Trade and the Vietnamese Gulag


By Lan Quoc Nguyen*



The column "Opening Vietnam trade doors" (Commentary, July 16) paints a rosy picture of Vietnam's economic potential, but it cannot hide that the country remains one of the poorest and most oppressive in the world. The country's desire to control its people will continue to inhibit any real economic development.

Daniel Christman repeats the same old argument that economic growth will bring along political reform. In fact, following almost two decades of U.S. goodwill gestures, such as lifting the embargo, normalizing diplomatic relations, waiving the Jackson-Vanik restrictions of the 1974 Trade Act and signing a bilateral trade agreement, Vietnam has not shown any improvement in basic human-rights areas such as the rights to worship, free speech or democratic elections. Following the Chinese model, Vietnam is perfecting its strategy of expanding economic relations with the West while at the same time continuing to suppress almost all basic freedoms of its people.

The pending U.S.-Vietnam World Trade Organization agreement is another example of that strategy. In the agreement, Vietnam manages to retain the unilateral right to prevent U.S.-produced cultural, literary or entertainment materials from entering that country; exclusive control of Internet systems; and complete control of telecommunication systems, which may carry objectionable information from the outside world. Although the agreement benefits some business sectors, the deal still gives Vietnam the ability to prevent its population of more than 80 million from having meaningful interaction with the rest of the world.

In addition, the WTO bilateral agreement with the United States does nothing to address the enormous risks American businesses often encounter when doing business in Vietnam, some of which may include:

    • Any investment in Vietnam can be at risk because the regime can change any law for any reason without any regard to basic constitutional protection, much less the rules of trading according to the terms of the WTO agreement.

    • There is no independent court in Vietnam to arbitrate business disputes. The court is controlled by the party or the government, which often is a party in business disputes.

    • Rampant corruption in the country can endanger any business investment because people can eliminate their competitors with the right money or connection.

    • Any business can be vulnerable to abuse by government officials because there is no effective redress for such abuses under the current regime.

    • The lack of freedom of speech or an independent press will allow corruption to foster without deterrence.

    • Businesses' trade secrets or confidential information can be exposed to the prying eyes of the government, which controls all communication means, such as the postal service, telecommunications and the Internet. Without a legally recognized right to privacy, there is nothing to prevent corrupted officials from selling intercepted information to competitors.     


Why would the American business community lobby the government to expand business relations in such a risky environment? The answer is: The United States would provide insurance protection for those businesses in loan guarantees through the Export-Import Bank, underwritten by American taxpayers.

The current U.S.-Vietnam WTO accession agreement relies heavily on Vietnam's promise that it will change its laws to accommodate the agreement. However, many of the promised laws exist in the Vietnamese Constitution but have never been complied with. In Vietnam, having a law on the books is one thing, but effectively enforcing it is a different matter.


It is about time the United States says enough is enough with the Vietnamese totalitarian regime. It also is about time that the U.S. government stands with the Vietnamese people, not the opportunist businesses seeking to make quick money in that country.

Letter to the Editor, The Washington Times

July 26, 2006




*Lawyer and community activist; President of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education; Member of American Bar Association and California State Bar; currently practicing law in Southern California.








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