In Vietnam, corruption can mean death. But so what?

By Dien Luong, Trang Bui   October 1, 2017 | 04:32 am PT
In Vietnam, corruption can mean death. But so what?
Former PetroVietnam chairman Nguyen Xuan Son (R) is escorted by police as he leaves the court after the verdict session in Hanoi, on September 29, 2017. Son received the death penalty for appropriating VND246 billion ($13.6 million) from the OceanBank. Photo by Reuters/Kham
Unless the day-to-day corruption that affects the masses is rooted out, any anti-graft drive would be just cosmetic, analysts say.

Mac Thi Hao seems unperturbed by the news coverage of Vietnam’s corruption crackdown blaring from screens all around her. A retired accountant in Hanoi, Hao has a much more pragmatic, no-nonsense stance on what corruption means to her.

“I just don’t care about a bigwig being punished,” Hao told VnExpress International. “I know there is an ongoing crackdown on corruption, but that really has nothing to do with me,” she said.

“Whenever I think of corruption, I always recall the bribes I had to pay for my children’s school admissions or for better hospital services. To me, that’s the corruption that affects my life the most.”

Hao’s account offers a small glimpse into what most Vietnamese people make of corruption and what it means to them. It was revealed against the backdrop of Vietnam’s sweeping corruption crackdown that has grabbed both international and local headlines.

Just last Friday in Hanoi, a former chairman of the state energy giant PetroVietnam was sentenced to death and a former CEO of a scandal-hit bank got a life sentence in what has been considered the biggest fraud trial in Vietnam’s history. The OceanBank trial, as referred to by local media, also saw a slew of officials and bankers receive jail terms of up to 22 years.

Given that Vietnam's top echelons have repeatedly tried to assuage people's fears of rampant graft, the sentences apparently exhibit the political will to repair shattered public confidence. In late 2013, two former bosses of the state-run Vietnam National Shipping Lines (Vinalines) also received death sentences for embezzling $476,000 each in a high-profile corruption scam that riveted the nation.

But unless the day-to-day corruption that exacts a heavy toll on the most average people is rooted out, any so-called anti-graft movement would amount to little more than window dressing, analysts say.

“Harsh prison sentences and even the death penalty will only have a marginal impact on curbing grand corruption,” Carl Thayer, an Australia-based veteran Vietnam analyst, said. “Resorting to hard sentences is like a medical booster shot, it wears off over time,” he told VnExpress International.

“The masses encounter everyday low-level corruption in their dealings with government officials, traffic police and so on,” Thayer said. “They would like to see this ended as their first priority.”


People eat Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (Pho) at a restaurant in Hanoi. Unless the low-level corruption that affects the masses is rooted out, any anti-graft drive would be just window dressing, analysts say. Photo by Reuters/Kham

In Vietnam, the practice of passing money under the table is so common that many insiders do not even consider it bribery, but an inevitable part of getting things done.

In a survey in March, Transparency International ranked Vietnam as the second most corrupt country in Asia after India in terms of bribery. In its Corruption Perception Index 2016, the Berlin-based advocacy group also ranked Vietnam 113th out of 176 countries and territories.

According to the most recent Governance and Public Administration Performance Index, which interviewed around 14,000 residents in all 63 Vietnamese provinces and cities, there were “noticeable spikes” in reports of extra money being paid for everything from civil service positions to good grades.

Many analysts blame the problem on Vietnam’s failure to complete market reforms that began in the late 1980s. They say there is still too much state control over the economy, which allows connected insiders to profit.

According to the analysts, individuals who have access to centrally planned or government-controlled assets like land or capital are getting very rich, but individual entrepreneurs who have to compete without subsidized land, capital, fast-tracked approval or tax breaks are having a much harder time.

This has fueled an entrenched bribe-for-approval system.

“It is just too accepted as ‘the Vietnamese way of doing business’,” Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), said.

“Right now, the attitude about corruption is still ‘this is Vietnam’. Until there is a change in the mentality of the population and all levels commit to reducing corruption, the problem will persist,” he said.

But apparently, the status quo has already perpetuated widespread public distrust in the government’s determination to fight corruption.

In its March survey, over half of the Transparency International's Vietnamese respondents reported their government was doing a poor job of fighting corruption. Questions about public faith in provincial leaders drew rock bottom responses in the Governance and Public Administration Performance Index, but only 3 percent of respondents said they would blow the whistle on corrupt officials.

But still, the death penalty handed down last week to Nguyen Xuan Son, the former PetroVietnam chairman, and the life sentence for Ha Van Tham, the former chairman of OceanBank, will send a powerful message to the general public that the current leadership is serious about its anti-corruption drive, Thayer said.

“To be effective the anti-corruption campaign must be never-ending. There are undoubtedly other corruption scandals waiting to be exposed,” he said.

State oil and gas giant PetroVietnam and the banking sector have been at the center of the crackdown that has netted scores of officials. Chief among them is Dinh La Thang, who was ousted from the Politburo, the Communist Party’s decision-making body, last May and fired as the top leader of Ho Chi Minh City soon after.

But the bottom line is going after high-profile individuals is not going to restore public trust in any significant way, analysts say. They say the fight against deep-rooted graft in Vietnam requires a political sledgehammer to fix a badly broken system, leaving no room for the “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys" approach.

“Corruption is like Hydra, a nine-headed serpent-like snake in Greek Mythology in which it was said that if you cut off one hydra head, two more grew back,” McCornac, the American analyst, said. “Perhaps the new heads are not as large or powerful as the one cut off, but they emerge nevertheless,” he said.

“The only way is to address the issue at all levels.”

Having lived abroad for years, a retired Vietnamese researcher still keeps close tabs on what is happening back home. Unsurprisingly, the corruption crackdown has been high on her radar.

“If the top officials are squeaky clean, no traffic policeman or doctor would dare to extract bribes from the public,” she said, declining to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

If, as Vietnam’s leaders have repeatedly warned, corruption threatens the survival of the system, addressing it will require the overhaul of the system itself, she said.

“And that only happens when the powers that be have the political will to do so.”

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