Visiting Southeast Asia Expert Explores Political Behavior and Institutions in Vietnam

A woman wearing Ao Dai culture traditional at Ho chi minh city hall in Vietnam.


A Q&A with Paul Schuler

by Thom Holme

The start of a new academic year is always filled with excited anticipation by all of us at Shorenstein APARC. We're delighted to welcome a diverse cohort of accomplished postdoctoral fellows, research fellows, and visiting scholars to our research community for the 2018-19 academic year. Among them is Paul Schuler, who joins the Center as a Lee Kong Chian Fellow on Southeast Asia.

The Lee Kong Chian Visiting Fellowship on Southeast Asia is part of a joint initiative by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Stanford, whose aim is to raise the visibility, extent, and quality of research on contemporary Southeast Asia. Here at Stanford, the infrastructures for research is supported by our Southeast Asia Program.

I recently spoke with Shuler about his research plans for the duration of his fellowship. An assistant professor at the University of Arizona's School of Government and Public Policy, Schuler specializes in institutions and public opinion within authoritarian regimes, with a particular focus on Vietnam. He was also a 2014-15 Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellow on Contemporary Asia. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. Welcome back to Stanford! What's it like being at APARC once more?

A. It's great! It feels like I'm coming home again. It's very rare to have an institution with so much expertise on East Asia as APARC, and that contextual knowledge helps both inform the issues I'm working on and generate new research ideas. The opportunity to benefit from intellectual exchange with China experts at Stanford would be especially useful for me as I'm writing a book comparing the evolution of particular Vietnamese political institutions to those in China.

Q. What are some findings we might expect to see in this publication?

A. It is often assumed that, in China and in Vietnam, democratic politics and elections have been slowly becoming more meaningful, and that the forces that support or push for these quasi-democratic openings are the reform-minded people or the soft-liners in the regimes.

My argument is that the expansion of these democratic forces in Vietnam isn't always driven by soft-liners or reform-minded people wanting to open the institutions for democratic purposes. Oftentimes, the more conservative elements of authoritarian regimes are the ones looking to attack their more reform-minded rivals within the party. In some cases, it's actually the conservatives and the hardliners who increase the visibility of the democratic institutions for such short-term tactical reasons.

However, it's very hard to shut down the institutions once they open up. So, in some ways, conservatives facilitate democratization, but not because it was initially pushed by people supporting that process.

What trust actually does, in our opinion, is breed conservatism. If you happen to live in a democracy, then it's great because it helps breed support for that system; if you live in an autocracy, then it means that it is also hard to change that system...
Paul Schuler

Q. What drew you to research political behavior of institutions within authoritarian regimes, and specifically in Vietnam?

A: I’m fascinated by how political systems evolved the way they did. In the United States, people are largely drawn to politics because of the captivating figures and their personalities, the elections, the campaigns. By contrast, politics in Vietnam is very different. What you read in the newspapers is very much an attempt to play down the individual. In fact, many people in Vietnam have a hard time naming their politicians and top leaders.

And while this situation has changed somewhat in China with Xi Jinping, in Vietnam it's still the case that people don't have that high level of engagement with politicians that we see in democracies. And so I wondered, "How do people engage with politics? Is this, in fact, a better arrangement? Are the people satisfied with it, or just take it for granted? And, ultimately, what would it take to change that type of system?”

Q. You're working on a coauthored paper for the journal Comparative Politics on the link between trust and democratic regime change. What is the connection between the two, and how is it related to engagement with politicians—or lack thereof?

A. With counties like Vietnam, one of the topics that people are most interested in is if—and when—there will be a transition to a more democratic system. Vietnam, like China, has been shown to have a high-degree of social trust. Francis Fukuyama observed how trust helps facilitate democracy, given that people are willing to make compromises with others if they somehow trust them. Vietnam and China are anomalous in that regard because both exhibit high levels of this generalized trust, yet they are obviously not democracies. In our forthcoming paper, my coauthor and I theorize that trust does not facilitate democracy; rather, what it does is facilitate support for whatever the status quo happens to be. People who are highly trusting assume that whatever system is currently in place must be working.

What trust actually does, in our opinion, is breed conservatism. If you happen to live in a democracy, then it's great because it helps breed support for that system; if you live in an autocracy, then it means that it is also hard to change that system to something new, because generalized trust basically makes people adverse to change. We find that in Vietnam, people who score higher in this sort of trust are much less likely to advocate for regime reforms.

Q. You mentioned president Xi Jinping and the shift he represents for China. Do you see the Xi model as having influence on Vietnam’s evolution?

A. There is always a debate in Vietnam as to whether or not they should follow certain choices made by China. China, on average, has grown 2-3% faster than Vietnam annually. And while Vietnam has done very well, there is this sense for some that moving towards a system that looks more like China could actually help further increase their growth.

There are people, particularly in the Organization Committee in Vietnam and at higher levels in the Politburo, who are trying reduce the division between the party and the state; trying to centralize power in party institutions. It's not yet clear whether they'll be able to go as far as China did, let alone if they will be successful at putting forward the reforms they've already suggested.

One big difference is that in Vietnam, the president and the general secretary are different positions, whereas in China, Xi Jinping holds both roles. While there have been attempts by Vietnamese general secretaries to combine these positions, they have been rebuffed by the central committee, and I don't think that's going to happen. And while Vietnam is making changes elsewhere that mirror China, I think the greater degree of separation between the government and the party will probably survive.

Q. Social media’s impact on democracy and influence on the public’s trust in government are hotly debated issues today, both in the United States and in Southeast Asia. What have you observed in Vietnam in that regard?

A. It’s hard to study to the impact of social media on political attitudes, but one thing I've found through surveys is that people who are active online appear more likely to find their local government corrupt. They also tend to be more pessimistic about corruption.

In Vietnam, another thing we found is that social media may have different effects depending on whether one lives in an urban or rural area. There’s evidence that social media in rural areas might actually inhibit protests and social movements, because the central government is much more aware of what is happening in the countryside and can quickly launch a crackdown on protesters.

In urban areas, however, the dynamics are somewhat different: the conditions exist for more spontaneous protest, as horizontal communication overwhelms the central government’s ability to move in and stop it.

So yes, I believe social media is having an impact on people’s relationship to the government in Vietnam, but it's a complex impact. To some extent, it is inhibiting the possibilities for rural revolt, but at the same time it’s helping to facilitate spontaneous urban protest movements.

LKC Fellow Talk

On September 27, 2018, Paul Schuler delivers his seminar "Shadows on the Wall: Legislative Politics in Post-Reform Vietnam"