Vietnam tree cutting debacle highlights opaque politics

Vietnam tree cutting debacle highlights opaque politics

A government program that planned to cut more than 6,700 trees in a bid to ‘beautify’ Hanoi, Vietnam, has been abruptly halted due to significant public backlash.

While analysts have heralded this as a new era of accountability in Vietnamese government decision making, it has also highlighted the opaque nature businesses are forced to operate in.

Vietnam’s government is usually quick to clamp down on public criticism – the country’s human rights record has been severely tarnished by the continuing arrest of dissidents. This made the recent unsanctioned public protest against the tree cutting, which attracted around 500 people, particularly special.

The original Facebook page that spurred the movement now has over 50,000 ‘likes,’ with groups across different generations coming together in solidarity against the tree cutting policy. As was declared by Jonathan London in the Financial Times, “This is a sign of the coming of age of something resembling civil society in Vietnam.”

The online and physical protests were widely reported across official Vietnamese media while a scathing editorial appeared in the English daily Vietnam News. The editorial demanded ‘accountability’ and ‘openness’ from the government, words with a rare place in public discourse. As a result, the Mayor of Hanoi suspended ‘scores’ of officials and launched a full investigation into the matter.

Following the government’s decision, citizens were quick to formulate rumours surrounding the tree-felling policy. These ranged from the government’s ambitions to sell timber, a highly valuable commodity, to safety fears about falling branches and property damage. While rumours may not pose a huge threat in themselves, they are inevitably the result of a political system that is not open about the way it makes decisions.

Like many rapidly developing countries, Vietnam has, at least on paper, robust legislation. It is not that the legal framework for public consultation does not exist – it simply was not followed. Had the tree cutting policy gone through the right channels, it should have faced public scrutiny and almost certainly would never have been implemented.

Businesses operating in Vietnam face these problems regularly, where knowing the right person is often more important than having the right skills. Vietnam’s legislators are aware of these problems and are making efforts to change, but this will require a fundamental transformation of Vietnam’s business culture, which clashes with vested government interests.

For example, following the protests, the Hanoi government accused several private companies of funding and pressuring the tree cutting. In fact, the companies had simply sponsored a tree planting scheme. VP Bank, one of the accused, said it was ‘shocked’ by the government’s statement and offered to work with them to clarify how its money was used. Businesses were simply used as scapegoats by the government to deflect public criticism.

Cases such as these give us a small glimpse into government decision-making in Vietnam. The protests undoubtedly created ripples throughout the country, and accountability and openness will inevitably help improve the business climate in Vietnam.

The World Bank currently ranks Vietnam 78 out of 189 economies in their ‘doing business’ guide, six places lower than in 2014. Should the government at all levels become more transparent in its decisions, it will set the stage for businesses in Vietnam to flourish.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Nicolas Jenny

Nicolas Jenny specialises in European and Asian political risk analysis. He has lived extensively throughout the region and speaks English, French and Mandarin. He holds a double master's from Sciences Po Paris and Fudan University and a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol.