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Vietnam top communist Trong's 3rd term heralds next leader race

Party chief faces challenges in China and Biden's expected focus on human rights

Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong speaks at a news conference after the closing ceremony of 13th National Congress of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party in Hanoi on Feb. 1. Trong was re-elected as party general secretary for an unprecedented third term.   © Reuters

HANOI/TOKYO -- Vietnam's Communist Party congress closed on Monday with the announcement that President Nguyen Phu Trong was given an unprecedented third five-year term as general secretary.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 66, will be elevated to president. Pham Minh Chinh is to succeed Phuc as prime minister and Vuong Dinh Hue will serve as chair of the National Assembly. The three positions will be officially decided when the next National Assembly is convened after the congress, rounding out the "four pillars" of Vietnam's party leadership.

Trong, 76, is a hard-core conservative who advocates Marxism-Leninism and the philosophy of Ho Chi Minh, communist Vietnam's founding father. After leading an anti-corruption campaign and stabilizing the party, Trong now faces the task of steering Southeast Asia's fourth-largest economy through growing debt and long-term structural problems, while maintaining the country's relative success in containing COVID-19.

In closing remarks to the congress, Trong and incoming Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh expressed support for continuing doi moi economic reforms in order to achieve Vietnam's goal of upper middle-income status by 2030.

"Trong will continue his current domestic agenda, focusing on party building. As such, we should expect his high-profile anti-corruption campaign to continue," Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore told Nikkei Asia.

Trong (bottom right) and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (bottom left) attend the closing ceremony of the 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on Feb. 1.   © Reuters

Party rules limit general secretaries to serving two five-year terms, but an exception was made this week for Trong, who will be the first general secretary to serve a third term since Vietnam was reunified in 1976.

"If he had stepped aside to let a new leader emerge, it would mean more certainty for the system as a whole," said Tuong Vu, professor of political science at the University of Oregon.

Vuong, Trong's protege, did not amass enough support from the party's factions to ascend to the general secretary post, which would have threatened internal party stability.

In remarks to the press on Monday, Trong credited the National Congress's adjournment two days early to quick agreement on agenda issues. Vietnam's Communist Party, unlike China, does not have a single figurehead and operates through "collective leadership" between the four pillars.

"The consensus and clapping and voting isn't a measure of the success of the congress. It's the implementation of the policies," Trong said.

Trong was born in 1944, the youngest son of four children to a farmer in Hanoi, then part of French Indochina. He was said to have gotten up in the morning before sunrise and studied to go to a distant elementary school across the river.

After studying philosophy at the current Vietnam National University in the mid-1960s, he joined the old Vietnam Labor Party, the current Communist Party of Vietnam, in 1967. He long served as editor-in-chief of the party's Communist Review magazine.

He was ingrained with Marxism-Leninism, the foundation of state management, when he studied in the Soviet Union.

Although Trong is a hard-core conservative within the party, he showed understanding toward the doi moi policy, launched in 1986 to achieve a socialist-oriented market economy. By doing so, he continued to rise through the party ranks. In 2011, Trong assumed his current post after serving as party secretary of Hanoi and as chair of the National Assembly.

He is known for his gentle temperament and as a consensus-oriented leader, but he pushed ahead with a stringent anti-corruption campaign called "dot lo" in Vietnamese, which means "burning to ashes," after he strengthened his power base during his second term as general secretary in 2016.

In 2017, Trong demoted and arrested Ho Chi Minh City party chief Dinh La Thang for alleged economic mismanagement. Some party sources said that the incident gave party officials shivers and corruption apparently declined.

Trong almost disappeared from the political center stage after he suffered a mild stroke in April 2019. Many had believed that he would retire at the just-ended party congress considering his age. But he appeared in front of diplomats at an online meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi in November. Frequent public appearances in the final months of his second term made diplomatic sources believe that he was willing to pursue another term.

"In terms of politics, the main problem is Mr. Trong's health and ability to continue. The competition for his position is already beginning," said Vu.

"He will have to groom a successor to take over his position and to build a broad consensus for his choice," said Le Hong Hiep. "What we should watch closely for in the next few years is how long Trong will stay and who will take over his position if he steps down before the end of his new term."

That said, Trong's third term will not be easy when it comes to steering the country and the party. He will have to conduct delicate and balanced diplomacy as the U.S. and China remain at odds. Meanwhile, factionalism will continue within the party over the gap between policy toward China and ideology.

"With domestic anti-China sentiment, Vietnam is stuck between China and the U.S.," Vu said. "If China isn't doing anything bad, the Vietnamese will ignore U.S. pressure [on human rights and civil liberties]. If China is creating a lot of problems for them, they would need U.S. support and appease the U.S. in small ways, like releasing one or two current prisoners of conscience. That was the strategy under Obama and it will continue under Biden." 

U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to return to a focus on human rights, largely ignored by former President Donald Trump. Freedom of speech and assembly, among other rights, are restricted in Vietnam and the government controls major media.

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