Vietnamese Civic Organisations: Supporters of or Obstacles to Further Democratisation? Results from an Empirical Survey

Jörg Wischermann, The Cuong BUI, Thi Viet Phuong DANG


In political science and in development cooperation, civic organisations (COs) under authoritarian rule are usually seen as supporters of processes that move towards democratisation. However, these organisations are sometimes criticised for their support of those in power. Within this context, critics refer to the fact that many COs have, for example, authoritarian intra-organisational structures. This characteristic clearly limits their potential to be supporters of democratisation processes. In this paper, we proceed from the assumption that Vietnamese COs can be both supporters of democracy and organisations that help to maintain authoritarian rule; they can sometimes even be both at the same time. COs are “polyvalent” (Kößler). More concretely, what COs are and which role(s) they play in the political system is mainly but not exclusively dependent on the impact the state has on them, and is at the same time dependent on the effects that those organisations have on the state.

The results from an empirical survey, supported by the German Research Council (2013–2016) and carried out as a co-operation between the Institute of Asian Studies/GIGA Hamburg and the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, suggest the following:

- Most Vietnamese COs are hierarchically structured, if not organised in an authoritarian way. They are not “schools of democracy”, in the sense of Tocqueville.

- Most Vietnamese COs that have engaged in the welfare provision sector, either willingly or unwillingly, have helped to foster the foundations of authoritarianism.

-In the field of economic policies, the COs invited by the state to participate in and contribute to the formulation of policies do help, overall, to secure existing power structures, even though these organisations also help change various economic policies and even though their activities produce some democracy-promoting effects.

- In the policy field of gender equality, women’s rights, and rights of sexual minorities, the mass organisation Vietnam Women’s Union supports the state’s respective discourse. Some NGOs active in this policy field are doing both: They support and criticise the state’s discourse on gender norms and the rights of sexual minorities.

In the conclusion, we answer the question of which Vietnamese COs can be seen as supporters of further democratisation and which can be classified as obstacles.

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