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Vietnam is grappling with the political fallout of a corruption scandal


The president of Vietnam had to resign this week. Nguyen Xuan Phuc took the blame for a corruption scandal. A bigger power remains in office, the ruling Communist Party. Bill Hayton is following all this. He's an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific program at U.K.-based Chatham House. And he's an expert on this country that has become a big trading partner of the United States. Welcome to the program, sir.

BILL HAYTON: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What was the alleged corruption?

HAYTON: The corruption scandals in Vietnam are massive in terms of numbers. There was one about repatriating Vietnamese flying back from foreign countries during the pandemic. That may have netted $200 million for the people involved. And another one to do with test kits, to do with COVID. And again, tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars involved in there. So there's no doubt that there is corruption and that these guys have taken the fall for it. But I think there's something bigger going on behind the scenes.

INSKEEP: What is that?

HAYTON: Well, I think what we're seeing is the public security ministry and the Communist Party hard-liners really using these corruption scandals to push out the more liberal wing of the party and people who were becoming sort of too well-known as individuals in order to reinstate party control. So in some ways, it's a bit like what's been happening in China, where Xi Jinping has been using corruption scandals to get rid of his enemies. The idea that the people left in power are not corrupt is just not credible. It's just certain people get investigated for their corruption scandals and certain people don't.

INSKEEP: Granting that you think that Communist Party leaders are using these corruption scandals, you seem to be describing to me corruption that would directly affect human beings. This isn't just somebody skimming a little bit off the top of a business deal. This is someone trying to get back in the country and having to pay a bribe and that sort of thing. Was there a lot of public pressure to do something?

HAYTON: There was. It emerged very slowly. But because a lot of the people affected, you know, were connected to each other and to the world, the stories began to spread and to grow. And people realized it wasn't just me that had to pay this. Everybody else was paying it, too. A lot of complaints, but it sort of - it didn't really make that much impression, really, outside Vietnam, mainly because there were so few, you know, foreign journalists in Vietnam to pick up on these things. But it really became a big, big cause. And Mr. Trong, who's the leader of the Communist Party, kind of used this and turned it against his political enemies in a very effective way.

INSKEEP: What does this mean for the United States, which has been cooperating more and more with Vietnam as a kind of counterweight to China?

HAYTON: I think it's a warning that actually these people are not rushing to embrace the United States as an ally or anything like that, that they are very guarded of their own autonomy, their own ways of doing things, and that actually they see China more as an ideological partner than the U.S. And so China - Vietnam is going to try and balance its relations forever. It's not going to be rushing towards the U.S.

INSKEEP: Really great insights. Bill Hayton at Chatham House. Thank you so much.

HAYTON: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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