There's Castro in Cuba, still with his beard and his cigars, and North Korea, a little more mysterious and threatening, but comfortably wacky none the less, with its choreographed socialist gymnastic displays and its cult of the Dear Leader. In China - of all the communist survivals, the one to be taken most seriously - copies of the Little Red Book are sold as tourist souvenirs. To anyone not directly menaced by them, the remaining communist states have taken on a Disneyland quality. And so it appeared to be in Hanoi last week at Dai Hoi VIII, the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
From its architecture to its rhetoric, it was a classically communist occasion. A stone's throw from the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, modern Vietnam's founding father, is the Badinh Hall, a grey monument of socialist brutalism. Golden portraits of Marx and Lenin, above a white marble statue of Uncle Ho, dominated the interior where 1,200 aged delegates (including 29 Heroes of the Armed Forces and Labour Heroes, and three Vietnamese Hero Mothers) sat through four days of speeches and carefully orchestrated ballots.
If there was any doubt about their guiding purpose it was sternly corrected by the 54-page political report which the Congress dutifully rubber stamped: "To build a socialist state of the people, by the people, and for the people, with the alliance of the working class, the peasantry and the intelligentsia as the foundation and the Communist Party as the leadership. To fully observe the right of the people to be the master, strictly maintain social discipline, exercise dictatorship toward all infringements upon the interest of the Homeland and the people."
"Isn't it great?" marvelled one Western visitor, returning from a shopping expedition laden with hammer and sickle flags, Viet Cong helmets and Uncle Ho busts. "It's all so ... quaint."
But to take this as no more than kitsch, or the last twitches of a dying ideology, is seriously to underestimate the government of Hanoi. Vietnam is not a Cuba or a North Korea. In its sophisticated embrace of market reforms it is closer to China, but without that country's huge problems of size, dissidence, and ethnic diversity. For all its rhetoric, the Vietnamese Party is halfway to proving what has seemed impossible: that market principles can be successfully combined with one-party socialism, that "communism", of a kind, has a future.
The dire state of Vietnam 10 years ago, and the remarkable transformation that has overtaken it since the introduction of doi moi, or renovation, were dwelt on at length in the speeches. From triple-digit inflation in the early 1980s to a planned single figure rate by the next century; from stagnation and poverty under a centralised command economy to a growth rate close to 10 per cent; from international isolation and embargo to membership of the Association of South East Asian Nations and diplomatic recognition by its former enemies, including the United States.
All this has been achieved by a carefully-planned programme of cautious reform. Laws have been updated, particularly regarding the private ownership of land, and a start has been made on taming the notoriously corrupt bureaucracy. Improved international relations have opened up the way for foreign aid and investment - $5.4bn in the first nine months of last year.
But if this represents an opening up of the market, it certainly does not mean that Vietnam is free. Foreign businessmen wring their hands over the obstacles to open competition - from the inadequate protection of commercial laws to the favours enjoyed by state companies. The economic reforms, above all, have not been matched by any political liberties. The Party has dropped its more xenophobic rhetoric, and to be seen associating with foreigners no longer warrants a late-night visit from the police. But speaker after speaker at last week's congress warned against the capitalistic "social evils" threatening Vietnamese society, and the need to stamp out all manifestations of "fanatic democratism" and multi-party politics.
For several reasons, an alternative to the present arrangement is difficult to imagine. Any dissent is quickly and brutally stamped down. According to Amnesty International, Vietnam has at least 70 prisoners of conscience, many of them political; last year a group of nine men received sentences of up to 15 years for peacefully attempting to organise a conference on democracy in Ho Chi Minh City.
Even if political debate was tolerated, there are those who doubt that the country is capable of generating an effective opposition to the Communist Party. Government propagandists routinely credit the one-party system to the "aspiration of the people", and plenty of older Vietnamese, especially veterans of the war, still venerate the Party for its victories over the French and the Americans. Ordinary Vietnamese are reluctant to talk politics with foreigners, but diplomats in Hanoi attribute this as much to apathy as to fear. "The remarkable thing about Vietnam," says one, "is that it has gone from being one of the most highly politicised to one of the least politicised countries on earth in the space of 20 years."
And if Vietnamese were so inclined, would the rest of the world really want a multi-party Vietnam? The US says it does (in announcing the normalisation of relations, Bill Clinton annoyed his new friends in Hanoi by promising that "increased contact between Americans and Vietnamese will advance the cause of freedom in Vietnam just as it did in Eastern Europe"). But America is still a newcomer to the country, trailing behind Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Among these Asian investors, democracy is a low priority, to put it mildly. "Stability is the key to winning foreign investment," said one Asian diplomat. "For the time being, the one-party system is essential."
Vietnamese communism has a habit of spectacularly outstripping expectations. Ambitious foreign powers - the French in the 1950s, the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, and even the mighty Chinese, who had their noses bloodied in a border war in 1979 - underestimate it at their peril. "The collapse of the socialist regime in the Soviet Union has driven socialism into regression," said Do Muoi, the Secretary-General of the Party in his address to the Congress. "But that has not changed the nature of the times; mankind is still in the era of transition from capitalism to socialism."Reuse content