Vietnam’s ‘most livable city’ waits with bated breath as future of top leaders hangs in balance

By Dien Luong   September 24, 2017 | 08:12 pm GMT+7
Vietnam’s ‘most livable city’ waits with bated breath as future of top leaders hangs in balance
A new terminal has been build at Da Nang International Airport in the lead-up to the APEC summit this November in the central city. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong
The fate of the embattled Da Nang leader has been dominating daily gossip among both average citizens and local bureaucrats alike.

Local media has unleashed a juggernaut of critical coverage of him. The government has launched a series of investigation into areas allegedly linked to his misconduct. And his political career continues to be a major talking point across Vietnam.

The man thrust into the national spotlight remains out of sight, but he continues to be the subject of an endless stream of conspiratorial internet rumors and hard-hitting news stories.

The fate of Nguyen Xuan Anh, the embattled chief of Da Nang’s Communist Party unit, has been dominating daily gossip in what has been widely dubbed "Vietnam's most livable city" among both average citizens and local bureaucrats alike.

“People are likely to pay attention to what happens in Da Nang, which became an acknowledged model of smart governance,” David Brown, a retired U.S. diplomat and expert on Vietnam, said.

“They're also likely to keep a close eye on Nguyen Xuan Anh, one of the Party's princelings,” Brown said.

Last Monday, the Central Inspection Committee, the Communist Party’s top watchdog, proposed "disciplinary measures" against Anh and Huynh Duc Tho, Da Nang’s chairman, for misconduct, mismanagement and dishonesty.


Nguyen Xuan Anh (L), Party chief of Da Nang's Communist Party Committee and Huynh Duc Tho, the city’s chairman. Photos by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Anh is the son of Nguyen Van Chi, who used to chair the very watchdog that has proposed punitive measures against him. He was elected Da Nang's Party chief in October 2015 at the age of 39 and became one of the two youngest Party chiefs in Vietnam besides Nguyen Thanh Nghi in the southern province of Kien Giang. Nghi is the son of Vietnam’s former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

It is likely that the political fate of the city's leaders will not be decided until the Communist Party’s Central Committee plenum opens at a yet-to-be-announced date in October, just slightly ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that will open on November 6 in Da Nang.

The central city will host world leaders, possibly including U.S. President Donald Trump, China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin at the summit. There must be "no mistakes" made during the course of the six-day summit, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh said last Wednesday.

This is the context in which the proposed disciplinary measures against Da Nang’s top leaders has left both locals and bureaucrats on tenterhooks.

Tho, the apparent lesser of the two evils caught up in the scandal, was the first to appear in public after being named and shamed. He has been held mainly accountable for land management violations in the city.

At a meeting with local bureaucrats on Saturday, Tho asked them not to be too fixated on “who will stay and who will go”. Their efforts, instead, should be channeled on the ultimate goal of developing Da Nang, he said.

“We shouldn’t be dwelling on things that are otherwise none of our business,” Tho said at the meeting. “Imagine how the workload would be affected if we spent all day gossiping about these things.”

To some analysts, Tho’s appearance and statement appeared to override Anh’s authority. It also raised questions about why Anh remains absent from public view and what level of punishment will be handed down to them by the Party.

Vietnam’s anti-corruption campaign, spearheaded by Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, has focused on energy giant PetroVietnam and the banking sector, ensnaring scores of officials. Chief among them was 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.

"Have Anh and Tho been cited simply 'for serious violations that annoyed party members, officials and the public'?" Brown, the American analyst, said, referring to the official language the Party's top watchdog used to conclude that their actions were serious enough to merit punishment. 

“Judging by present evidence, it seems that the fall of Anh and Tho is mostly a matter of restoring party discipline,” Brown said.

Da Nang’s leadership has often been hailed as an example to follow. Its charismatic, populist top leader Nguyen Ba Thanh died in 2015 of cancer. “The nearest Vietnam has to a Lee Kuan Yew" was how the international media referred to Thanh for his ambitious plans to turn the central city into a new Singapore.

“He advanced grassroots democracy, improved administration and pioneered direct elections. He also oversaw the remarkable development of Da Nang into a truly modern, attractive and outward-looking city,” Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam expert based in Australia, said.

His local fans championed him as a magnetic reformer who espoused populist policies. He also became a darling of foreign investors by railing against red tape.

But critics dismissed him as a tyrant besieged by a raft of corruption allegations, and some even went so far as to call him a “dictator”. Thanh also drew flak for controversial policies on education and immigration.

Thanh was Da Nang’s leader between 2003 and early 2013, when he was picked as the head of the Central Interior Commission, an organ tasked with advising the Communist Party on anti-corruption efforts and the appointment of high-ranking personnel.

After Thanh took on his anti-corruption role in Hanoi, Da Nang elected another top leader to replace him, a move widely considered as a transition period while Anh was being groomed.

“With such high visibility, perhaps Anh's wiser course in Da Nang would have been to be careful in his friendships and take care to avoid scandal,” Brown said.

Anh is accused of flouting the Party’s democratic centralism principles by making multiple decisions without consulting others, besides personal misconduct. He also set a bad example by accepting a car and two houses as gifts from businesses, according to the Central Inspection Committee. 

“However, Anh might well have reasoned that it's difficult for a local leader to accomplish much if he follows all the rules all the time,” Brown said.

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