Postdoc Spotlight: Nhu Truong Compares Government Responsiveness in China and Vietnam

2020-21 Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellow Nhu Truong, who studies how authoritarian regimes like China and Vietnam respond to social pressure, explains why understanding differences in governance is crucial in an era of fluctuating politics and pandemic.
Postdoc Spotlight on Nhu Truong, 2020-21 Shorenstein Fellow

Vietnam and China are frequently referred to as 'authoritarian regimes,' but in history, political practice, and social governance these two countries are starkly different. This is particularly true of how each government responds to social pressure and civil unrest. Nhu Truong, one of APARC's 2020-21 Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellows, is researching the root causes of these differences, what they reveal about the specific contexts of each nation's political trajectory, and how they can inform academic discussions of authoritarianism.

Nhu Truong’s dissertation explains how and why the two most similar communist, authoritarian regimes of China and Vietnam differ in their responsiveness to mounting unrest caused by government land seizures. Despite their many similarities, Vietnam has exhibited greater institutionalized responsiveness, whereas China has been relatively more reactive. While at APARC, Nhu has been refining 16 months of fieldwork into a book manuscript. Following her tenure as a Shorenstein Fellow at APARC, she will join the Council for Southeast Asian Studies and the Council for East Asian Studies at Yale University as a postdoctoral associate and has accepted a position as an assistant professor at Denison University starting in 2022.

Nhu sat down to talk more about her research and how the ongoing pandemic has heightened the need to better understand the ways in which different governments implement policy and address social issues. She also shares how she's stayed grounded and positive during an unusual year of change and being a long-distance fellow.

1. Can you give us an overview of your research and the topics you’re investigating?

My research addresses the following question: Why are some authoritarian regimes more responsive to social unrest than others? While it might seem counterintuitive to think of authoritarian regimes in this light, repression and responsiveness often occur in tandem under authoritarian rule. Centered on a comparison between Vietnam and China, I document the steps that each has taken to address social discontent fueled by pervasive government seizures of rural land. In response to societal input between 2003 and 2017, Vietnam enacted comprehensive and programmatic reforms to reduce the permissible scope for government land expropriation whereas those enacted by China were relatively marginal and piecemeal. At the subnational level, this difference has had important implications for land rights and the security of villagers in both countries. In summary, despite their many similarities, the manner and degree of their responsiveness have varied. My research then traces the historical origins that undergird the political development and institutional character of Vietnam and China’s divergent responsiveness to social unrest. 

2. How did you first become interested in these topics?

My interest in the repressive-responsive character of authoritarian regimes stems from my preoccupation with questions of political legitimacy, societal resistance, and institutional dynamics in authoritarian contexts. One particular experience that stoked my interest was my visit to Wukan, Guangdong in 2016. Wukan was once hailed as an emblematic case of grassroots democracy and accommodation by the Chinese state, when villagers’ outcries against the local government’s seizure of their land resulted in the re-election of the village committee in 2012. Yet, when I visited in 2016, villagers expressed that nothing had changed, and that “everything that could be done has already been done.” This experience led me to question what responsiveness means in authoritarian contexts.

3. During the last year, the world has changed significantly because of the pandemic and fluctuating politics in many nations. Have these changing global situations given you any new insights into your research?

The pandemic has underscored the need for a nuanced and contextual understanding of democracies and non-democracies. For instance, the variation in state responses to COVID-19 suggests that there is no clear correlation between responsiveness or the effectiveness of government responses to COVID-19 and regime types. Consider Vietnam’s proactive approach and success at containing the pandemic as opposed to the US. Other recent developments such as the crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Thailand and mass protests against the recent military coup in Myanmar showcase how quickly state responsiveness to social demands can erode, even in multi-party states.

4. What has your experience as one of our Shorenstein Fellows been like during this unusual period of time when we haven’t physically been together at APARC?

My fellowship has been remote, and I have therefore needed to be much more proactive to stay as engaged as possible. I have consulted with my mentor often over Zoom, and reached out to other scholars for their feedback and advice on my research. I have also especially appreciated the chance to participate in the China Social Science Workshop, where I've shared my work and learned from other presenters. Other postdoctoral fellows at APARC and I have also gotten together virtually to exchange stories and to share our experiences from this unusual year.  

5. What are some of the things you've done during this past year to give yourself a break from work and have some fun?

Due to the pandemic, I have been living back home to Austin, Texas, since March of last year. The last time that I was home for this long must have been after I graduated from college. So, for the first time in a long time, I've planted tomatoes, eggplants, and sunflowers in our garden, and I've really enjoyed watching them bloom and ripen. With everything growing, it feels like I've spent most of my break in our backyard defending our flowers, fruits, and vegetables from squirrels and bunnies! But luckily I also have our two dogs, Wishie and Sushi, to help me!

6. As the state of the pandemic changes and things in academia and our communities, what are some things you are looking forward to both professionally and personally?

I'm certainly looking forward to having conferences in person again! I'm also still not sure when it will be possible and safe for me to visit Asia again, especially Vietnam and China, but I have missed these places. I'm also learning Khmer this summer, and I'm excited to eventually visit Cambodia to pursue my research there.

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