A couple of weeks ago, from 10,000km away, I had an epiphany. Or several of them. On a family vacation, I was standing outside the enormous, postmodern Samsung factory near Da Nang, a coastal city and resort in central Vietnam.
The first of these was a remembrance, aided by Max Hastings’ new book, Vietnam — An Epic Tragedy, that Da Nang’s very modern airport served during the enervating Vietnam War as the major base for the US Air Force. At the height of the war it recorded more aviation traffic than any other place in the world.
And, of course, US Air Force chief of staff General Curtis Le May boasted, amid the aerial dropping of more than 7.5-million tons of bombs (more than three times the total ordinance dropped in World War 2), that “we are going to bomb the North Vietnamese back into the stone age”.
Today’s sightings in and beyond Da Nang reveal the precise opposite: Vietnam has emerged from the burdens and embers of more than 50 years of conflict as a powerhouse economy whose current 7% GDP growth rate drew a gushing review from the World Economic Forum. Its pre-Davos paper on Vietnam is headlined, “The story of Vietnam’s economic miracle”.
Before delving slightly under the hood of the “miracle” I had my second — slightly more dangerous — revelation: how do certain countries overcome the burden of their history and others not? And, even more incautiously given the heresy of commenting on colonialism in Southeast Asia in contrast to colonialism in SA, I wondered how Vietnam overcame not one or two doses of the colonial yoke, but four different and fairly brutal occupations: China for nearly a millennium, French rule for 75 years, Japanese invasion in the World War 2 and the diminution of the southern half of Vietnam to a US military vassal state after 1965?
Certainly these burdens and legacies appear in the war museums dotting the major cities, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) — cathedrals to anti-American propaganda and heroic in their depiction of the virtuous struggle waged by the Viet Minh and Viet Cong. But to signal how different today’s Vietnam is from the burdens of its past, our guide proudly showed us the Samsung factory, which employs a staggering 65,000 people and produces more mobile phones than any other factory on earth.
After sharing these impressive metrics of what is dubbed “Southeast Asia’s silicon city”, he then waved in the direction of the newish five-star Sheraton Grande Resort, replete with private beach, in a communist country. “It was opened in November 2017,” he advised, “just in time for President Trump to stay there for the Asian Pacific economic summit.”
Now my interest was pricked. Having seen an array of Trump books such as The Art of the Deal on display in both Vietnamese and English in a Hanoi bookshop, I cautiously enquired on the controversial 45th US president’s standing in still socialist Vietnam. “We love Trump,” he answered, and before I could ask further he offered: “He stands up to China.”
Of course, having the second-largest economy in the world on your doorstep is a huge advantage for an economically outward-looking and big exporting country such as Vietnam. That is one reason the country, whose regime was dubbed by The Economist as “ardently capitalist communists”, exports more than 100% of its GDP in goods and services. By comparison, SA struggles to reach 30%.
With China ever aggressively pushing its claims in the South China Sea, the approval of the US is understandable. Still, on my return to our hotel I sought to verify this anecdote. But here is where the command and control of the Communist Party kicks in. While Vietnam might practise a form of “market Leninism”, it certainly is unrelenting in its firewall over free access to the political internet.
However, on returning home the journal Politico offered affirmation: according to the Pew Research centre, Vietnam is among seven out of 37 countries surveyed where a majority of the population say they like Trump. And while SA’s foreign policy is reflexively anti-US, the same survey records that 84% of Vietnamese view the US favourably, the highest figure for any country surveyed. Talk about shrugging off your history.
There was one modern tourist hotel, The Saigon Century, and all the brandings associated with international tourism were totally absent. Little surprise for that, since Vietnam had then only been freed for a few months from a total US trade embargo. The best mode of transport was the ubiquitous bicycle and the one international restaurant (La Bibleotheque) was famous for having hosted one of the very few Western leaders to visit, France’s Francois Mitterrand. Dinner for the two of us cost just $10.
Today, Saigon is a different universe: choking car and moped traffic, gleaming spires of modern financial capitalism, top-dollar restaurants, and the endless energy of an entrepreneurial people. Nearly one third of its residents own their own businesses.
The depressing aspect of the return visit to this modern Asian megacity is to be reminded where both our countries stood in that first year of SA democracy, and before the so-called Doi Moi promarket economic reforms had been implemented in Vietnam.
Back in 1994, Vietnam’s exports as measured in GDP were the same as SA’s, at around 30%. Today they outpace us threefold. The measure for ease of doing business saw SA in the admired 20s, while Vietnam ranked in the low 100s. Today, Vietnam outranks SA in this league table (respectively, 68th place versus 82nd in 2017). And while official statistics form this repressive state need to be treated with caution, its unemployment rate is below 5% while ours is six times worse, at the least. Foreign direct investment, which is objectively measurable, barely existed when I was last in Vietnam. But in 2016 it recorded a $16bn spurt, while SA had to make do with a paltry $2.23bn, one eighth of that amount.
Despite the predations of the Guptas, Watsons et al, SA vastly outperforms Vietnam in the Transparency International corruption perception index. Vietnam is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, at 107th out of 180 countries (first on the list being the least corrupt). SA, not doing great at 71st, is still far better placed.
This has nothing to do with culture or history and everything to do with the shock absorbers and brakes provided by our democratic system and its vibrant, though damaged, checks and brakes on rampant corruption. We need to learn some strong economic lessons from Vietnam, and perhaps they could take a few pages from our book on democracy.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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