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British socialism? Meet dynamic Vietnamese communism

Any Party member in Vietnam watching the demonstration in London on Saturday would be baffled by the values it represented: ignorant abdication of personal responsibility in favour of crass state control

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You should hear the stories she has about Confucius...
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Charles Crawford
On 22 October 2012 09:08

On Saturday morning I returned from a week in Vietnam, my first visit to that part of the world. I was there to share a Negotiation Skills training workshop with up-and-coming members of the Communist Party. It went well, the Vietnamese participants working with determination and enthusiasm despite having to operate all week in a foreign language (English).

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that on the day of my return London would be seeing a grand protest march demonstrating against "austerity". We of course cannot rely upon the BBC to give us a detailed, or indeed any, breakdown of the myriad Marxist, Trotskyist, Spartacists, and other lugubrious, supposedly revolutionary ideological formations represented on this march. But these days we have Twitter and other ways of seeing exactly who was represented.

There they all were: a parade of preening progressive self-parodists.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of this demonstration was that it was by its very nature some sort of contradiction in terms in its querulous "demands" for an end to "cuts" in government spending.

Broadly speaking, this country is living well beyond its means. The government can pay for things voters want only by borrowing heavily on international financial markets. These financial markets survey the crumbling towers of European social democracy and mull over how far if at all it makes sense to lend countries like ours large sums of money to pay for inefficient public services. When they think that country X is more likely than country Y to be able to pay its debts on time, country X gets a lower interest rate – the total cost of the loan is therefore less.

Thus it is that significant slices of taxpayers' money in the UK and other European countries (and now the USA too) goes not to public services, but to paying the interest on money the state has borrowed to bribe voters. Overall government spending is not being cut - if anything it is rising to even giddier levels.

What's happening in our case is that the balance of spending is shifting, with more money going to pay off state debts inherited from the last reckless Labour government, making less available for public services. But if this were not happening, the cost of the UK’s international borrowing would jump: the absolute sums of money that HMG would have to pay in regular interest repayment schedules would rise from painful to appalling (see for example Greece, Portugal, Spain and so on).

Hence the Tragic Paradox of the Austerity Protesters. Their best chance of making sure that more money goes into public services and less into interest payments is to support any government that maintains credibility with international lenders. Namely a government rather like the current Eton-Style, Conservative-led coalition.

By contrast, if any future government had in its ranks drivelling people like these protesters yesterday, the UK's international credibility would rightly slump, interest rates would rise, and money available for public services would decline even more. The resulting 'cuts' - deeper and bloodier.

So far so obvious. But what about the way these things are managed in one-party Communist Vietnam?

If you have never been to Hanoi or indeed Asia before, nothing can prepare you and your nose for the restless, crowded confusion out there on the streets. People are everywhere. Crossing the road requires nerves of steel as swarms of people on improbably laden scooters come at you from all directions, tooting their horns and chatting on their mobile phones.

Almost everyone is busy doing something, carrying, pushing, sorting, haggling, stacking. It is more than obvious that idleness is not rewarded. No work, no food!

Micro-restaurants proliferate with scant regard for our prissy health and safety standards: a shop selling bits of metal will have someone cooking generous quantities of lunch on a small stove for shifts of people squatting on the street; fresh ingredients delivered non-stop from here and there as cooking proceeds.

Life in Dickens's London must have been something like this, albeit perhaps in a more genteel way despite the poverty of many people; remember how on Christmas Day the Cratchit family ordered their goose from a shop cooking it?

Watching in amazement the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, with its overwhelmingly youthful population, I started to wonder what the operational ethics of such a society must be.

Social relationships will be myriad and subtle, with extended networks of family and friends working together to create all sorts of improvised, fast-moving supply chains. Taxi drivers who bring a shop new tourist business will get rewarded according to finely calibrated scales. There will be cheating, but likewise in each neighbourhood social trust will accumulate fast.

Obvious miscreants will be quickly identified, thumped, and shunned. Vietnam scores poorly on world corruption perception indices: that sort of obvious cheating is all about the state sector’s machinations, not the mass of people hustling to survive.

Old people in Vietnam keep working to the end. I saw people who looked as if they personally knew Confucius scurrying along carrying heavy trays of vegetables or helping chop things for dinner. This is the social safety net of a poor but fast-developing country.

No doubt the conditions for many disabled or mentally ill people must be grim, yet even they are much more likely to have some sort of active honourable family support than their counterparts in the UK where families have outsourced private responsibility to the state.

You see the difference as soon as you get off the plane at Heathrow. People working at the airport project a lower order of urgency and purpose. Whereas anyone in Vietnam with a proper job wears an immaculate uniform with pride and works at something like top speed, the ranks of British immigration and other officials come across as indefinably scruffier and usually overweight. They look like people who know all too well that it is next to impossible to sack them for slacking: a general "good enough" 70 percent effort will suffice, and even a dismal 55 percent effort is unlikely to provoke any serious sanction.

Back in Vietnam if you don’t try hard in your job you get thrown out in favour of someone desperate to succeed. That sort of merciless pressure is, well, merciless. But it keeps up standards and morale and ambition.

In the short time I had available in Hanoi I tried to fathom out what communism Vietnamese-style actually means in ideological terms these days. I failed. Hanoi has plenty of banners proclaiming communist slogans and historic triumphs, but the Party claims credit for keeping down inflation and encouraging private entrepreneurship. Its main objective will be keeping itself in control and surging prosperity for the foreseeable future.

So there it is. On the streets of London we see a long chain of crypto-communists chanting for failed policies that on every possible test of human experience will make life in this part of the world worse for everyone. Across the planet in communist Vietnam the streets are teeming with life and energy.

Any ambitious young Party member in Vietnam watching on his new iPad the embarrassing Leftard demonstration in London on Saturday would probably be baffled by the inhuman values it represented: whiny, ignorant abdication of personal energy and responsibility in favour of crass state control.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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