Two high-ranking Vietnamese government officials have been kicked out of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) over accusations that they were involved in a $172 million COVID-19 test kit scandal.
In an emergency session of the VCP’s Central Committee, Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long and Chu Ngoc Anh, the party chairman of the capital Hanoi, were expelled for involvement in the Viet A Technologies Company scandal, in which officials were allegedly bribed to supply hospitals with vastly overpriced COVID-19 test kits.
“The Party Central Committee decided to expel from the Party, Mr Chu Ngoc Anh and Mr Nguyen Thanh Long,” the body said in a statement published on its official website, AFP reported.
The session came after the VCP Politburo, Vietnam’s apex decision making body, ordered the Central Committee to punish the two officials for their involvement in the scam. Party agencies have accused the pair, and a third official, Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Pham Cong Tac, of “causing severe consequences, losses to the money and assets of the State, undermining the COVID-19 fight, causing social unrest and affecting the reputation of the Party, the health ministry, and science ministry.”
A series of officials, including high-ranking military generals and directors of provincial Center for Disease Control, have also been arrested or put under criminal investigation for their involvement in Viet A scandal.
Chu Ngoc Anh and Nguyen Thanh Long, who are likely to be charged and convicted forthwith, are just the two latest victims of the VCP’s “blazing furnace” (dot lo) anti-corruption drive, which has netted dozens of officials, from high-ranking party apparatchiks and local officials to executives at leading state firms.
As Hai Hong Nguyen of the University of Queensland noted in an article last year, by the end of 2020, the government claimed to have investigated, prosecuted, and brought to trial more than 11,700 cases of economic crime. This included 1,900 corruption cases involving 1,400 suspects, “including one incumbent member of the Politburo, seven former and incumbent members of the central committee, four former and incumbent ministers and seven military and police generals.
“Never before in the 91-year history of the [VCP],” Hai noted, “have so many officials been disciplined, expelled from the Party or imprisoned in connection with corruption.”
While the campaign was formalized at the VCP’s 12th National Congress in 2016, the pace of the investigations has intensified over the past six months. Among its recent greatest hits: Last month, former Deputy Health Minister Truong Quoc Cuong was sentenced to four years imprisonment for involvement in the trading of counterfeit medicine. The following day, Vietnam’s Minister of Finance fired Tran Van Dung, the chairman of the State Securities Commission, for “committing serious wrongdoings,” according to the state-run newspaper Tuoi Tre. Meanwhile, April saw the arrest of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs To Anh Dung for “taking bribes” when organizing repatriation flights for Vietnamese citizens abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The anti-corruption campaign is the brainchild of the party’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, who took charge of the party in early 2011, at a time of increasingly damaging public corruption scandals that had begun to undermine the VCP’s legitimacy. After winning a rare third term as party chief last year, Trong said in a televised speech last year that “each party cadre and member needs to shoulder the responsibility of being a role model. The higher the position and rank, the more responsibility one must take.”
The anti-corruption campaign drive represents an effort to extirpate the corruption that has cost Vietnam billions of dollars in misappropriated funds as well as eroding the party’s hard-won legitimacy. Observers of Vietnamese politics have also pointed out the political valence of many recent anti-graft cases, which targeted the allies of former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Indeed, writing about Trong’s anticorruption campaign in 2017, David Brown, a former U.S. diplomat, asserted that the campaign looked “more like a vendetta than a housecleaning.”
Even if we bracket the question of political incentives, however, the challenge for the VCP is that corruption is a weed that is in many ways native to the Vietnamese party-state. The system’s mix of market incentives and top-down party rule would seem to provide ample opportunity for graft or embezzlement – as evidenced by the stream of prominent officials, regulators, and businesspeople accused of milking their posts for personal gain.
This alone would seem to suggest that Trong’s furnace will continue blazing for some time to come.