A Hasty Comparison: Vietnam and China

Mr. Mao and Uncle Ho

Just spent a little bit of time in Vietnam and it’s left me with a few impressions that compare China with one of the world’s few other ostensibly communist states.

In a lot of ways, Vietnam looks like a younger brother to China. Aside from the cultural similarities, China actively controlled Vietnam as a vassal state for hundreds of years until around 1000AD and not until the French decreed a switch to a latin alphabet based writing system were Chinese characters dropped as a basis for the Vietnamese langauge, Vietnam’s modern political and economic story is also similar.

Politically both country’s ultimately successful nationalist movements were communist. Both experienced WWII under Japanese occupation; the Vietnamese version as a part of French Vichy collaboration. Both countries then experienced civil war, the Vietnamese case being more outwardly anti-colonialist (read both France and the US) and longer (Vietnam was finally unified under Communist rule in 1975).

Each country also has a paramount leader (Ho Chi Minh and Mao Ze Dong) best remembered for achieving independence and unification who’s faces grace their country’s money and who’s bodies are on display in their respective capital cities. Ho Chi Minh died before Vietnam’s final unification, perhaps sparing him the burden of governing, failure at which has seriously tarnished Mao.

In fact, the period of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China, during which Vietnam was still at war, is one of the biggest differences between the two countries’ modern history. Vietnam’s attempt at collectivized farming similarly failed, albeit less dramatically than China’s, but they did not face the same kind of social cultural trauma of mass denunciations and destruction of all things old as happened in China.

In the last 30 years Vietnam has been following in the economic footsteps of China. Vietnam’s “Socialist-oriented Market Economy” started in 1986, compared to China’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”in 1979. Since then Vietnam has been right behind China following the model of foreign investment, export oriented growth, and greater integration into world trade. China normalized relations with the US in 1979, Vietnam not until 1995. China entered the WTO in 2001, Vietnam in 2006. As a result, Vietnam has seen similarly amazing growth.

Modern politics in Vietnam seems similarly dictated by the Chinese model. The “leading role” of the communist party in state affairs is zealously guarded and political dissent not tolerated. Media and internet are similarly strictly controlled.

One interesting historical side note to what today look like very ideologically similar countries is the brief border war in 1979. Called the “War Against Chinese Expansionism” in Vietnam and the “Counterattack Against Vietnam in Self Defense” in China, the one month long Chinese invasion was a symptom of establishing political independence within the international Communist order.

Vietnam was engaged in a war in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge with the support of the USSR, in part to maintain an independent sphere of influence apart from the Chinese. China for their part was supporting the Khmer Rouge to show their independence from the USSR. Attacking Vietnam then was a similarly anti-soviet move. Though the event was only one month long, and has mostly faded into the background of economic cooperation, it adds a moment in modern memory to the long history of fear about Chinese aggression that is part of the Vietnamese understanding of history.

It’s hard to tell from a quick glance how the two countries are different; their outward similarities undoubtedly belie deeper complexity. One of the biggest differences I see is that Vietnam is much smaller than China, suggesting they must go with the flow of global trends where China has more opportunity to dictate their own path.

For example, Vietnam’s banking and currency regime is more in line with international practices than China’s, which is extremely tightly controlled, leaving Vietnam more susceptible to global economic problems like the Asian Flu of the late 90s, which China managed to avoid almost entirely. (Both countries were mostly successful in using stimulus funds and central monetary policy to defray the effects of the current economic crisis.) I imagine Vietnam is similarly more influenced by political pressure coming from western countries and NGOs on a variety of levels than China.

I heard the difference described colloquially this way, “In China the government is rich and the people are poor, in Vietnam the government is poor and the people are rich.” I’m not sure how much that’s worth as the average incomes in China are higher than Vietnam and both countries are seeing growing income inequality. But it’s certainly true that the Vietnamese government hasn’t been able to invest in infrastructure and development on the same scale as China, to which a short drive on each countries’ major highways can attest.

There are also undoubtedly differences in the way each country goes about governing. The closest I get to insight on that front are two colloquial examples. First, city planning. Hanoi has maintained a feel of a bustling city with lots of independent businesses and life apparent on the streets. Beijing by contrast is a fenced off land of mega-developments.

Another very visible difference is helmets. Vietnam enacted a comprehensive helmet law in 2007 and today has almost universal compliance. China, on the other hand, is a land of helmet-less courage. The balance of these two examples seems to me to favor quality of life, and perhaps by extension quality of decision making, in Vietnam despite less overall wealth. Or maybe that’s my personal bias against the cold realism of impersonal, centralized planning, and given the opportunity to buy more cars than motorcycles and build mass malls instead of rely on local shops Vietnam would look different.

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One Response to A Hasty Comparison: Vietnam and China

  1. Eric says:

    After another china to Vietnam embarkation, I think the Vietnamese laugh and joke more than the chinese. Maybe it’s the cafes, maybe it’s my imagination

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