Report From Việt Nam -- Part I

Believe it or not, I’m currently spending several weeks on a grand tour of Southeast Asia — Việt Nam and Cambodia. As a service to readers, I thought to use the occasion to provide some on-the-scene reporting from this far-off part of the world.

Note how I have spelled the name of the country, which is how they spell it here. It’s two words. The Vietnamese use Roman letters to write their language, with a profusion of diacritical marks that convey details of pronunciation. The “e” in “Việt” actually has two such marks, a circumflex above, and also a dot below.

If you want to get news here in the English language, there are two main sources that I’ve found so far. They are (1) Việt Nam News, and (2) the New York Times International Edition. I know that I sometimes take to calling the Times “Pravda,” based on its dutiful adherence to official progressive talking points; but Việt Nam News is actually the real thing. It is a publication of the Vietnam News Agency (their spelling — I can’t explain the discrepancy), which is a government agency, of a government that very much continues to proclaim its adherence to communism. If you ever looked at the old Pravda put out by the Soviet Union back in its heyday, you cannot have helped being struck by the obsession with things like grain harvests, meeting the quotas of the current five year plan, and the heroic achievements of the Supreme Soviet. For comparison, here are the headlines on page 1 of today’s (January 12) Việt Nam News: “Cashew sector to focus on quality”; “Chairwoman praises work of National Assembly in 2018”; and PetroVietnam affirms its leading role”.

Decades of communism, even in modified form in recent years, have not been a blessing for Việt Nam. The Heritage Foundation gives the country a rather terrible ranking of 141 on its Economic Freedom Index, just ahead of Ethiopia. Per capita GDP per Trading Economics is a shockingly low $1834 in 2017, the most recent reported year; the World Bank figure for the same year is $2343. For comparison, from the World Bank 2017 list, Indonesia is at $3847, Thailand at $6594, South Korea at $29,743, and the United States at $59,532. Recent years have seen much talk of expanding the private sector, for example here in Vietnam Economic News from 2017. But that article reports that the private sector constitutes only about 40% of the economy, most of which is millions of tiny entrepreneurial businesses, like small stores and taxis. There is a Việt Nam stock market, on which the largest companies are a dairy farm valued at about $9.5 billion, and a brewery valued at about $7 billion. But most large companies are state-owned.

For example, consider PetroVietnam, which is one of the subjects of the Việt Nam News articles linked above. It is the local oil company, 100% owned by the Vietnamese state. Surely, of course, we hate oil companies for despoiling the environment and causing the “existential threat” of climate change. In Việt Nam, not so much. The official government mouthpiece, at least, actually seems to appreciate companies that contribute to economic production (although showing no understanding or appreciation of why state ownership of the only significant oil company produces hugely inferior economic results). From Việt Nam News:

The Việt Nam National Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam) has continued to affirm its role as one of leading economic groups in the country. This, according to Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, is due to its achievements in production and business, restructuring, privatisation and resolving outstanding issues. Speaking at a conference held in Hà Nội yesterday, Phúc said the group has not only made an important contribution to the nation’s livelihood for many years, contributing a large amount to the State budget but also played a role in foreign affairs and national defense. In particular, PVN has contributed significantly to Việt Nam’s economic growth in 2018.

Do they care at all about the environment around here? On January 9, Việt Nam News had a front-page article reporting on a big speech just given by the Prime Minister on critical environmental issues, headline “PM underlines environment tasks.” And what might be those critical environmental tasks that Prime Minister Phùc has in mind for his country to address?

Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc pointed out several shortcomings of the environment sector when attending the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s conference to carry out the National Assembly and Government’s resolutions on socio-economic development in 2019 yesterday. PM Phúc said that there remain some urgent matters that need to be addressed as soon as possible, including “dead” rivers, a decrease in underground water levels due to indiscriminate exploitation, and illegal sand mining.

“‘Dead’ rivers”? “Illegal sand mining”? What about something important, like climate change? Somehow PM Phúc completely omitted to mention that subject in his speech. Could there be a reason for that? It’s not to be found in this article, but asking around, I’m informed that, although the major cities are now fully electrified, there remain substantial parts of the countryside without electric power. Is there any plan for that? Yes, there is something called Power Development Master Plan VII, providing for expansion of the power generation sector through the year 2030. Somehow that Plan doesn’t get a lot of mention in Việt Nam News, but here is a description of some key provisions from another source called VNExpress (of which I have not yet seen a print edition):

Vietnam is currently planning to build 26 additional coal power plants after 2020. . . . Coal, despite its harmful environmental impacts, is still the dominant power source for Vietnam. By 2030, over half of the country’s power will come from coal, adding 55,300MW to the national grid from 83 plants across the country, according to the revised government Power Development Master Plan VII.

In other words, it’s pretty much the same story as in every other developing country. While there may be some lip service paid to climate change issues, when nobody is looking they are building coal plants just as fast as they can. It warms my heart.