Why was prominent environmental activist Nguy Thi Khanh sentenced to two years in prison last month? At first, one might conclude that this has nothing to do with Khanh’s environmentalism, but because the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has silenced most of its critics with increasing vehemence since 2016. Human rights activist, was sentenced in January to five years in prison on similarly fabricated tax charges, a new tool to suppress certain voices. A State Department spokesman said it had nothing to do with their activism.
The second interpretation says that everything has to do with Khanh’s environmental protection and her imprisonment shows that the Vietnamese government really doesn’t care about climate protection. That’s not convincing either. The Economist recently called Vietnam “a bright spot on an otherwise soot-black map” for climate action in Southeast Asia. (Indeed, although the bar is low.) Vietnam is now one of the top ten producers of solar energy in the world. Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has pledged to end coal use by 2040 and has announced his government will halt the construction of new coal-fired power plants. He wants to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050.
The third (and most plausible) explanation lies somewhere in between, of course. The two major existential crises facing the VCP are environmental changes and environmental activism. I argued in 2017 that environmental activism poses the greatest political threat to the Communist Party. (“Will the environment be the Vietnamese government’s downfall?” I asked.) In part, that’s because environmentalists are somewhat insulated from criticism. Unlike the country’s pro-democracy movement, the Communist Party cannot simply claim that it wants to overthrow the political order; most advocate reforms within the existing system. They are also deeply nationalist, as demonstrated by the protracted protests after Taiwan’s Formosa steel mill spilled tons of toxic waste in 2016. But as this protest has shown, demands can quickly escalate beyond environmental issues. The slogan “Fish need clean water. Citizens need transparency” remembers these demonstrations.
Environmental protection also connects. We’ve seen openly pro-democracy groups like Bloc 8406 and the Brotherhood for Democracy come and go. In the countryside, land rights activism has become more explosive, as seen during the “Dong Tam massacre” in early 2020, which would have attracted more attention had COVID-19 not emerged. In urban areas, the independent trade union movement is on the rise. The middle classes and professionals advocate for a genuine rule of law and private property rights. But these movements are different. Environmental protection offers an umbrella. It affects all classes – the poor farmer and the billionaire will be equally affected by climate change – and across geographies and generations. And it has created new bridges between individual activists, the general public and burgeoning civil society groups.
At the same time, environmental change deeply worries the Party’s power. Due to the problems it causes, it increases the surface area of interactions between the VCP and the Vietnamese people. You can lead a fairly peaceful life in any authoritarian state, as long as politics don’t affect your life. This is the tacit social contract; stay away from politics and politics will stay away from you. But public anger rises when there are more numerous points of friction between the system and the people. This is the problem posed by environmental changes. Since its effects are universal and affect everyone in society, there will naturally be more contention between what the citizens and the Communist Party believe is the right path. Since it won’t be resolved in a few months or years, it will remain an ongoing issue for the Vietnamese.
Of course, the VCP is concerned. It certainly rules over one of the most repressive states in Southeast Asia. But she often has to listen to public complaints. A notable example of this was when Hanoi’s municipal government gave in to public protests against the city’s cutting down of trees. Vietnam’s western allies are used to turning a blind eye to the repression of factory workers or lawyers. But the United States and the European Union have made a lot of noise about Hanoi joining their climate agendas. Her reaction to Khanh’s imprisonment was more critical than usual.
The Communist Party is committed to fighting climate change, but only on its own terms. It needs expert opinion (sometimes public pressure from activists) but will not tolerate any criticism, especially if it comes from the growing civil society sector. It’s very much a top-down affair. She doesn’t want the Vietnamese people to set the parameters for action. Eventually, people could demand tougher and faster climate action than the party wants to pursue, affecting the party’s overall economic policies or patronage system. After all, the party knows that climate protection will not disappear anytime soon. Give people too much say and they might start demanding other changes.
An analogy is nationalism. Until the 1990s, the Communist Party was the main arbiter of patriotism. It was the party that defeated colonialism and then the American and Chinese invasions. But since the 1990s, nationalism has fallen out of the party’s grip. It now often has to follow rather than lead the nationalist agenda; it is regularly accused of not being patriotic enough, especially on all issues affecting China. Similarly, the VCP does not want to lose its mantle as an arbitrator for climate action. It wants to be the engine, the embodiment of environmental commitment in Vietnam. She wants people to take environmental action – but only under the communist banner.