All for the people, without the people

by André Dao

‘WHEN YOU DON’T like whoever is in charge, you can vote them out. Right?’

It’s two in the morning, and I’m standing in the middle of the street outside my hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The speaker is a young xe om driver – one of those ubiquitous motorbike taxis that dart in and out of the traffic like busy mosquitos – and though he’s only twenty-six, the same age as me, Cuong has a wife and two children. On the ride from the canal-side bar back to my hotel, Cuong told me that this is his third job: during the day, he splits his time between working as a mechanic in a local garage and as a porter at a medium-sized hotel.

Eventually – as they all seem to here – our conversation turns to politics. Cuong gives me his interpretation of Australia’s political system: democracy, to him, means you can kick out the government when they do a bad job. He compares this to the situation in Vietnam, where there is no opposition party, no elections, no open criticism of the government. Instead of getting the boot, the government here is untouchable, regardless of their performance or the wellbeing of the people. The inevitable result of such immunity is corruption, at every level of power.

‘The police here are very bad,’ says Cuong, sounding angry. ‘They can stop you for no reason at all. And then they’ll just keep you there, on the side of the road, until you give them money.’

On the bigger political questions, Cuong is more fatalistic. Before my arrival in Vietnam, the international news had been all about the Chinese Government’s unilateral move to place an oil rig off the disputed Paracel Islands (which the Vietnamese Government claims lies within its exclusive economic zone) in the South China Sea (a further sore point for the Vietnamese Government, who would rather it be known as the Eastern Sea – for a while, Lonely Planet’s travel guides were banned in Vietnam because they referred to that particular body of water by its Sino designation). The incident stirred up the uglier side of Vietnamese nationalism, with mass demonstrations culminating in pogroms that saw scores of Chinese-owned – or at least, supposedly Chinese, but often Taiwanese or Korean – businesses burnt or destroyed and left up to twenty dead. But when I ask Cuong about the sea dispute he simply shrugs his shoulders.

‘That’s a matter for the rich,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t concern the poor.’ After a pause he adds, ‘Unless there’s a war with China. Then it’s us who will be fighting.’

Conscription aside, Cuong’s primary concern is corruption, a topic he keeps circling back to. The fact that we vote for our leaders in Australia strikes him as particularly important. Who would vote again for a corrupt leader?

By this point I’m conscious that we’ve been standing in the middle of the road for half an hour, undisturbed by the occasional xe om which skirts easily around us. But Cuong presses me for an answer to his question. ‘That,’ he says, referring to the endemic corruption, ‘would never happen in Australia, would it?’

My mind turns to ICAC and the NSW parliament, to the influence of mining lobbyists, and the periodic scandals surrounding police drug squads. But it feels churlish to disagree so I nod my head. That’s right – nothing like that ever happens in Australia. We’re a democracy, after all.

To read the rest of this essay, buy a copy of Griffith REVIEW’s ‘New Asia Now’ issue.