From Periphery to Centre: The Self-evolution of the Vietnamese Communist Party's Central Committee.

Date01 April 2022
AuthorGiang, Nguyen Khac

Party's Central Committee

There is a consensus among observers of Vietnamese politics that the Central Committee (CC) of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) is the most important political institution of the party-state. (1) However, despite this recognition, the CC has only been sparsely mentioned in the literature, rather than being a stand-alone topic of investigation. The most in-depth research on the CC so far was done by Carl Thayer in 1993. (2) In the late 2000s, a series of studies on Vietnamese politics by Edmund Malesky and colleagues shed light on the rise of the CC (3) in Vietnam's power structure as well as the characteristics of the factional infighting that took place within it. Other than that, the CC has been mostly described as an arena of power struggle in annual reports on Vietnam or reviews of the VCP's quinquennial congresses. (4) While insightful, these studies consider the CC as the explanatory variable rather than a topic of research in and of itself, and thus do not offer a detailed examination of its fundamental characteristics. This is in contrast with the study of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has been rigorously examined over the past few decades. (5) As a result, many analyses on Vietnamese elite politics are case-specific and time-sensitive, which inevitably lead to contradictory perceptions of how the CC works, particularly with regard to the question of factionalism. (6) Naturally, the failure to see how the CC has evolved over the years and adapted itself to new environments has left scholars unable to account for the reasons behind the regime's relative stability. (7) Furthermore, the lack of studies on the Vietnamese CC makes it difficult to directly compare its political development with China, which has recently emerged as one of the most interesting topics in comparative authoritarian studies. (8)

Based on a new biographical dataset of 626 CC members from the 6th to the 12th congress of the VCP, (9) as well as the Party's internal documents, we examine the institutional origins and development of the CC in three key aspects: (1) its changing structure and composition; (2) its decision-making principles; and [3) its norms of elite promotion. In so doing, we argue that the CC has moved from the periphery to the centre of Vietnamese elite politics, resembling the role of a shadow parliament where major policies are deliberated and passed, as well as where top leaders are chosen. The CC has achieved this position by developing and maintaining a considerably high level of intra-party democracy, expanding the selectorate by accommodating the increasing power of the provinces and the National Assembly (NA) while greatly standardizing the norms of elite promotion. Our study is one of the first attempts to collate and summarize the biographies of Vietnamese CC members over an extended period of time. (10)

The article proceeds as follows. We first offer an explanation of the CC's changing power since 1986, followed by an analysis of its institutional development throughout the Doi moi (Renovation) era, with a particular focus on its composition and voting structures. After examining the normative sources of the CC's power, which come from the institutionalization of working procedures as well as respect for the democratic centralism principle, we delve into the patterns of elite promotion to show how central leaders find it increasingly difficult to intervene in the CC promotion process. Based on the dataset, we also evaluate the factional dynamics of the CC based on three popular classification strategies. The article concludes with our reflections on the power limits of the CC given recent re-centralization efforts by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

The VCP Central Committee's Changing Composition and Structure since Doi m&i

In communist regimes like Vietnam and China, the central committees of the communist parties, with the formal mandate to elect the top leadership, can be considered the selectorates. (11) Before the country officially embraced market reforms under the Doi moi policy in 1986, central leaders in Hanoi dominated the CC by tightly controlling the party's personnel policy as well as keeping the decision-making process within a small group of elites. However, since the 6th Congress in 1986, the CC has gradually attained its position as the centre of Vietnam's collective leadership mechanism. Today, it is widely considered as the most important institution in Vietnam's one-party state. The expansion of the selectorate and the changing voting structure play a significant part in this transformation.

