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And I'm Renee Montagne. Changes in leadership are likely during Vietnam's Communist Party Congress, which opens tomorrow. But changes in direction, either political or economic are not. The leaders are expected to keep Vietnam's market oriented economy and the party's absolute grip on power. This year's Congress though comes amid a major corruption scandal that has already forced a senior minister to resign.
NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Hanoi.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Vietnam's economy is booming, growing last year at a record 8.4 percent, almost as fast as China's. And like its neighbor to the north, Vietnam is also struggling with a growing gap between rich and poor. Corruption scandals like the one involving the Transport Ministry's Project Management Unit 18 infuriate many of the have-nots, a scandal involving millions of dollars earmarked for new roads in bridges, money used instead to bet on soccer matches and to buy flashy new cars.
At this beer hall in the capital, a tall draft is only about twenty cents. It's a popular place on most nights, a place to unwind, a place to laugh and complain. And many of the complaints these days are about the Transport Ministry scandal, widely reported in the local press.
SUM: (Vietnamese spoken)
SULLIVAN: I'm very concerned and very angry, says this 28-year old worker named Sum. These officials are stealing money that comes from the sweat and blood of the people. I think that people who do these things should be shot, he says. A doctor named Duang(ph) is also angry, but not, he says, surprised.
DUANG: (Vietnamese spoken)
SULLIVAN: I think this is just the environment in Vietnam today, the doctor says. There's no accountability. Almost any sector that's considered lucrative is going to have corruption. And every day, he says, the newspapers tell us of more and more people who are involved. Economist Le Dang Doanh is an advisor to the Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. He says the Project Management Unit 18 scandal, or PMU-18, may be the start of something bigger for the government, the Party and the people.
LE DANG DOANH: It's revealing the weakness of the system. The PMU-18 is revealing what has been happening, and the people want to see that corruption must be reduced, people must be punished, and the weaknesses of the political system must be healed.
SULLIVAN: Many here expect the Party to use this week's Congress to take some action, if only to deflect the people's anger away from the Party. Just last week, Politburo member Phan Dien told foreign journalists he believes corruption represents a threat to the survival of the regime. World Bank country director Klaus Rohland says he is encouraged by the action the government has taken so far, the forced resignation of the Transport Minister and the arrest of two high ranking Transport Ministry officials.
KLAUS ROHLAND: I sense a situation where the need to address corruption can no longer be ignored, where sweeping unpleasant things under the rug will not work. That gives me some comfort that this might be a turning point to combat corruption in Vietnam.
SULLIVAN: Other analysts are more skeptical. Carl Thayer is a long time Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy. He says anti-corruption drives are common in the run up to party Congresses and are often used by competing factions within the Party to discredit their rivals.
CARL THAYER: I think Vietnam understands they have to get rid of corruption, but I think it's so pervasive, anybody taking a step forward on that has to risk knocking the whole house over. They recognize corruption's undermining their legitimacy, but it's in a sense that one group wants to attack the other rather than rid corruption completely.
SULLIVAN: In this context, systemic change seems unlikely in the short term, especially given Vietnam's decentralized government, where local party officials run their provinces like fiefdoms, far removed from central authority. As a result, some analysts predict any anti-corruption measures that do come out of this week's Congress will be either piecemeal or largely cosmetic, with delegates focusing instead on ways to move Vietnam's market economy forward, while maintaining the Communist Party's absolute rule.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.
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