Vietnam’s leaders join the ranks of trembling authoritarians.
The arrest of Nguyen Dan Que in Vietnam over the weekend has been overshadowed by events in Libya, but it deserves close attention. Dr. Que, a 69-year-old physician and occasional contributor to these pages, was rounded up for calling on his countrymen to follow the example of Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans in taking to the streets to air their grievances. The fact that Hanoi seems so worried at the mere suggestion that people might protest is telling.
Dr. Que’s immediate offense appears to have been a call for Vietnamese youth to use mobile phones and the Internet to organize mass protests. For this he was arrested on Saturday. Authorities then claimed to have found tens of thousands of “anti-government” files on his computer. He was released on bail, but his legal fate is uncertain. Dr. Que is no stranger to democracy activism, or the inside of a jail. He has been imprisoned for 20 out of the past 33 years for his consistent calls for political reform. He also has eloquently explained how Vietnam’s freedom, or lack thereof, has a bearing on America’s strategic interests in Asia and especially vis-à-vis China’s rise. In his most recent column for us last year, he noted that “only a free and democratic Vietnam can be a reliable partner for peace in [the South China Sea].”
Conditions in Vietnam may be ripening for Middle East-style protests. Though growth has been strong at roughly 7% for the past several years, inflation is rising and the Vietnamese dong almost alone among Asian currencies is plummeting in value. Yesterday Hanoi was forced to raise electricity rates by 15%. Corruption is a chronic complaint. Hanoi, like Beijing, also maintains a comprehensive repression apparatus that includes Internet controls and a years-long crackdown that has rounded up many prominent democracy advocates.
Dr. Que’s story shows that the Vietnamese Communist Party cannot quell every voice for freedom. Not everyone believes the “Asian values” trope that Asians prefer authoritarian rule. Self-confident regimes are not afraid of opposition from elderly endocrinologists like Dr. Que. The Party clearly fears that one day the people of Vietnam will heed Dr. Que’s call to demand the kind of government they deserve. We hope Hanoi is right.