Cary Huang
SCMP Columnist
Cary Huang
Cary Huang

Once comrades and brothers, China and Vietnam are going their own way down the socialist path

Cary Huang says bilateral relations may become complicated over very different readings of Marxist orthodoxy, creating further suspicion and distrust, especially in the political arena

They are two among only a handful of nations to have survived the worldwide collapse of socialism in the 1990s.

But their common bond with Karl Marx does not always extend to bilateral relations. However, as President Xi Jinping (習近平) told visiting Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc last week: “The communist leadership and socialist system are our greatest common strategic interests.”

Their common interests may far outweigh differences if they adopt pragmatism in diplomacy, as Xi has also suggested.

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Bilateral relations between the neighbours, once “both comrades and brothers” as late Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh put it, have been turbulent, despite their common socialist background. Mutual suspicion and distrust go back a long way, to before the birth of communism.

China has dominated Vietnam four times in the past 2,000 years, since Emperor Qin Shi Huang expanded his newly united China into northern Vietnam. For a long time, Chinese rulers more or less exercised suzerainty over a Vietnamese client kingdom, until 1884 when the French became the new colonial masters in Southeast Asia. Despite China’s critical support of Hanoi in the war against the US-backed Saigon regime, relations have not proved any smoother than those with their respective non-communist neighbours. Even during the cold war, Vietnamese communists were walking a tightrope amid the rivalry between the two communist big brothers – Beijing and Moscow.

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In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a short but fierce border war. And their territorial dispute in the South China Sea has triggered several nationalist protests and riots against Chinese in Vietnam.

Both nations are committed to market-oriented economic reform, but have very different approaches to political restructuring.

The Vietnamese goal of creating a “socialist-oriented market economy” resembles the Chinese version of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. But, in the political arena, Vietnam has been progressing much faster and has a bolder approach. Since its ninth national congress in 2001, the Communist Party of Vietnam has introduced competitive elections for its top decision-making body, the Politburo, and senior positions, ending the decades-old practice of a single-candidate system.

Posters promoting the 14th National Assembly election on a street in Hanoi on May 20. The five-yearly election for its parliament is the only national poll in communist Vietnam. Photo: Reuters

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Also introduced have been Western-style concepts of “division of power” and “checks and balances”, with a clear-cut division among the four most powerful offices – the president, prime minister, party general secretary and National Assembly chair – together with “checks and balances” among them.

Following a revision of the constitution in 2013, the party now allows non-communist candidates to run for elections. The National Assembly is no longer a “rubber stamp”, unlike China’s National People’s Congress, and has power to veto government appointments, budgets and legislation.

Delegates vote to adopt a resolution of the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in Hanoi on January 28. Vietnam’s political system recognises the concepts of “division of power” and “checks and balances”. Photo: Xinhua
Beijing does not endorse such radical reform; since taking office in late 2012, Xi has launched a Maoist political campaign to strengthen the party’s monopoly on power, through tighter social controls and increased suppression of academic and press freedom, unseen since the military crackdown in 1989. Xi has also spared no effort to amass power, making him the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東 ).

So their socialist background might actually complicate matters between China and Vietnam, given that their varied reading of Marxist orthodoxy will form the undercurrent of relations and deepen suspicion and distrust, which already run deep thanks to existing territorial disputes and historic misgivings.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China and Vietnam going their own way down the socialist path