Monday, July 16, 2007

land disputes in Vietnam

Last week the BBC's Vietnamese service did an interview with me on land disputes in Vietnam. The full text, in Vietnamese, is available at:

The English-language version of the interview reads as follows:

1. What do you think are the roots of the problems?

The roots of the problems differ somewhat around the country, and particular between the peri-urban regions around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the Central Highlands, and the rice basket in the Mekong and Red River deltas. In the peri-urban areas, despite property rights that are in theory much more secure than in China, by way of comparison, there is still a large degree of discretion on the part of local communes with regards to their ability to administratively acquire land at a less than market price. This means that the acquisition of land is a significant source of earnings from corruption, and many disputes in Vietnam, particularly those staged in Hanoi or in Ho Chi Minh City, reflect peasant resistance to corrupt practices on the part of local government. In the Central Highlands, the issue of corruption is also there, strongly there, but it is also tied in to how land has been allocated to incoming migrants to the area at the expense of indigenous peoples that in many instances have cultivation practices at odds with those suggested by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Finally, in the deltas, there is the issue of rising landlessness. For many this is a reflection of increased prosperity. However, for far more, I think, this is a reflection of debt-induced distress, distress that peasants would like to see addressed by local governments, but which are not, in part because it is local party people who acquire the land to add to their own--party people can be big farmers in rural Vietnam.

Many would argue that these failures in rural 'governance' reflect the lack of an independent judiciary and the rule of legally-binding contracts in Vietnam. The rule of law is highly politicized, all the more so in the countryside. I would agree with this, but would also suggest that more is going on, most particularly massive rises in rural inequality and in urban rural inequality that the government seems powerless to address--or indeed does not want to address because so many local cadres are implicated in benefiting from rural inequality.

2. Based on your observation over the years, are land disputes in
Vietnam likely to get worse, to the level of what happens in China

This is an interesting question. Land disputes in China are well known and documented--the figure that I commonly quote is around 87000 a year. In Vietnam we do not know the extent of land disputes. However, for land disputes to be on the scale that they are witnessed in China would require only 5075 disputes a year in Vietnam. I suspect--but I have no basis to substantiate this--that land disputes each year number far more. In other words, I believe the land dispute situation to already be worse in Vietnam than in China.

3. Are there any solutions, or this is an inevitable result of the
current transition in Vietnam?

Peasant unrest is very cautious in rural Vietnam. Cautious in the sense that it is rare for it to take issue with either the state or the Party. Rather, it takes on the whole issue with individuals (although there are well documented instances of state and party property being vandalized, and state and party cadres being held in forced captivity). In part, this reflects the highly decentralized character of the Vietnamese state--local government officials in most of the country tend to come from the area that they run. They know their neighbours and their families, and people resent people that they know using the state to get rich. So the issue, particularly in rural areas, is personalized. This is important for the government--it does not call into question the system as a whole. If, then, the government could make a serious effort at tackling corruption, the problem would be significantly affected.

However, and this is the important part, corruption is endemic. The relationship between the party and wealth accumulation is so completely interwoven that to try and tackle corruption must mean, eventually, tackling the position of the party in the state--and that is not tenable at this current stage. Moreover, in my view, many people in the party and the government know that the current system is not sustainable. It will collapse, it is just a matter of time. They therefore are using their connections to make as much money as they can while they can before this source of patronage disappears. This is why, for example, the private sector in Vietnam is built by those with party connections, to see them through its eventual demise and to ensure that their wealth continues beyond. In this light, it is no coincidence that those in the countryside with the largest landholdings are always those with party or state connections (or both).

The problem for the party, from a sustainability point of view, is that the government's rule is built upon bringing prosperity to the countryside. If, for whatever reason, this is called into question by the peasantry, there are implications for social stability that the party knows far, far too well. So they have to do something about rural unrest, and their answer is get more wealth to the countryside--as in China. However, this does not do anything about specific land-based grievances, and thus does not tackle some of the systemic issues facing rural Vietnam.

So, is there a solution? In theory, yes. In practice, not that I can see.

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