Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc ousted over corruption scandals

The Communist Party Central Committee said he needed to take responsibility for COVID scandals.
By RFA Staff
2023.01.17
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Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc ousted over corruption scandals Vietnam's President Nguyen Xuan Phuc speaks at a ceremony commemorating the 45th anniversary of Vietnam's accession to the United Nations in Hanoi's international convention center on Oct. 21, 2022. State media reported Tuesday he had resigned as president.
Nhac Nguyen/AFP

Updated at 9:02 p.m. EST on 2023-01-17

The Communist Party of Vietnam has forced President Nguyen Xuan Phuc to resign to take responsibility for COVID-19 bribery scandals that took place during his term, state media reported Tuesday.

The ouster of Phuc, which had been the subject of widespread rumors on Vietnamese social media, assigned political blame for the major COVID scandals but also reflected a deeper power struggle at the top of the one-party state, analysts said.

The party’s Central Committee decided to relieve Phuc, 68, of all duties, including membership of the Politburo and Party Central Committee, and chairmanship of the National Defense and Security Council for the 2021-2026 term, VietNamNews said.

The Central Committee accepted Phuc's resignation on Tuesday, and the departure and his replacement will be confirmed by the National Assembly on Wednesday.

The Central Committee commended Phuc for leading Vietnam’s efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the final years of his 2016-2021 term as prime minister, according to state media.

However, members said he needed to take ultimate responsibility for the number of party officials, including two deputy prime ministers and three ministers, blamed for corruption scandals involving COVID test kits and ‘rescue flight’ airfares, the reports said.

On Jan. 5, Vietnam’s National Assembly voted to replace deputy prime ministers Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam with party officials Tran Hong Ha and Tran Luu Quang.

Minh oversaw foreign relations during the ‘rescue flights’ affair, when officials took bribes to repatriate citizens stranded abroad during the COVID pandemic.

Dam was deputy prime minister in charge of healthcare when the chief executive officer of healthcare company Viet A admitted bribing officials for contracts to sell substandard COVID test kits to hospitals.

Viet A’s chief executive officer admitted to bribing officials the equivalent of U.S.$34 million in order to win contracts to sell substandard kits to hospitals at a 45% markup, earning his company U.S.$172 million in profits.

The Viet A scandal also claimed the jobs of Health Minister Nguen Thanh Long, and Hanoi Mayor and former Science and Technology Minister Chu Ngoc Anh, who were arrested on June 7, 2022.

Although the position of president in Vietnam is largely ceremonial, Phuc was seen as a reassuring presence for Vietnamese business and foreign investors, and his ouster reveals cracks at the top of the communist leadership that has prided itself on collective leadership.

“Ostensibly Phuc was forced to resign due to high-level government corruption scandals, but this is a high-level power-play,” says Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington.

“This is bare knuckled politics, as elites seek to consolidate their wealth and power. The days of collective leadership are gone. This is an era of no holds rent-seeking, power accumulation, and avarice,” he wrote in a commentary for RFA.

According to Abuza, the takedown of Phuc, Minh and Dam represents a victory by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong over the party’s technocrats and a shift in power to party leaders affiliated with the power Ministry of Public Security.

Among scenarios for replacing Phuc, some analysts say the party could tap Trong, to serve as party boss and state president – a step he took in 2018 after then President Tran Dai Quang died in office.

“According to my information, there are three possible candidates to become president. The first is Nguyen Phu Trong who could concurrently hold the posts of state president and general secretary of the party,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert and professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

“The other two candidates are the Minister of National Defense, Phan Van Giang, and the Minister of Public Security, To Lam,” he told RFA.

Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnam political observer at Sigapore-based ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, also identified Lam as a possible Phuc successor.

“Lam seems to have gained Trong’s trust for his loyalty and important role in directing anti-corruption probes. As a second-term Politburo member and head of the powerful Ministry of Public Security, Lam also has a considerable edge over his competitors,” Hiep wrote in an essay Tuesday.

With Lam as top cop, Vietnam has widely abused its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, movement, and religion, Human Rights Watch said last week in its World Report 2023. Lam also courted controversy over his lifestyle in 2021, after a video of him eating a gold-coated steak at a London restaurant went viral on social media.

“This looks like Mr. Trong, his core Leninist supporters and the Ministry of Public Security are taking full control of politics in Vietnam.” researcher Bill Hayton from Chatham House, a British think tank, told RFA Vietnamese.

“I see this as the ‘Xi-isation’ of Vietnam. The CPV under Mr. Trong seems to be adopting many of the ideas and tactics of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party. They are closing down the space for different ideas and insisting on monopolizing politics,” he said.

“If the past is any guide to the future, in Vietnam greater control generally brings greater dissatisfaction,” added Hayton.

Updated with background and analysts' comments.

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Paul Eckert.

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