The rise of provincial representation is a particularly noteworthy factor that led to the CC's expansion. Before 1986, provinces were greatly underrepresented. The country's provinces were not guaranteed to have representatives in the CC, while the party chiefs of central municipalities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) were not guaranteed Politburo seats. However, the situation changed dramatically in the late 1980s. From the 1990s onward, barring special circumstances, (12) provincial Party secretaries were guaranteed full CC membership. (13) Nevertheless, the norm remained informal and had to be agreed upon by the CC before each congress, until 2017 when Regulation 90 (and its amended version Regulation 214 in 2020) was issued by the Politburo, which requires a provincial Party secretary to meet the criteria of the "Politburo or CC membership". (14) As shown in Table 1, provincial representation in the CC increased from 23.4 per cent at the 6th Congress (1986) to 35.6 per cent at the 12th Congress (2016).

Why did the central elites accept more provincial representation in the CC, a transformation that would subsequently weaken their own position? The commonly accepted narrative is that the death of General Secretary Le Duan, who dominated Vietnam's post-war politics, in 1986 facilitated the transformation from a personalized to a collective leadership system, (15) with reformists within the CC being able to exert more influence ever since. However, if we look at the composition of the CC, it had undergone major changes four years earlier. Before the 5th Congress in 1982, Le Due Tho emphasized the need to increase representation for the provinces, particularly Hanoi and HCMC, in the Politburo and the CC. (16) Subsequently, the number of the CC full membership increased from 103 at the 4th Congress to 121 at the end of the 5th Congress. (17) The changes in 1982 have rarely been discussed but deserve more attention as an analysis of these changes helps us understand the rationale behind Vietnam's collective leadership system. We suggest there are both economic and ideological considerations behind the move.

First, as the economic crisis which started in the late 1970s deepened, the centre had been unable to sustain the centralized distribution system. On several occasions, Hanoi and HCMC--where the centres of power were located--had to ask for food support from surrounding agrarian provinces. (18) The sharp decrease in foreign aid in the 1980s, a result of Vietnam's military intervention in Cambodia and the deteriorating situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc (see Figure 1), put parts of the country in a self-subsistent mode. These events increased the financial independence and thus the relative power of the provinces vis-a-vis the central authority. The high level of decentralization in Vietnam can also be seen as a legacy of this period. (19)

Second, along with the worsening economic crisis, dissatisfaction towards the centrally planned economy started to emerge. In several provinces, local leaders defied the centre's orders to practise "fence-breaking" policies that rationalized and normalized economic activities. (20) Some of the fence-breaking provincial leaders, most notably Vo Van Kiet, would later move to Hanoi and be considered as part of the "reformist" faction. (21) Several key central leadership members, such as Chairman of the State Council Truong Chinh, gradually changed their conservative views and leaned towards the reformists. (22)

Third, the existential crisis in communist Europe also had profound psychological and ideological impacts. As the VCP scrambled to learn lessons to ensure its own survival, it identified the lack of intra-party democracy as one of the key reasons for the collapse of communism in Europe, suggesting it needed to improve and expand "the practice of democracy". (23) Having a more diverse and enlarged CC would help meet this goal. Between the 6th and the 8th Congress [1986-98), CC membership increased by 33 per cent. Along with the provinces, the National Assembly (NA) also benefitted from this ideological shift as its role in the system increased in importance. (24) Since the 7th Congress in 1991, the NA has gradually consolidated its position and the NA chairmanship eventually became one of the "four pillars" of Vietnam's political power structure. As seen in Table 1, the number of NA representatives in the CC tripled from the 6th to the 12th Congress, with a net increase of 5.2 per cent in vote share.

The Central Committee's Inner Workings: The Primacy of Democratic Centralism

The changing composition would not matter much if the CC only functioned as a "window-dressing institution" as seen elsewhere in other authoritarian regimes. (25) However, a closer look at the inner workings of the CC shows its rather surprising democratic characteristics.

The VCP's Constitution explicitly requires the CC to meet every six months, (26) which provides CC members with more opportunities--at least formally--to deliberate on issues and policies. In reality, the Vietnamese CC meets more often than that (see Table 2). More importantly, after the 7th Congress, the amended Party's Constitution guaranteed CC members the right to preserve their opinions if they were different from...

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