If they were true adherents of international communism, China and Vietnam should be the most natural allies in the world – their shared beliefs and common accomplishments should outshine their historical animosities and territorial disputes. They should be united in a world dominated by democratic capitalism as two of the world’s five communist nations, alongside Cuba, Laos and North Korea, and as two countries that view themselves as socialist.
This is perhaps the only reason President Xi Jinping chose Vietnam for his first overseas trip following his “triumph” at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Despite the two countries’ long and complicated history of territorial disputes, Xi referred to Sino-Vietnamese ties as “a special friendship between comrades and brothers” in his talks last month with Vietnamese leaders including Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
In recent decades, both nations have been engaged in market-oriented economic reform to embrace global capitalism. And, while deviating significantly in the form of their political restructurings, both have maintained Leninist single party political systems.
Beijing and Hanoi adhere to a Leninist principle of “democratic centralism”, a sort of internal consultation system in formulating policy. But there are significant differences regarding how big a role either democracy or centralism is allowed to play in this process.
Since the beginning of the millennium, the Vietnamese leadership has made expanding “intra-party democracy” its main theme of political reform, while distancing itself from “centralism”.
As early as its 9th National Congress in 2001, the Vietnamese communist party had begun to replace single-candidate elections with competitive elections for the members of the top decision-making Politburo and its four most senior officials – general secretary, president, prime minister, and chairperson of the national legislature.
In 2011, the local party congress in Da Nang city directly elected its municipal leadership, a first in communist history. The party also revised its constitution in 2013 to allow non-party candidates to stand for election to the National Assembly.
At the 12th party congress last year, the leadership went further in the decentralisation of power by introducing Western-style “checks and balances” within its political establishment, creating a division of authority between party, state, government and parliament.
In China, political reform has largely stalled since the military crackdown on a nationwide pro-democracy movement in 1989. And, in the past five years under the stewardship of Xi Jinping, it has suffered a major setback, moving fast towards “centralism”. The recent party conclave ushered in a “new era”, symbolised by the resurrection of Mao-era one-man rule. Xi declared the death of the party’s two most important post-Mao political institutions: collective leadership based on consensus building and a mechanism for orderly power successions.
Vietnam’s gradual political liberalisation has helped it improve its relationship with the United States and many of its neighbours in a region dominated by free democracies like Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which are China’s political adversaries.
The differing political directions of the world’s two biggest communist nations will only exacerbate any tensions between them. Beijing sees Hanoi’s move to embrace Western-style democracy as undermining its legitimacy, leaving it isolated on the international stage just at the very time international communism appears to be dying out. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s