Last month, a band of farmers forced their way into the administrative compound of Dong Tam, an ancient village on the fringes of Hanoi, to protest the expropriation of their land. To the astonishment of many observers, Vietnam's communist regime calmed the explosive situation after a protracted standoff by overruling local officials.
On the margins of Vietnam's booming cities, land prices have skyrocketed. Social justice is routinely subverted by developers who are ready to pay officials whatever it takes to clear building sites. Although past reforms abolished collective farms and allowed farmers to buy and sell land use rights, farmers have not been allowed to capture the potential gains from the conversion of agricultural land to industrial or residential use.
By a quirk of the country's current system of market socialism, it is local officials who have benefited when farmland has been taken for commercial use. Often these days, angry farmers push back. Until now, resistance has gotten them little more than cracked skulls.
For months, Dong Tam farmers had been locked in confrontation with local authorities over 46 hectares of land adjacent to an obscure military airstrip. On April 15, plainclothes police auxiliaries wrestled an 83-year-old village elder and three other representatives of the farmers into unmarked cars and sped off. The farmers responded by invading the village administrative compound, taking 38 people hostage, including Communist Party officials and policemen.
As Vietnamese tuned in to the evening news that night, the story they heard sounded familiar. Clashes between state authorities and irate farmers have become common at the margins of the nation's fast-growing cities. Typically, they involve a big commercial venture, greedy but bumbling local authorities, and farmers offered compensation far below the market value of the fields they are working. No one is surprised when farmers are victimized.
Facebook lit up as word spread of the Dong Tam hostage-taking. More than half of Vietnam's adult population have Facebook accounts. Online, they can trade ideas regularly censored out of the nation's mainstream media.
News of the hostage-taking prompted dissident bloggers to recall clashes at Duong Loi, Tien Lang, Van Giang and other Red River Delta villages. They predicted things would again go badly for the farmers. It seemed only a matter of time before state power would punch back at Dong Tam. Online commentators were quick to discount Hanoi Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung's pledge, four days into the hostage crisis, that justice would be done. Implicitly trashing police reports that the Dong Tam farmers had been "disturbing public order," Chung, a police general, promised that none of the protesters would be punished for resisting state power and that the evolution of the dispute would be thoroughly reviewed.
Chung's high-profile intervention broke the standoff and secured the hostages' release. His management of the confrontation may well mark a turning point. In land disputes, Vietnamese officials have regularly and deservedly been painted as the bad guys. This time, top city officials ended the hostage situation in a way that satisfied the public's sense of fair play.
Now comes the arguably harder task of getting to the bottom of a dispute that has festered since 1980 when Dong Tam and several neighboring villages were ordered to cede land for the construction of an airbase. Twenty-five years later, some 50 hectares of the tract was assigned to Viettel Group, a defense ministry-owned telecommunications company, for an undisclosed project.
What is clear now is that for the last 26 years, 14 Dong Tam village families have been tilling the land that was assigned to Viettel. They maintain that the tract was village agricultural land that was illegally expropriated. According to their accounts, efforts to get clear title were consistently frustrated by officials from district and city agencies and by the Ministry of National Defence.
Chung is a rising star in Vietnam's political firmament. Judging by his easy bearing when he met with Dong Tam village leaders on April 22, a week after the hostages were seized, the mayor himself is the architect of his conciliatory approach.
Almost certainly, however, Chung was acting with the consent of Communist Party Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong and other national leaders. That implies a top-level consensus that local authorities' management of the land in question was dubious from the start.
Did the resolution mark a tactical retreat by the state, with retribution to follow, as some Facebook posts insist and as was seen after a similar standoff in the Chinese village of Wukan in 2011? That is possible, but many have dared to hope that the way peace was restored in Dong Tam heralds a fundamental shift in the party's posture.
It has grown ever clearer to Communist Party leaders that state institutions can no longer control the narrative when citizens can access facts online. Voices within the party warn that the Hanoi regime must adapt its methods, lest it lose its political legitimacy entirely.
The lasting result of the showdown at Dong Tam may be nothing more than a lighter hand by the authorities when confronted by grass-roots demand for justice. That in itself would be a step forward because local governments' typical response in such situations has been to send thugs to break heads.
Simply being nicer to protesters won't be enough. A better outcome would be to implement reforms that actually reduce opportunities for local corruption.
For years, the communist regime has been losing legitimacy because officials high and low have been easy targets for wealthy interests. Former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was tripped up by a cozy relationship with big money when he bid to displace Nguyen Phu Trong as the ruling party's secretary general early last year. Trong prevailed, vowing to clean house, but so far has had a hard go of it.
Dong Tam is a good place to start cleaning house. The land-use system is broken there and in every other village where economic growth has driven up the value of land for non-agricultural uses. The obvious solution is to relieve local officials of their role as middlemen between developers and farmers, a role that offers many opportunities to grow wealthy.
This will not be so easy. If the state makes it harder for village officials to earn a dishonest day's pay, a great many other party members will worry that their own under-the-table livelihoods may be the leadership's next target.
When the land law was updated a few years ago, economists urged that farmers be allowed to sell their control rights to anyone through direct negotiation. The proposal was rejected then as being too disruptive and inherently un-socialist. However, if the Hanoi regime, capitalist in all but name, really wants to improve its image with farmers, such radical reform is way overdue.
David Brown is a retired U.S. diplomat who served in posts in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia.