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Market aims prompt Vietnam purge. Economic discontent leads to `purification' of party ranks

A fictional tale, written recently for a Hanoi newspaper, tells of a hunter who tries to kill a monkey but only injures it. The monkey steals the hunter's clothes, leaving him naked in the forest. The hidden message, to many Vietnamese readers, is an analogy to a real hunt now under way in Vietnam: a purge of Communist Party members that is seen as not having gone far enough.

Nearly 10 percent of the party's 2 million members have already been ousted in a relatively mild cleansing of the rank and file since 1982. In September, however, the 13-member Politburo launched an all-out ``purification campaign'' for a host of reasons. Perhaps the most important is to stop a dangerous erosion of public confidence in the party, caused in large part by a 30 to 50 percent drop in living standards since 1985.

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One longtime Western observer says the campaign aims to arrest social decay. ``Vietnamese still hold the Confucian concept that leaders can do anything as long as they keep their word. If a leader lies, he is finished,'' he said. ``Even Ho Chi Minh is less revered these days, because people see [that] other countries with lesser leaders have more wealth than Vietnam.''

The primary targets are corrupt, incompetent, and conservative cadres who, if not removed soon, could stymie or even reverse economic reforms coming out of last December's Sixth Congress of the Communist Party, such as support for small-scale private enterprise. At a deeper level, the campaign also tries to prevent a recurrence of a postwar economic way of thinking that brought a damaging overemphasis on industrialization and agricultural collectivization, plus a disastrous 1985 currency change.

``The mistakes in the economy lasted too long,'' says Huynh Son Phuoc, editor of the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City. ``Never had the party been so distant from the people as before [the purges] this year.''

The link to economic reform

The new campaign ``could take two or three years,'' says Politburo member Nguyen Co Thach, adding that the party purification must precede full carrying out of economic reforms.

``During the past 40 years, we have been too busy with the war and the economic problem,'' said Mr. Thach, who is also the foreign minister, during an interview. ``We have made the mistake of not preparing for the future generation of cadre. Much of the purification campaign is oriented to educating old members in such capitalist principles as the law of supply and demand and how to balance books to show a profit.''

Past party-cleansing drives, including one from February to May this year, recorded only ``some achievement,'' according to a Sept. 26 editorial in the party's newspaper. ``The percentage of degenerate and deviant elements is high,'' it stated. ``Many individuals still obstinately continue with their old ways and refuse to improve.'' The Sept. 12 Politburo resolution calls for a strict conclusion to cases ``left over'' from previous campaigns. Among high-ranking party members in the Army, for instance, only one-third of those charged with violating party rules have been dealt with, according to an Aug. 14 Army newspaper report.

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Taking the purge to the top

The new campaign is also aimed at higher-ranking party leaders who try to protect errant members from being charged and removed. Such behavior, stated an Aug. 14 article in the Labor newspaper, infringes on the purification campaign and even ranks as a counterrevolutionary activity.

``Is it not an even more unforgivable crime to act as umbrellas for those who run counter to the interests of the revolution?'' the writer asked.

Such inclination to protect errant members is found even in the central leadership, the article says, warning with a metaphor that ``it would be pointless to mop up drops of water in the house without mending the leaks in the roof.''

It now appears to many observers that little opposition to economic reforms remains in the Politburo, especially after noted reformer Nguyen Van Linh took over as party general secretary last December, bringing in with him a Central Committee with nearly half of its members newly selected. The purification campaign's sorting-out process is focused mainly at the party's middle and lower levels.

``The party is a living body,'' says Mr. Phuoc. ``It has poisoned elements and must welcome the new. The poison elements will not go easily.'' In the early 1980s, he says, when economic reformers within the party began to assume more authority, the old leaders had a very complicated network of friends and informants that could make it very difficult. In some places, he adds, this old network has not been retired.

``The sources of the problems are in management skills and ideology,'' he says. ``We have no lack of adequate people. They're just in the wrong places.''

And to the grassroots

This campaign cuts deeper than previous actions by allowing the people and newspapers in each locality to take part in deciding which party members are qualified, says Tuat Viet, editor of the Liberated Saigon newspaper.

Two slogans made popular from the Sixth Party Congress are ``The people are the root'' and ``The party leads, the people are the masters, and the state manages.'' Under a new rewritten party constitution, local chapters have been given more power, and the new charter calls for members to have expertise in economic management - a move described by foreign observers as making the party ``more expert and less Red.''

A recent directive gives more freedom to editors to print investigative articles about party members exhibiting so-called ``negative phenomenon.'' ``We'll keep close watch on those forces who resist change,'' says Phuoc.

In August, Liberated Saigon reported that 16 party members were recently expelled for such infractions as disseminating lewd materials, skipping party meetings, failing to observe cash control principles, and excessive drinking. ``The purification cannot be done by the party alone,'' says Phan Hanh, chairman of the Vietnamese Lawyers Association. ``It is the people who must do it. It is a kind of a revolution.''

Such a revolution within a revolution has required beefing up the party's internal body for discipline, known as the Control Commission. In September, the commission sent a delegation to Moscow to study the control and auditing bodies of Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Several local party officials estimate that 10 to 20 percent of the members will be expelled under the new campaign.

Avoiding wholesale purge

The purification policy is carefully worded to prevent a wholesale purge, such as Vietnam saw happen in its two communist neighbors: Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and China during the Cultural Revolution.

``But what they really do need is a wholesale purge,'' says one East European diplomat. ``They are very short of time. The younger generation knows that other countries are having a good time [enjoying higher standards of living],'' he adds.

Those who oppose the economic reforms have lost power, said Mr. Viet. ``They see the reforms as deviating from the revolution they fought for, and many just can't understand them. But the old ways still have the strength and can always pull everything back. The real test will be whether the people get the goods.''

The people have been lied to once too often, said the Western observer, on such matters as how much time many southern Vietnamese would stay in reeducation camps, about having a better life in so-called ``new economic zones,'' and about land tenure for farmers.

``The problem is not economic, it is a moral one - the restoration of the leadership of the party. If the reforms and the purification do not restore confidence, the party is finished,'' he added. ``I suspect the damage to its reputation may already be permanent.''

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