In Vietnam’s ‘most livable city’, downfall of top leaders stokes nostalgia for populist strongman

By Dien Luong   October 16, 2017 | 06:27 am PT
In Vietnam’s ‘most livable city’, downfall of top leaders stokes nostalgia for populist strongman
A view of the 37-story administrative headquarters in Da Nang. Next month, the central city will host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and welcome world leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump, China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin. Photo by Nguyen Dong/VnExpress
A look back at the pinnacle of the career of a charismatic leader offers a glimpse into what apparently counts the most to Vietnamese people.

On Sunday, Da Nang’s new top leader mounted a podium to sell foreign investors on what has been dubbed Vietnam’s “most livable city.”

Truong Quang Nghia, a former transport minister, delivered the usual bromides about the central city’s vibrant reputation as a good place to settle down and do business. Next month, Da Nang will host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and welcome world leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump, China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Missing at the party is Da Nang’s late political leader who continues to dominate daily gossip there.

Just about a decade ago, many described Da Nang as the exclusive fiefdom of a dynamic political leader named Nguyen Ba Thanh - a man the Financial Times dubbed “the nearest Vietnam has to a Lee Kuan Yew.”

More than two years after his death due to cancer, Thanh remains the subject of endless conversations, be it on social media or in real life, about the ideal modern leader.

The big name officials that thrived in Thanh’s Da Nang have since fallen prey to the sweeping anti-corruption drive spearheaded by Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.

“We need a leader like him more than ever,” Hai, a local taxi driver, said of Thanh on October 6.

It was on that day that the Party fired Nguyen Xuan Anh, Da Nang’s Party chief, and dismissed him from the Central Committee, whose some 200 voting Communist Party members oversee governance of the entire nation. Huynh Duc Tho, the city’s chairman held mainly accountable for land management violations, has also received a warning from the Party, a move that essentially puts his position in peril.

The high-profile falls only seem to stoke nostalgia for the man who spoke, at length, in the city’s own Da Nang dialect.

Under Thanh’s leadership, his cult of personality ran so deep that locals came up with an alternate version of the lyrics in which in the city, anything but a single small bird resting on a tree branch belonged to him.

"He is one of just a few good leaders who dare to speak for the people, do whatever it takes for the sake of the people, and are ready to accept responsibility for their actions," Nguyen Thi Hien, another local, said.

In a recent interview with An Ninh The Gioi (World's Security) newspaper, Ho Viet, Thanh's predecessor as Da Nang's chairman, blamed the city's disgraced leaders for failing to cash in on a legacy on which it has earned widespread accolade as one of the most modern places in Vietnam.

"After Thanh left Da Nang, its development has only gone south," Viet was quoted by the newspaper as saying. “He oversaw the remarkable development of Da Nang into a truly modern, attractive and outward looking city. I believe no one can dispute this,” Viet said.

Thanh grew up in Da Nang, which broke away from Quang Nam Province in 1997 to become a centrally-administered city like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

As he rose through the ranks, cross-province business surveys consistently ranked Da Nang well above both HCMC and Hanoi - both roughly ten times its size. Many credited him with sparing investors from the superfluous formalities, widespread corruption, and crumbling infrastructure they found elsewhere in the country.

With a population of neary 1.4 million, Da Nang managed to develop an outsized tech sector, while leveraging its natural beauty as a draw for tourists.

In a society that often values face-saving above all else, Thanh was known to fire ward leaders on the spot and keeping low-level bureaucrats on their toes. Locals turned to the media to see Thanh speaking to street hawkers, inspecting drainage systems in flood-prone neighborhoods and inviting constituents to his home after work to listen to their complaints. 

In the era of blooming social media, "the public naturally focuses on populist leaders," Carl Thayer, an Australia-based veteran Vietnam analyst, said. "Nguyen Ba Thanh by all accounts was a popular leader during his tenure in Da Nang.”

But on the opposing camp, critics dismiss him as a tyrant besieged by a raft of corruption allegations; some have even gone so far as calling him a “dictator.” Thanh also drew flak for some controversial policies that limited rural migration into the city in an effort to spruce up its image. He also seriously limited the types of academic degrees officials could submit for admissions and promotions.

In a high-profile case in 2009, a senior police official who used to head the Da Nang’s police department was prosecuted for spearheading what the authorities called a smear campaign that cited a long history of corruption charges against Thanh stretching back to 2000. The allegations were subsequently dismissed as groundless. The charges against the police official were also dropped in 2012; but his accomplices got jail terms of up to five years in prison for their role in the scheme.

In 2013, Thanh left his beloved city for Hanoi, where he served a brief term as the chief of the Central Interior Commission, an organ tasked with advising the Party on major policies related to corruption and high-ranking personnel.

When he fell ill in early 2015, Buddhist followers converged on a monastery to pray for his well being. Others thronged the airport hoping to witness his charter flight's arrival from the U.S., where he reportedly sought treatment. After he died later that year, thousands of people gathered near his house to pay their respects to him.

Over the past months, when a raft of mismanagement scandals have besieged Da Nang, Thanh’s legacy and charisma resurfaced to dominate daily gossip. From street hawkers to xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers to menial workers, everyone seems to have their own accounts of the widely admired leader to recall.

“The ordinary people are massively grateful for what he gave them: a job and a stable life,” Tran Van Long, a retiree, said.

All criticism of Thanh’s legacy is not new there as well.

“We know them all too well," Hai, the taxi driver, said. "But so what? Even if those allegations are true, what we care the most is he got things done for us and acted for our interests," he said. 

"That’s important more than anything else.”

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