AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 567

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Session 567: Post-Reunification Modernities in Vietnam and the Narrative of Rupture

Organizer: Huong Thi Diu Nguyen, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Chair: Jonathan Warren, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Official narratives both within and outside of Vietnam often frame doi moi, beginning in 1986, as representing a profound change of course economically, socially and culturally. The bao cap period, in which a Stalinist-inspired economic and political system prevailed, is glibly dismissed as a dark period of economic stagnation during which ideology triumphed over pragmatism and reason. This interdisciplinary panel, which maps out key contours of Vietnamese modernities since 1975, posses a direct challenge to this orthodoxy. By juxtaposing primary research on the bao cap and post-doi moi moments – time periods for which there is a relative dearth of historical and ethnographic studies – a different picture emerges, one defined more by continuity than dramatic change. Ultimately, then, this panel raises important questions about investments, both domestically and abroad, in the narrative of rupture. Nguyen Diu Huong focuses on the often overlooked bao cap period between 1975 and 1986. She maps out the discourses of state, development, society, poverty and nation. The second panelist, Rebekah Collins focuses on pre doi moi literature and its challenges to state discourses. The next two panelists take up the contemporary era of increasing globalization and the shift toward state-led market developments. Matt Schwarz considers how multinational corporations shape – or fail to alter – domestic laws and government practices. Finally Jonathan Warren draws on his ethnographic work in Hanoi to detail the quotidian discourses of dissent and their impact on development.

Voices in the Shadow of Independence: Vietnamese Opinion on Some National Issues in the Period of 1979 – 1986
Huong Thi Diu Nguyen, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Vietnam witnessed profound societal changes after the Vietnam War and before the Renovation period in 1979-1986. Border conflicts and the socio-economic crisis had a variety of impacts on the material and spiritual life of the Vietnamese people. This paper examines people’s opinion concerning several specific issues, such as perceptions of the outside world, the nation, the legacy of war, and societal change in both the north and south of the country. In order to investigate people’s opinion, this paper draws on various forms of documents, including literature, newspapers, memoirs, and academic papers. Different from the portrayal provided by non-Vietnamese scholars of a corrupt and dissident society, people living Vietnam during this period expressed a belief and faith in the government and a hope for a brighter future. Collecting contemporary public narratives and attitudes, this paper contributes to our understanding of Vietnamese society during a period of significant transition.

Coming out of the Forest: Early Renovation Literature and the Turn to the Everyday
Rebekah L. Collins, Dickinson College, USA

Of the canonical đổi mới writers, Nguyễn Minh Châu is intriguing because his literary work and life bridge and exemplify the revolutionary/wartime epic model and the early steps writers began to take out of that “forest” before and after such movement was officially sanctioned. This is a direct reference to his 1982 novel Những người đi từ trong rừng ra, which I discuss along with other post-1975, pre-1986 works. Two major strains divide early đổi mới fiction: one includes the shocking, controversial, “dissident” works of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp and Phạm Thị Hoài; the second “begins” with Nguyễn Minh Châu (who of course claims influence by previous writers) and extends to Phan Thị Vàng Anh, Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần and Trần Nhã Thụy. Works in the second group are more understated but nevertheless equally vital to “renovation”— and perhaps even more profoundly “revolutionary” in the sense that they represent and exhibit change from within and change that is not (overtly) set against the political-cultural authority of the state, prevailing socio-cultural norms, or other agents and loci of power. “Something amiss” is located in one’s body, mind and spirit, not only in society at large or forces outside the individual. Scarring and healing are repeated motifs and gestures that unite the postwar writing of Nguyễn Minh Châu and his younger colleagues, a literature I call that of the extraordinary everyday.

Promising Opportunity: Commercial Diplomacy in the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam
Matthew G. Schwarz, Tufts University, USA

“Know, discuss, act and examine.” These principles, enshrined under Vietnam’s constitution, were meant to encourage citizens to play an active role in perfecting socialist democracy by understanding and critiquing the laws governing Vietnamese society. Nearly twenty years after the constitution came into effect, the same encouragement seems to apply not just to Vietnamese citizens, but to the forces driving economic prosperity: foreign investors. Three years after joining the World Trade Organization, Vietnam has implemented and maintained an impressive number of dialogues between government agencies and the multinational investment community, designed to keep Vietnam’s commercial laws in line with international practices and add transparency to an otherwise opaque policymaking apparatus. This paper examines the evolution and importance of business-government relations in Vietnam, concentrating on the ways in which foreign investors have used the “consultation rights” provided in Vietnam’s bilateral and multilateral trade agreements to influence law and policy in this single-party state. It concentrates on three legislative arenas where foreign investors have exerted particularly high levels of influence: the STAR Project, a USAID initiative designed to provide technical assistance to Vietnamese lawmakers; the Vietnam Business Forum, a policy-oriented dialogue sponsored by the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the Vietnamese government, and; Project 30, a high-profile administrative reform campaign in which foreign business leaders are advising the Prime Minister on bureaucratic reform.

Everyday Discourses of Dissent in Contemporary Vietnam
Jonathan Warren, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Drawing on ethnographic research in Hanoi, this paper maps out the discourses of dissent among “ordinary” citizens. Many residents in Hanoi employ tradition, rurality, nation, and science to critique and shape the behavior of fellow citizens and government officials. Not only do these discourses of dissent offer a window into Vietnamese modernities but they also pose challenges to contemporary theories of development. As the state has been brought back in, the moral economy has been relegated to a minor role. In Vietnam, for example, it is often assumed that civil society has been rendered prostrate due to the lack of voluntary associations, democracy and the efficacy of global capitalism. However the power of everyday discourses of dissent underscore the need to better account for the relevance of the socio-cultural, and in particular the quotidian, for development.