News analysis

Anti-graft drive in Vietnam gets boost

Tough sentences meted out in high-profile case, but still question over wider reform

Stiff sentences handed out this week in one of Vietnam's most high-profile court cases have bolstered Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong's anti-corruption drive.

Fallen Politburo member Dinh La Thang, 57, was sentenced to 13 years' jail while Trinh Xuan Thanh, his former subordinate at state energy enterprise PetroVietnam, was jailed for life.

Both were convicted of economic mismanagement, while Thanh, 51, was also found guilty of embezzlement.

Thanh, a former provincial leader, was allegedly kidnapped from Germany to face charges in Vietnam, though Hanoi says he turned himself in.

State-controlled media has portrayed the convictions as an example of impartiality of the law.

On Monday, when the sentences were handed down, Mr Trong was reportedly reviewing plans for the central steering committee on combating corruption, which he chairs. "The party must be decisive in removing dishonest and corrupt officials from the party and government. It has to cleanse the system," he said.

Analysts have linked the clampdown on corruption with a political purge. Some have drawn parallels between Mr Trong's anti-graft drive and that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, noting how their clampdown on wayward officials also tightened their grip on power.

Former Politburo member Dinh La Thang in court on Monday. He has been sentenced to 13 years' jail for "deliberately acting against the state's regulations on economic management, causing serious consequences".
Former Politburo member Dinh La Thang in court on Monday. He has been sentenced to 13 years' jail for "deliberately acting against the state's regulations on economic management, causing serious consequences". PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mr Pham Chi Dung, who heads the Independent Journalists' Association of Vietnam, likened the prosecution of Thang to that of former Chinese politician Bo Xilai.

Thang was the chairman of PetroVietnam before he became transport minister in 2011, and then party chief of Ho Chi Minh City.

Bo, the former party chief of Chongqing province, was an outspoken rising star like Thang. He was stripped of his positions, including his Politburo seat, and jailed for life after being convicted of corruption in 2013.

Unlike Bo, though, Thang was not convicted of corruption specifically, but "deliberately acting against the state's regulations on economic management, causing serious consequences".

Prosecutors said PetroVietnam, under Thang, did not follow due bidding process before awarding PetroVietnam Construction - a subsidiary then headed by Thanh - a contract to build a thermoelectric plant. He was arrested last year and convicted under the provisions of a penal code which has since been replaced by a new one this year.

But some analysts wonder if the reliance on this specific clause would dilute the legitimacy of the anti-corruption drive. Retired scholar Nguyen Quang A drew a distinction between corruption and bad business decisions.

"When you make an investment, you take a risk. That cannot be a crime," he told The Straits Times.

Hanoi is keeping a tight lid on criticism of the government amid its anti-graft drive. Last year, a 24-year-old student who blogged about corruption was sentenced to six years' jail for spreading propaganda against the state.

According to VNExpress newspaper, the anti-corruption panel wants to try 21 cases this year and open investigations into 21 more incidents.

It remains to be seen if the campaign will result in structural reform.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline 'Anti-graft drive in Vietnam gets boost'. Print Edition | Subscribe