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Vietnam treads new path with caution

One delegate died halfway through, two were sent home in disgrace after a drunken binge, but otherwise the eighth Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam was everything it was supposed to be.

At the closing ceremony in Hanoi today, the Vietnamese leader, Do Muoi, will almost certainly confirm what has been anticipated since last week: that the congress was a holding exercise, designed to keep Vietnam steady on a path of cautious economic liberalisation, while fiercely stamping on any suggestion of political reform or cultural Westernisation.

The congress is only the second since Vietnam's leaders embarked on their policy of economic "renovation" 10 years ago. Since then the country has transformed itself from a stumbling command economy with triple digit inflation, to one with an annual growth of more than 8 per cent.

The three most powerful leaders are expected to retain their posts: Do Muoi, the 79-year old Secretary-General of the Communist Party , the 73-year old Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, and the 75-year old President Le Duc Anh. Diplomats and investors had been looking forward to the emergence of a younger generation to replace the ageing troika. But secret meetings prior to the congress failed to agree on acceptable replacements; Party officials say that the three - who embody a delicate balance between conservative and pro-reform elements - will serve for only one or two years, until a consensus can be reached.

Similar caution is displayed by the Political Report, a 54-page digest of propagandist rhetoric, social and economic assessment, and resolutions for the next five years. As the only permitted political force in a surging, but fragile, economy, the Party has to tread a thin line between courting international investment, and heading off any suggestion of political pluralism.

The report charts out the course to a fully industrialised, technocratic Vietnam by 2020. Education and technology will be enhanced, unemployment and poverty will be addressed, and exports promoted. At the same time, Vietnam, once shunned internationally, will continue to develop its bilateral relationships: next month, for instance, sees the first anniversary of the opening of a new American diplomatic mission, 20 years after the fall of Saigon.

But the report also warns of four threats: corruption, economic stagnation, deviation from socialism, and "silent revolution" - the insidious erosion of communist morals by the values and products of the West. In February, the Party launched an energetic campaign against "social evils", tearing downWestern billboards and destroying videos, music cassettes and pornography.

All this weekend the rhetoric veered between warm overtures and stern warnings against the West. On Friday, Do Muoi urged the delegates to "defend the people, the Party and the socialist regime to prevent and smash all designs and activities of peaceful revolution, rebellion and subversion". President Anh accused unnamed foreign investors of evading taxes, underpaying workers, failing to transfer technology and trying to subvert socialism.

But speaking to reporters yesterday, Do Muoi insisted: "I am a person who wants friendship between different peoples. Are you happy to have me as your best friend?"

The danger of social evils was dramatically illustrated to the congress last week when two regional delegates were sent back in disgrace. They had been arrested in a "hug bar", a louche hostess establishment of a kind which has proliferated in the past few years.