When people reflect on the effect of modern communications on a communist state, they tend to think first of China and its efforts to limit information reaching its citizens by digital means. But there is another communist state in Asia wrestling with the same problems: Vietnam, where I spent last week.
Like China, Vietnam has opened up to western business and the many organs of the party have plunged enthusiastically into capitalism. The army is big in mobile phones. This loosening has only worked up a point: inflation is rising, rigid inefficiencies survive and corruption continues.
The local media discusses very little of this. The only sources on what is going on inside the power structure are rumour and decoding the stilted formulas of the official press. There’s a knowledgeable analysis of the media here – but the fact that it’s written under a pseudonym tells you something about the party’s readiness to expel foreign correspondents it doesn’t like.
The state’s power is felt in a lighter and subtler way than in China. You’re in a taxi in one of Hanoi’s battered and dusty streets and suddenly you pass a building which stands out for its neatness: railings freshly painted, gravel swept, armed sentries who look like they mean business. A polished black Mercedes is just passing under the striped barrier. That little glimpse reminds you that inside the government machine is another machine, the party, which actually decides.
Most people will be cautious with foreigners they don’t know, but in Vietnam more of them are likely to giggle at the political authorities than would happen in China. This atmosphere is well caught in this essay by Vietnam-watcher Carl Robinson, who argues that the Vietnamese government isn’t likely to worry about infection from the Middle East.
But the country’s rulers must all the same be fretting about information seeping into the society. As Robinson notes, the “wall” supposed to stop Vietnamese using Facebook mostly doesn’t work. The Vietnamese simply can’t afford the Chinese solution to the dilemmas of the internet even if they thought it was a good idea. China has built alternatives to Google and Facebook and spends billions in espionage, surveillance, manipulation and obstruction on the web.
All of which gives China’s southern neighbour a headache. It was put best by an editor in a question after a presentation I gave in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon). If people are reading stories on foreign websites which are in Vietnamese, he said, and we are not reporting them, doesn’t that make us look foolish? I could only say that indeed it did. The other editors in the room seemed, unsurprisingly, anxious not to take up this awkward theme.
But as time goes on, Vietnam could develop those two distinct public spaces which did prove so significant in Tunisia and Egypt. One information space is the official news media; the second is informal communications networks, largely on mobile phones – and in that space people know things not mentioned in the space inhabited by the established media. (There is no Asian Al-Jazeera sending satellite television signals from outside ).
I saw no clues about how the Vietnamese authorities think about this. Meanwhile, the second informal space grows, quietly.