Author: Hai Hong Nguyen, UQ
According to a recent report by Transparency International, Vietnam’s corruption levels significantly decreased in 2021, down to 87th most corrupt from 104th in 2020. But this encouraging shift does not reflect a seismic corruption case relating to COVID testing kits that came to light in the last days of 2021. The sheer scale of it — and the engagement of public officials — shocked the country.
The case involved Viet A Technologies JSC, a private company that allegedly gained illegal revenue of nearly 4 trillion Vietnamese dong (US$176 million) by overcharging for COVID testing kits and colluding with hospital managers across the nation. Following investigations, several prominent figures were arrested — including the CEO of Viet A, and several senior officials from the ministries of Public Health and Science and Technology and provincial Centers for Disease Control.
Prior to these criminal prosecutions, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong, who was then also president, bestowed the Medal of Labor on Viet A in recognition of the company’s fight against COVID. In the wake of the corruption revelation, Trong used his position as chairman of the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption (CSCC) to order relevant agencies to bring the Viet A case and nine other corruption cases to trial in 2022. In a statement published by state media, the CSCC also requested inter-agency collaboration to expand the investigation and punish the offenders without restriction.
Trong — who has been dubbed the ‘great furnace firing man’ after he referred to corrupt officials as firewood — is seemingly signalling a zero tolerance policy for any corruption. But pressing questions remain — how many corruption cases are yet to be discovered and are the CPV’s anti-corruption efforts falling short? And if so, why?
To be fair, the CPV’s anti-corruption campaign has achieved unprecedented outcomes under the shadow of economic liberalisation. In December 2020, the first review of the CSCC’s performance since its establishment in 2013 showed that tens of thousands of party members were disciplined or prosecuted for corruption cases. These notably included 27 incumbent and former members of the Central Committee, four incumbent and former members of the Politburo, and more than 30 army generals.
These figures continue to increase — the CSCC prosecuted and investigated 390 corruption cases involving 1011 people in 2021, including one provincial party secretary, one deputy-minister of health, and 10 senior generals in Vietnam’s marine police command.
To put these successes in perspective, the party failed to punish any senior officials prior to 2013, even though the party has recognised corruption as a major threat to the regime’s survival as far back as 1994.
But the more corruption cases are detected, the more they appear to be just the tip of the iceberg. How many undetected cases lurk beneath the waterline?
Transparency International outlines four elements of ‘corruption-free’ nations: check-and-balance mechanisms, an autonomous civil society, a strong rule of law, and independent journalism. In Vietnam, state-controlled media outlets only run corruption reports informed by state agencies. Restrictions on freedom of the press undermine the independent investigative functions of the Vietnamese state media, minimising the detectability of corruption and lowering pressure on the regime for accountability.
Trong and other CPV leaders also follow founding father and spiritual leader Ho Chi Minh’s belief that ‘cadres are the roots of all work’. Cadres of officials are particularly susceptible to corruption in a society lacking these checks and balances.
With public attention increasing, the Viet A case will serve as a ‘test kit’ for Trong and the CPV’s anti-corruption efforts. Vietnamese netizens are embroiled in the question of the true perpetrators behind this multi-million-dollar case. Some suspect the case is wholesale ‘state manipulation’ beyond just a few bad actors. Regardless, Phan Dinh Trac, an assistant to Trong in the CSCC and Head of the Central Commission for Internal Affairs (CCIA), recently affirmed that the CCIA would pursue the Viet A and other grand corruption cases to the end despite mounting pressure.
Will Trac’s CCIA be able to answer the questions surrounding the Viet A case? We must wait and see. But in the meantime, the Director-General and three other staff of the Directorate of Consular Affairs have been arrested and charged with taking bribes to organise ‘rescue’ flights for Vietnamese nationals overseas during the pandemic.
Corruption is a virus spreading across all sectors in Vietnam. Without the strong presence of Transparency International’s four elements, the CPV’s anti-corruption efforts will certainly fall short. The true size of Vietnam’s corruption iceberg will remain a puzzle.
Hai Hong Nguyen is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Futures, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of Queensland.
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