's ceremony, Nhan said that this is the second time he has returned to Vietnam's biggest city, recounting stories of his past experiences here. 

Commenting on his political philosophy, he said: "Officials must evaluate themselves based on public satisfaction."

Zachary Abuza, a Vietnam analyst in Washington, said Nhan has credentials as a "reformer."

"His appointment won't send a bad signal to the business community," he told VnExpress International.

"As head of the Fatherland Front, he's kept, as best he can, a lid on things," he said. "From a pro-reformers point of view, putting him in charge of the economic engine may give him a bit more executive experience, should they be considering him for a higher position."