The 13th National Party Congress of the Communist Party Vietnam (CPV) was scheduled to take place from 25 January to 2 February 2021. But the elected 1,587 CPV deputies, representing around 5.1 million CPV members, had to cut their meeting a day short due to a new Covid-19 outbreak in two northern provinces. At this most important political event for the CPV, delegates assemble every five years in Hanoi to vote for the top political positions and to set the course for the following five years (2021-26) and beyond (2030 and2045). At this year’s congress, the plans, strategies, and discussions were characterized by the themes of “Solidarity, Democracy, Discipline, Innovation, Development”.
The Congress took place in a volatile context, amidst a global pandemic as well as mounting political tensions in the South China Sea. It sought a specifically Vietnamese answer to the polarization of international relations and the re-emergence of great power rivalries between two important trading partners—Vietnam's so-called “frenemies”, China and the US.
In its economic orientation, the 13th Congress carries on the work of the last seven congresses, which followed the most consequential political changes in Vietnam’s history 35 years ago. In 1986, Vietnam set in motion the Doi Moi reforms, which transformed the country to a "socialist-oriented market economy". In the period since, Vietnam has progressed from a poor and politically isolated country with a per capita GDP of 231 USD (in 1985) to a lower middle-income, highly integrated country with a per capita GDP of 2,715 USD (2019). With 14 active free trade agreements (FTAs), Vietnam has made huge strides in integrating its economy into global value chains; it now enjoys trade relations with over 60 economies, including 15 members of the G20.
Despite these economic achievements and growing international integration, the country has nevertheless faced socio-political, ecological, and economic challenges. Such problems originate in its labour and resource-intensive growth model, which entails environmental degradation and rising social inequality. Besides that, corruption is plaguing politics and the broader society.
Corruption is seen by many Vietnamese and international observers as the most pressing development problem of the moment. To tackle it, and to regain public confidence in the one-party system, the CPV launched an anti-corruption campaign in 2016 under the current general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Dozens of high-ranking party officials were arrested and prosecuted. Although it has been seen as a push to eliminate former political rivals, the CPV campaign has also attempted to transcend such political manoeuvres by combatting a deeply rooted corrupt systems in the political and social spheres. General secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has referred to corruption as a disease and has likened the effort to abolish it as an ongoing war.
In the recent “Corruption Perception Index” (CPI 2020) published by Transparency International, Vietnam has dropped from a score of 37 to 36 on a scale of 100 and has fallen from its previous place of 96 to a current rank of 104 out of 180 countries worldwide with respect to perceived levels of public sector corruption. The CPI report indicates that 64% of the interviewees judge government corruption to be a significant problem.
Corruption aside, the CPV has regained political trust over the course of the past year through its rapid, clear, and effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Vietnam is a world leader in handling the Covid-19 crisis, having so far limited its casualties to 1,882 cases and 35 deaths total. In the last week, tens of thousands of people have been tested and the two provinces hit by the new outbreak have been isolated. At the time of publication of the present text, this recent outbreak has increased the infection toll by more than 300 cases. The wave began on 28 January and was marked by first community transmissions after 55 days. It resulted in a short cutting of the party congress by one day.
To prepare for the approaching 13th Party Congress, and to consider the mounting global challenges and internal power relations within the CPV, the Central Committee—one of the essential decision-making bodies—drafted and debated the nomination of delegates and cadres for high-ranking positions in the new term. At the final plenum of the previous term, it had set the foundation for the election results of the 13th National Party Congress and began it by overturning internal rules.
Changes in the 13th CPV Congress
As leaked information from the final plenum of the CPV central committee indicated, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected to a third term (he was previously elected in 2011 and 2016). He will be the oldest elected and longest-serving party chief since Le Duan, who served as the first general secretary and party chief from September 1960 until 1986. This latest decision conflicts with the party rule allowing for a maximum of two terms in the position of general secretary. Trong was forced to take this decision, because his preferred candidate and right-hand man in the fight against corruption, Tran Quoc Vuong, failed to establish a majority base of support within the party. Another candidate for the post would have been the previous prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, but Trong blocked him due to his liberal politics and the likelihood he would have undermined the anti-corruption campaign.
Apart from the “two term” rule, the party sets an age limit of 65 years for re-election to the top four positions, or the "four pillars"; the rule can only be suspended by special permission by way of a longer process within the Central Committee and involving high-level party leaders. Normally, a maximum of one exceptional permission for the general secretary is granted. Two such special permissions have now been granted. One has already been allowed in the case of Secretary General Trong (77), and another will most likely come through for the future state president Nguyen Xuan Phuc (67) at the first constitutive meeting of the newly elected Central Committee.
The nomination of Pham Minh Chinh as prime minister is breaking another unwritten norm, namely that the prime minister should have previously held the position of deputy prime minister. Nevertheless, Pham Minh Chinh has experience with Chinese counterparts in his capacity as the party head of Quang Ninh (2011-15), a northeast province bordering China.
