The Ho Chi Minh City Statement


I knew it couldn't last. After being pleasantly surprised by last week's Chavez cover story in The Nation, I see (via Arts & Letters Daily) that Katrina and Co. have published a Vietnam travelogue from ex-student radical, ex-husband of Jane Fonda and ex-state senator Tom Hayden. Hayden's nostalgia trip—during which he casually refers to the brutal communist takeover of South Vietnam as a "liberation"—is what one would expect: a full-throated denunciation of the economic liberalization undertaken by the "still-undefeated Communist Party." (Well, they don't have free elections, so they can't be defeated that way.)

Hayden is as slippery as ever, writing that it is hardly his business "to question the desire of Vietnamese to share our globalized consumer culture like everyone else"…and then procedes to question the desire of the Vietnamese to share our globalized culture like everyone else.

Long one of the world's poorest nations, Vietnam is now the fastest growing economy in Asia, with annual growth of 7 percent in 2007. Despite this, The Wall Street Journal's 2008 Index of Economic Freedom ranks Vietnam 25th out of 30 countries in the region—and 135th overall. (Hong Kong, by contrast, ranks number one.) It's fairly obvious to everyone but Hayden that what Vietnam needs is not more government intervention in the economy but significantly less.

All of this growth, Hayden writes, "has come at the price of rising inequalities." Rather than the whole country living in grinding poverty, now only some do. (See the graph below, created using the indispensible website Gapminder). Poverty has been significantly reduced as a result of Vietnam's partial embrace of markets and introduction of mild economic reforms. But behind every silver lining, Hayden finds a dark cloud: "[G]rowth has created catastrophic problems of infrastructure, traffic congestion and pollution." Traffic congestion? Recall that in 1979 Joan Baez, supported by concerned antiwar activists like Allen Ginsberg and Norman Lear, took out full-page advertisements in five major American papers appealing to the government of Vietnam to stop brutalizing, torturing and "reeducating" its citizens. Hayden and Fonda refused to sign the document. And now he's bitching about traffic congestion and pollution.

There are those, Hayden writes, who "must take pleasure at seeing that country in the camp of corporate neoliberalism," like, one could imagine, the long-suffering Vietnamese people. But, he adds, there are "Some in Hanoi are dismayed by all this. An American expatriate, Gerry Herman, a former antiwar activist turned businessman and film distributor who has lived in Vietnam for fifteen years…" Indeed, the only people Hayden can find who are "dismayed" by rising standards of living are—surprise—a grizzled veteran of the anti-war movement who relocted to Vietnam and, cited later in the article, a handful of doddering dead-enders from the Vietnamese Communist Party.

There might be restrictions on Internet usage and private newspapers are censored, he writes, but "institutional controls have been steadily relaxed since the 1970s, with none of the uprisings that accompanied the fall of Soviet or Eastern European Communism." Hayden, who, as far as I can tell, doesn't speak Vietnamese, says that "In an observation I shared, [American expatriate Lady] Borton described Vietnam as 'a place of constant talk, all the time, and they talk freely.'" This is, by any objective measure, a gross oversimplification. An hour or so after reading Hayden's piece, while trawling the Scandinavian news websites, I noticed this story about a Norwegian parliamentarian expelled from Vietnam for meeting with a dissident journalist. The latest dossier on Vietnam from Reporters without Borders, for instance, remarks that "The political police continued in 2007 what it had begun at the end of 2006: a relentless battle against opposition movements and dissident publications." Nor do the other section headings in the report inspire confidence: "Stalinist trials against dissidents"; "Return of the 'popular courts'"; "A French journalist detained for 'terrorism'"; "A press under supervision."

Hayden seems to have his finger on the pulse of modern Vietnam, making a number of sweeping generalizations that, if he doesn't speak Vietnamese, would be impossible to quantify: "Not many Vietnamese today think of the war with America with [writer] Bao Ninh's profound cynicism…the American war is perceived as a necessity forced on Vietnam by invading powers…Vietnamese take pride in having defeated so many great powers and feel deeply about their losses. There is a suppressed anger that they were willing to join the search for American MIAs while the United States and Monsanto refuse to take responsibility for Agent Orange." It is likely that some (or perhaps even all) of these statements are true. But Hayden doesn't entertain the possibility that the Vietnamese want more globalization, faster. He doesn't, after all, speak to any ordinary members of the "Vietnamese working class" (his phrase), choosing instead to blather about a betrayed revolution with aging apparatchiks.

While Hayden has largely abandoned the hard radicalism of his youth, he doesn't consider that a majority of Vietnamese were born after the war ended–and they are clearly embracing the "consumer culture" he finds so loathsome.

(Bonus quote: During those heady days of "revolution" and internecine ideological warfare on the left, the socialist critic Irving Howe expressed disgust at Hayden's fanaticism, writing that "if [Hayden] had the power and believed it necessary, he wouldn't hesitate to put me up against the wall and have me shot. That done, he might shed a tear for my miscreant social democratic soul.")