On November 28, Vietnamese police arrested Nguyen Van Trinh, chief of staff to the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Vu Duc Dam. He was the second chief of staff for a deputy prime minister to be arrested in recent months.
The arrests were allegedly over corruption, both involving scandals during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in a country like Vietnam where corruption is rampant and investigative/prosecuting resources are so limited, all of these cases are highly political. These arrests shed light on how elite politics are played out and how they will shape future leadership.
In 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam was a national hero responsible for Vietnam’s outstanding response to Covid-19. Vietnam had mobilized society, called fighting the virus as a patriotic struggle, sealed its borders, enforced quarantines, and delivered excellent and consistent public health messages.
Dam was responsible for the nationwide response. And many were surprised when he was not promoted from the Central Committee to the 19-member Politburo at the 13th Party Congress, the five-year leadership rotation in January 2021. Many remember the destroyed dam captured on film as it exited Congress. And for many Vietnamese, it was disheartening that a competent technocrat who had propelled the country to the only positive economic growth in Southeast Asia in 2020 was sidelined in favor of political hacks.
Things quickly went wrong for the new government that came to power in early 2021. Vietnam’s low Covid numbers made it complacent about acquiring vaccines and the country was hit hard by the Delta and Omicron variants, prompting Ho Chi Minh City and other Mekong Delta cities to go into lockdown. Vietnam ended its own “Zero Covid” strategy.
At that point, Viet A, a medical testing company, received a license to manufacture substandard Covid test kits, which it sold to all levels of government at a 45 percent premium, raking in a $172 million profit.
Viet A’s CEO admitted to paying over $34 million in bribes. The investigation brought down 90 people, including two members of the central committee, one a former health minister and the other a former mayor of Hanoi. Two senior military officials were also prosecuted. Over a hundred were examined.
Dam’s chief of staff has been accused of helping Viet A register and obtain government contracts.
Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Anh Dung [left] and Nguyen Quang Linh, the assistant to Pham Binh Minh, now Deputy Prime Minister, were arrested this year in connection with the scandal-ridden attempt to repatriate Vietnamese nationals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Police [left]; Ministry of Public Security
Scandal-laden return flights
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been in charge of arranging repatriation flights for Vietnamese nationals during the pandemic, which has become a thoroughly scandalous endeavor. 70,000 citizens from 60 countries returned to this program.
A total of 22 diplomats were investigated and several arrests made. Others, including the owner of a travel agency involved in the scheme, were also arrested. The senior official, Deputy Foreign Minister To Anh Dung, was arrested in April 2022, expelled from the party and prosecuted.
On September 27, authorities arrested Nguyen Quang Linh, the assistant to Pham Binh Minh, now deputy prime minister but formally foreign minister, who oversaw the scandal.
Minh is a member of the 18-strong elite Politburo. And because of party rules, he’s one of six people eligible to become party general secretary, though unlikely. Minh was also advised to become president, a largely ceremonial and diplomatic role.
In the 12th Central Committee, two members of the Politburo were dismissed, one of whom was stripped of party membership and put on trial. So there is precedent for senior executives. As mentioned above, in 2022 two members of the Central Committee were deprived of their membership and they were prosecuted.
But what do these arrests say about the nature of Vietnamese politics?
First, Vietnamese policy is based on patron-client relationships.
When individuals like Minh and Dam are too senior or when going after them would cause too much intra-party disagreement, targeting their top supporters is a very effective tool. In light of the police’s routine use of torture, which can result in death in custody, aid workers will speak. And that can be enough.
Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong has used anti-corruption tactics as a political weapon. Photo credit: AFP
Fighting corruption as a political weapon
In the unlikely event that both survive by the 14th party congress in early 2026, their wings will be clipped and they will pose no threat to Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong, who is maneuvering to get his protege elected.
78-year-old Trong, now in his third term, has already received two age ratings. He was expected to step down before the 14th Congress, but there is no sign of his retirement. Although he has made anti-corruption an issue for his leadership and constantly warns that doing so threatens the legitimacy of the VCP, the reality is that he has used anti-corruption as a political weapon.
Trong neutralized former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the 12th Congress in 2016 and then went after Dung’s protégés, including Politburo member and rising political star Dinh La Thanh.
Ahead of the 13th Congress, Trong unleashed Central Inspection Commission head Tran Quoc Vuong on political rivals. This is where Trong might have overplayed his hand.
Vuong was his own heir to succeed him as general secretary. With a common threat, various factions banded together to prevent this, and Vuong was not only not elected Secretary-General but elected out of the Politburo entirely.
Trong appears to have learned his lesson and has been more reluctant to target high-level executives, particularly his rivals. He can give them no more reason to oppose him. So Trong targeted the rivals’ aides and protégés and got close enough to politically emasculate them.
It’s not clear if Trong will hold out until 2026, but this time he has laid the groundwork for his protégé to be elected secretary-general.
According to the party’s charter, one can only become secretary-general after serving two terms in the politburo, leaving six candidates: President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính, National Assembly Chief Vương Đình Huệ, Minister of Public Security Tô Lâm, Vietnam Fatherland Front Chief Trương Thị Mai and Deputy Prime Minister Phạm Bình Minh.
Minh is out of the corruption scandal race, while To Lam has his own scandal with his $2,000 gold steak fiasco and is vying for the presidency after his term as Minister of Public Safety expires. Truong Thi Mai has the wrong chromosome. President Phuc, who ran for the post in 2021, is being inundated with corruption allegations and may step down to save himself. The last thing Phuc wants is a corruption investigation into him, his family, or close associates.
That leaves Prime Minister Chinh, who would be acceptable to Trong, or his preferred choice and protégé, Vuong Dinh Hue.
In each case, Trong has used corruption investigations to neutralize opposing factions and individual rivals. To a degree, he was thwarted in 2021; he will not be there in the run-up to 2026.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the US Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or the RFA.