There is a further unwritten rule that the "four pillars" are to be comprised proportionately by region, with one member selected from the north, central, and south of Vietnam each. In its current composition, the party secretary originates from the north, and the three remaining pillars from the centre; the south will find no representation. Pham Minh Chinh, who is likely to become the new prime minister, and Vuong Dinh Hue, likely the new chairperson of the national assembly, are known for emulating the “northern way of doing politics”.There is speculation that a politician from the south will hold the fifth most important position, that of standing member of the party’s secretariat—but the decision has not yet been finally made.
Regional proportionality notwithstanding, many hoped that with the recent appointment of Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan to chairperson of the national assembly—the first women in over 40 years in a top-four position—an additional gender rule would be established. Unfortunately, the hope was in vain, and the disappointment was only compounded by the other top 200 cadre decisions, which together may be seen as a step backwards on questions of gender equality in political representation. The state-run media system explains these frictions at the Party Congress by emphasizing the interests of nation and the people above all else, and giving priority to competence over any other factors in the selection of new leaders.
Overturning norms and prior rules might be seen as evidence of a lack of consensus on new leaders within existing power blocks. To maintain a stable management structure, the CPV relies on the long-serving cadres. Yet it should be noted that, as a result, the renewal of the CPV is deferred: young cadres cannot move up through the ranks. Furthermore, violation of the "two term rule" now means that future leaders may themselves cite this development as a precedent in a bid to cling to power. The internal “bottom-up democratization process” of the party would then come to a halt in favour of the old, familiar, and well-tested concept of “democratic centralism”.
The leadership selection and institutional changes undertaken at the 13th National Party Congress entail significant implications for the CPV and Vietnam’s politics generally. The Congress voted in favour of stability, continuity, and consistency. No major upheavals, reversals, or realignments—of either domestic or foreign policy—should be expected.
In foreign policy, Vietnam has proven over the last few years that it can balance and diversify its relations with the world's great powers. China continues to be the country's most important trading partner: in 2019, its share of Vietnam's exports stood at 15.6%, and it provided 29% of Vietnam's imports. Yet rising tensions in the South China Sea and the overall growing influence of China in the region have compelled Vietnam to seek a counterbalance. In signing the “EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement” (EVFTA), Vietnam has made a highly complex pact with the EU and is strengthening its ties to several European states through high level diplomatic exchanges. During the last decade, Vietnam and the US have expanded their political and economic cooperation dramatically. Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga, another big player in the region, underscored Vietnam's importance by travelling to Vietnam, making it the first foreign visit after taking office in 2020. Likewise, Russia and South Korea are also important partners, with which Vietnam had already signed separate FTAs. Vietnam’s role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continues to grow. This new build-up of international integration and recognition is accompanied by numerous diplomatic occasions on all sides, and is showcased prominently across the national media.
With regard to domestic policy, Trong’s re-election as the party chief will ensure the continuation of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, one aim of which is to reorganize the party through building a socialist state based on the rule of law and accompanied by top-to-bottom reforms. The Congress's political report determined this to be its first priority. The remaining objectives it laid out are enumerated as: (2) renewal of the growth model and re-structuring the economy; (3) national independence and self-determination, improvement of international relations and integration; (4) the cultivation of national prosperity, happiness, and promotion of Vietnamese cultural values in building and protecting the fatherland; (5) synchronization of the legal system, its mechanisms and policies, in order to promote socialist democracy and people's ownership; (6) strict management and effective use of land and resources, improvement of the environment, and implementation of measures against, as well as adaptation to, climate change.
Vietnam will also initiate crucial institutional reforms over the next five years under the newly signed FTAs (especially EVFTA and CPTTP). It will seek to establish a legal framework for the operation of independent trade unions. These developments are already expressed by the composition of the political leadership and will be reinforced. Future plans for foreign direct investment (FDI) aim to shift the economy away from labour-intensive and environmentally damaging projects, towards an approach which accounts for environmental impact.
As with earlier party congresses, the 13th Party Congress of the CPV was a demonstration of power and unity for outsiders. It was a celebration of the CPV'S internal and external achievements, and a fortification of the course set by the previous central committee. Some internal discussions and decisions did leak, but most of the proceedings remain secret.
Vietnam will continue to position itself as an accountable mid-size power. Many Western countries have good reason to consider it a reliable partner. The country will extend its international integration, rely on multilateralism, and will balance and diversify its political and economic linkages—not least to counteract the influence of its large neighbour to the north. Internally, the party renewal process is flagging, but as long as economic development continues, and as long as the CPV can control the pandemic and secure peace, its political position will not be in doubt.
 These figures include the former Politburo member and party secretary of Ho Chi Minh City Dinh La Thang, former ministers of information and communication Nguyen Bac Son and Truong Minh Tuan; and former deputy ministers of public security, Bui Van Thanh and Tran Nhat Tan.
 These are: general secretary (head of the party and the most powerful position); prime minister (the head of government); president (head of state); and chairperson of the national assembly (the head of the national parliament).
 In a society where women make up slightly over half of the general population, the percentages of women on the Central Committee (10%) and Politburo (5.5%) are quite low. In the Politburo, the proportion of female participants decreased from 3 in 19 in the previous term to 1 in 18 in the newly elected body. For the Central Committee, the female representation increased slightly from 17 in 180 for 2016-21, to 18 in 180 for 2021-26.