Family matters: Vietnam battles nepotism in government offices

By VnExpress   January 2, 2017 | 02:00 am PT
Family matters: Vietnam battles nepotism in government offices
Farmers drying vermicelli along a road in the outskirts of Hanoi. Vietnam's top leaders have warned that widespread nepotism has chipped away at public confidence. Photo by AFP
The government investigates how family connections might sway politics.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has instructed the Ministry of Home Affairs and local leaders across the country to dismiss any bureaucrats whose appointments were influenced by nepotism.

Phuc issued the statement last weekend following an investigation by the ministry into allegations of nepotism that have grabbed national headlines over the past months.

Anyone found flouting the rules in this regard would be punished, the statement said. It also asked the Ministry of Home Affairs to submit a report on its handling of the issue by February 28.

Phuc, who ordered the investigation last October, said at the time that offering key positions based on family connections would erode public confidence in the public service.

He did not single out any case in particular. But in September, Trieu Tai Vinh, the top leader of the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang, was thrust into the spotlight after internet posts pointed out that eight of his relatives, including his wife and brothers, had come to hold key positions in his administration.

Vinh later told local media that there were family members working for him, but he dismissed the nepotism allegations. All the appointments were merit-based, he said.

These squabbles have emerged with increasing frequency. In recent years, several legislators have publicly accused bureaucrats of diverting ill-gotten gains -- houses, land, or cars -- to family members.

"Such goings-on have continued and are becoming increasingly sophisticated," Le Nhu Tien, an outspoken lawmaker who retired in 2016, lamented several years ago.

Despite the familiar rhetoric, Vietnam has made little headway in tacking systematic nepotism and corruption.

In 2014, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, an international standard gauge of government malfeasance, ranked Vietnam 119 out of 175 countries and territories; the country was ranked 116 in 2013 and 123 a year earlier. Its position has barely budged, moving to just 112 in 2015.

Vietnam’s most recent Governance and Public Administration Performance Index confirmed that personal relationships and informal payments “still play an important role for those who wish to pursue public sector careers.”

According to the index, over the past five years, “nepotism and corruption in public sector employment have become a systemic problem.” The index, considered the largest national governance and public administration performance monitoring tool in Vietnam, has surveyed nearly 75,000 citizens annually since 2009.

At a regular cabinet meeting in July, Prime Minister Phuc underscored that the government must “seek talents, not relatives.”

That same month, Nguyen Thien Nhan, the chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella organization of all political and social groups in the country, told the legislative National Assembly that widespread nepotism has chipped away at public confidence.

In 2015, the appointment of Le Phuoc Hoai Bao to head the Department of Planning and Investment in the central province of Quang Nam grabbed national headlines and raised widespread eyebrows. Bao, then 30, was the youngest provincial department head in the country. His appointment drew public scrutiny because his father once served as the top leader in the province and he was considered inexperienced.

Even though inspectors from the Ministry of Home Affairs later announced that they'd found nothing amiss in his appointment, the public remained skeptical.

Following the public furor, seasoned diplomat Ton Nu Thi Ninh was quoted by Vietnam News as saying that if she had been offered Bao's position at the age of 30, she would have rejected it. Bao had served as the vice director of the department for only six months prior to being promoted.

"Six months working as the vice director of a department isn't enough," Vietnam News quoted Ninh as saying. "Why does one have to hurry? To be in such an important seat, you've got to have real abilities and good experience."

Few Vietnamese analysts see anything inherently objectionable about giving key positions to the children of senior officials, so long as they are capable.

“They will have to go the extra mile to prove themselves,” said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, an outspoken lawmaker who retired in 2011, “more so than other young leaders who do not have such famous fathers.”

“The public would warmly welcome leaders who exhibit a genuine, proven commitment to transparency and responsive government, but the people also have the right to remain skeptical and they will be watching,” Thuyet said.

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