Changing the Guard in Hanoi

August 18, 1991

North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam in 1975 and now, slowly and partially, the more prosperous and less Communist South is reversing the process.

The news from the Communist Party congress in Hanoi is that Prime Minister Do Muoi, a 74-year-old Communist, is taking over as party secretary-general. Seven of the 12 members of the Politboro retired, including his predecessor Nguyen Van Linh, the president, the foreign minister and the interior minister. The new 13-member body will have many in their 50s instead of 70s, and five from the South in place of three. The rumored successor as prime minister is a Southerner.

So this is more of a change than the mere replacement of one elderly functionary by another. Vietnam is still pursuing the policies laid out in the 1986 party congress, which include market economics but a Communist Party monopoly on power, and openings to former enemies China and the United States. The failure to end the U.S. trade embargo and win U.S. recognition probably contributed to the fall of so much of the old guard.

The Vietnam Communist Party is trying to cope with th disastrous consequences of its conquest of all Vietnam. The workers and peasants of Vietnam would be far better off today, richer and freer, if communism had collapsed long ago. They don't quite put it this way, but the wrong side won the war. South China, under free market reforms, Thailand and Singapore are far better off than Vietnam, especially for the workers and peasants in whose behalf Communist regimes purport to govern. Old Communists find this hard to admit. Middle-aged Communists find it easier.

The Vietnam Communist Party is trying to ward off convulsive change with medium reforms, much as its Chinese and Soviet counterparts attempted. No Hungarian solution here. Not yet. But half-way won't do for long.

The United States should make better contact with this regime than it did with the last. Recognition is not approval. The United States should have communication with the next generation of Vietnamese leaders and the one after that. Mr. Do Muoi did not take charge to tear down the floodgates for change, but he will not be able to prevent it for long.

The U.S. should recognize his regime to be ready for its successors. In a Communist country where progress was postponed unnaturally, a little bit of change only creates the demand for more.

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