Another Vietnam

This past May I spent two weeks in Vietnam.

This past May I spent two weeks in Vietnam. Each year I lead a group of university students on a trip to monitor the effects of globalization. Last year our destination was India, the year prior to that Peru.

My aim is to see firsthand if expanding global markets are creating increased opportunities for the world’s poor. My students and I study how economic markets are structured in a given country, and whether mechanisms in place will lead to economic growth for the many or affluence for the few.

We also focus on how political systems respond to changes in capital investment and new production. Finally, we take a close look at cultural and religious values and whether they are stable or lose their hold on individuals and families in a fast-changing society.

In that frame, Vietnam is the perfect laboratory. The country is one of the world’s few remaining communist political systems. For the past 30 years, both North and South have been united under one government. About five years ago, the Vietnamese government made a public commitment to capital free markets. Once disdained, foreign investment suddenly became a welcome friend; that is, as long as the investment was made in venture with a Vietnamese-based company.

The irony of Vietnam’s passage should not be lost on us. Chalk up another point for the futility of war. America sent its young men (and some women) to a far land, allegedly to arrest the spread of communism. The cost was high in human life, regardless of the color of the uniform. Lost in a quagmire, the United States began pulling its troops in the early 1970s and by mid-decade had conceded the South of Vietnam to the communists.

Now, three decades later, economic reality is forcing what war could not accomplish. Free markets are booming and are making a major social impact. The entrepreneurial energy in Vietnam is palpable; every corner is a hub of commercial activity.

A senior director of the Vietnamese war veteran association drove the futility home to us. "It is the soldier who most readily recognizes that war is never an answer," he said to our group. On that score, a number of joint projects between U.S. veterans and their Vietnamese counterparts are looking for solutions to the past. Most impressive is the Friendship Village, where disabled children affected three generations later by Agent Orange - both genetic and environmental transmission are factors - receive therapeutic and educational attention.

Vietnam today is a cauldron of contradictions. On the one hand, I found the spirit of economic experimentation quite contagious. Pragmatism has won a respectable seat next to political ideology at the table of the governing class. Our own politicians in America - locked into fixed and adversarial positions on such important social policies like health care, social security, and welfare - should dare to breathe this air. Here’s a suggestion: one month in the corner of the House or Senate wearing a dunce hat for the next politician who dismisses a plan because it is "too socialist." Vietnam has moved beyond the Cold War mindset. We have not.

The concept of political freedom, on the other hand, still struggles to find a foothold in Vietnamese society. Individuals are free to act how they choose - that is, as long as they do not violate the boundaries established by the central committee.

A session we had with a senior member of the ministry of religion painted that picture clearly. His credibility suffered in my eyes when, in response to my query, he admitted that he was not at all religious himself.

That was only to be outdone by his refusal to accept the reports of international human rights groups on religious persecution in Vietnam, specifically among tribal groups in the North. He simply repeated the mantra that religion was embraced in the arms of the Party. I got the unsaid second part of the message: Just don’t drift from that hug.

Because we Americans are apt to see the world in two colors - black and white - I hasten to add that Big Brother does not appear to cast a long shadow over the Vietnamese people. Our group wandered without restriction and had free-wheeling and spontaneous discussions with Vietnamese of all walks of society. But it is unclear even to the average Vietnamese citizen what it means to push the envelope too far. The labor camps of post-1975 are not so distant in the rear view mirror; Vietnamese citizens aren’t quite ready to turn into free thinkers yet.

It’s strange. Everywhere I go today global society is changing rapidly. Yet the world news briefs on Fox and CNN remain unchanged, as if nothing is different than it was 30 years ago.

David Batstone is executive editor at Sojourners.

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