Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On Democracy and Communism...

In the south, its easy to forget that Vietnam is a Communist country. Out of 84 Million people, only 2 Million are party members. In the west, we tend to think of Communism as a bad word, and communist rule has certainly done great harm in Vietnam's history (e.g. reeducation camps). That said, Vietnam enjoys incredible political stability relative to its neighbors, and the effective rule of law (since Doi Moi) has kept crime low, allowed businesses to flourish, regulated trade and facilitated foreign investment. Uncle Ho's days of an agrarian utopia are long gone, and the relic left is a lumbering, inefficient bureacracy, that may not be up to western standards, but beats all the local options.

Vietnamese views on government are particularly interesting now, especially in contrast to the political hoopla surrounding the US elections. I would sum up the average Southern view on communism as "Its good if you're connected to the party, and its an effective government, but I don't really care about communism. As long as it doesnt get in the way of the economy, its fine." When my adopted sandwich Mami-San stated, while we were sitting in the middle of the market, that she thought things were better under the French, Lily got a little nervous. We were in public. Mami-san, tho, was unphased. Its not like the KGB is lurking in the corner, and after all, her family is connected.

Hanoi is more Communist - there are loudspeakers all over the city, that proclaim news and propaganda twice a day, and there is less Western influence and business. And its the seat of government. Of course, I decided to be Cheeky and wore my "Obama 08" tshirt to all the Communist tourist sites, including Uncle Ho's mausoleum. This opened me to a lot of shocking commentary from locals (both of whom were men):

Local #1: You like Obama? (yes, I respond. What do you think of the American candidates?) I like Hillary. Yes, she is an amazing lady. Her husband was the first American president to visit here after the war. She went to see the country and met with poor families. She went in their homes, one family were pig farmers and she went right in and sat down in their home. It was right next to the pigs, because they are poor. Right there! I had never seen a politician do that - talk to real people and not look down on them. Our politicians don't do that. Hillary is amazing.

Local #2, reading my tshirt, on the deck of Ho Chi Minh's house: O - Ba - Ma. You like Obama? (Yes, I like Obama). I too. He is a great man. Go Obama. (then there was a little fist pump)

Both these interactions shocked me: first, we take state visits and first ladies making nice with the locals TOTALLY for granted. If our first lady is more egalitarian than the local communists, it says a great deal about the strength of the american ideal of equality. We're doing a great job. Second, someone got excited about Obama, while standing in the SMACK MIDDLE of the communist government. Thats like saying you like Kim Jong Il while standing on the steps on the capital. Then it dawned on me...we are so lucky to be able to choose. I had been working myself into a lather about the barracuda from Alaska and the sad state of American federal vaudeville, but at the end of the day, I will walk into a booth, and vote for things that matter to me. What a gift! I believe that in a few decades, Vietnam will have this too, and just really hope the transition is peaceful.

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