Teething Vietnam is not 'just like China'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2008, 12:00am

'Just like China' is a constant refrain around the region as Vietnam endures the teething troubles of its emergence as a modern Communist Party-ruled capitalist state. Ho Chi Minh City's fledgling stock and property markets collapse after a casino-like run and, of course, it is a case of 'just like China'. Vietnam's state-owned enterprises are blamed for soaring inflation amid a blizzard of poor investment and easy capital and again it is 'just like China'.

Whether it is the aspirations of an urban middle class or the struggle for internal party reforms, the phrase is never far away.

Yet, at best, it only tells part of the story. At worst, such thinking dangerously obscures important trends and differences of interest to anyone intrigued by the future of East Asia.

It is certainly a phrase you learn to use sparingly on the streets of a proudly independent Hanoi.

Many Vietnamese - whether they are staunch apparatchiks or young urbanites - look longingly at China's stellar development and acknowledge the similarities yet insist on doing things their own way. Of course, the two nations are bound by considerable cultural and political connections, a reflection of history both ancient and modern.

Dominated by China for the first millennium AD, Vietnam remained a tributary state for centuries. While Vietnam adopted many cultural influences, from Confucianism to the Lunar New Year, it is that struggle for independence that in part defines the Vietnamese identity - a fierce desire discovered too late by the French and US militaries.

After independence, the communist leaders of both countries formed a fraternal relationship of considerable complexity and suspicion. Hanoi flirted with Maoist-style land reforms in the early 1950s, but swiftly backed away from such excesses, later falling within Moscow's sphere of influence. Tensions resulted in a brief but bloody border conflict in late 1978. Its ideological struggles subsumed by warfare, Vietnam never endured a Cultural Revolution or a Great Leap Forward.

Culturally, the Vietnamese see themselves somewhat differently as a result. They have long embraced French-era architecture, coffee and bread as if they are their own - without seeing this as a comment on their own identity. Having adopted a western alphabet, few modern Vietnamese read Chinese - for centuries their main source of literature. Hanoi's intelligentsia has long soaked up Russian, French and American influences.

'I think the biggest difference ... is the pragmatism of the Vietnamese. Rightly or wrongly, we see the mainland Chinese as more idealistic, more philosophical,' said a young Hanoian. 'I know the Chinese may not see themselves in that way, but that's how we see them.'

Vietnam's market reforms started a decade after China's, and from a much lower base after Vietnam's long years of war and a crippling US economic embargo. The neighbours normalised ties in 1991, steadily forging links and working to solve border disputes.

One of the most striking modern similarities is also laced with a troubling difference of view. Both nations are home to increasingly independent and internationally minded young people for whom party ideologies count for little. Yet both groups are marked by a strident nationalism.

On the mainland, young nationalists use chat rooms to rail against the Japanese. In Vietnam, young nationalists target China. The struggle of the Vietnamese leadership to deal with an ever more powerful China is exploited by domestic and exiled dissidents, who promote themselves as the real guardians of sovereignty.

'For all the things that seem to be similar, there is one big difference: We are a small nation, still finding our way. China is now a superpower,' said a Hanoi official. 'And are still learning how to cope with that ... in that regard, our problems are our own.'