Vietnam Through Chinese Eyes: Divergent Accountability in Single-Party Regimes

73 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2010

See all articles by Regina M. Abrami

Regina M. Abrami

Harvard Business School

Edmund J. Malesky

Duke University, Political Science

Yu Zheng

Fudan University

Date Written: August 31, 2010


In 2006, a flurry of articles appeared in Chinese newspapers comparing China’s democratic development unfavorably with that of Vietnam. Chinese journalists cited several features which revealed sharp differences across cases, and despite Communist Party leadership existing in both places. These differences included: (a) the direct election of the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party; (b) the power of the Vietnamese Central Committee (CC) to make decisions independently of the Political Bureau (Politburo) and even to overrule the Politburo on occasion; (c) the encouragement of public commentary on the Vietnamese Communist Party’s political report in advance of its party congress; and (d) countrywide direct elections of members of Vietnam’s National Assembly, including a relatively high number of candidates per seat.

Vietnam remains a one-party state, therefore advances in democratic development remain deeply constrained. Nonetheless, attraction to its political institutions was severe enough that Hu Jintao, president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), felt compelled to issue an internal CCP document. He criticized the Vietnamese authorities for moving “too quickly toward inner-party democracy,” even warning that a de-stabilizing Mikhail Gorbachev-like figure may come to power. The CCP also banned public discussion of Vietnam’s reforms, deploying instead party intellectuals to argue against a Vietnam-like course of political development. Clearly, the comparison was found unflattering to the present Chinese leaders. Early on, they had advocated greater “inner-party democracy” and a “serve the people” credo to draw distinctions from the prior Jiang Zemin era.

Such unwanted comparisons also reveal an intriguing puzzle for the comparative politics sub-field. That is, no indices of governance currently available can account adequately for the institutional differences revealed in the Chinese press, no less their relation to the persistence of communist rule in each place. To the contrary, political dynamics continue to be assumed instead of explained through the close conceptual association of regime type with degrees of political accountability that remains in the comparative politics literature. The subsequent inability of existing scales to capture within-typology variation is an important lacuna in our understanding of authoritarian regimes, and perhaps more critically the mechanisms by which they remain resilient or collapse. Taking this shortcoming as our starting point, we focus on formal institutions of accountability within these two single-party states.

Keywords: Single-Party State, Vietnam, China, Accountabiluity, Institutions

JEL Classification: P2, P3

Suggested Citation

Abrami, Regina M. and Malesky, Edmund J. and Zheng, Yu, Vietnam Through Chinese Eyes: Divergent Accountability in Single-Party Regimes (August 31, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Regina M. Abrami

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Edmund J. Malesky (Contact Author)

Duke University, Political Science ( email )

140 Science Drive (Gross Hall), 2nd floor
Duke University Mailcode: 90204
Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States

Yu Zheng

Fudan University ( email )

220 Handan Road
Shanghai, 200433

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