|Just what would Vladimir make of it all?|
In Vietnam one face stands out among the crowd.
Alongside the much-revered “Uncle Ho” – independence leader, Ho Chi Minh – the image of Vladimir Lenin is emblazoned on propaganda posters lining the streets.
And racing through these same streets, in air-conditioned, police-escorted motorcades, are the capitalists of all countries.
The capitalist running dogs, once so despised, are now given a five-star red carpet welcome.
Someone in Moscow should check Lenin’s tomb, to see just how rapidly his embalmed corpse is spinning.
Unless you live either on the moon or in North Korea, you would probably know that Vietnam hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum this week.
People often ask what “this Apec thing” is all about.
Pinning down an exact definition is not easy, but suffice to say it is not about communism.
Everyone here shares the common goal of getting as rich – and fat – as possible. Grow the cake, then grab a big slice.
Vietnam is still a communist country. It is run by the Vietnamese Communist Party, which took control of the entire nation at the conclusion of “the American War”, as it is known here.
But Vietnam’s connections with communism pretty much end with job titles and iconography.
The country has two stock exchanges, actively courts foreign investment, and is going all-out to make life easier for private enterprise.
The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries
So much for those noble goals of self-sufficiency and the even disbursement of wealth to the oppressed proletariat.
Indeed, Vietnam has got capitalism clearly worked out, as a quick look at my hotel bill confirms.
The normal nightly rate at the Baoson International is $80 for a deluxe room. For the week that Apec was in town, the tariff rose to $349. Supply and demand – everyone here understands it.
Le Dang Doang is one of the communist party’s top economic advisors, and has a direct line to the prime minister on matters of economic import.
I asked him how Vietnam’s Communist Party reconciles its embrace of the free market with, well, communism.
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“People over dogma” he smiled as he answered. He has a good point. No-one has ever eaten the Communist Manifesto and lived.
Yet the Vietnam of 2006 is still no worker’s paradise. Before the Apec leader’s meeting, the streets of Hanoi were cleansed of beggars and the other less romantic features of developing economies.
NGO’s of every stripe still point to the oppression of religious minorities, the existence of sweatshops, and to the pitifully low wages that have been helping attract all that foreign investment and driving the stellar year-on-year economic growth.
But at the same time, it is impossible to deny that things have also changed for the better for many people.
According to the Asian Development Bank, the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day has plunged by more than half in 10 years, and continues to track sharply downward. Ordinary people are getting wealthier.
The government media minders assigned to “assist” us seemed relaxed about letting us wander about on our own. Every local person I spoke to agreed that their lives are more comfortable now than they have ever been, and there is a positive feeling about the future.
Evidence of increasing wealth is everywhere. Modern clean apartments are springing up. Shops selling plasma television sets and other electronic goods are doing a brisk trade.
And scowling down upon all of this from his posters and statues is the stern goateed face of Lenin.
A relic, reduced to posing for cheesy ironic snapshots alongside the capitalists of all countries that he so reviled.