Anti-Vietnam Bias in The New York Review of Books

The June 24, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books contains a glowing review by Jonathan Mirsky (a journalist specializing in China) of the book Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton (a journalist for BBC who covered Vietnam until his expulsion from the country in March 2007). Both the review and the book contain a series of scathing generalizations about conditions in Vietnam and about the ethical level of Vietnamese leaders, officials, and teachers. Some friends read the Mirsky review and asked Ann and me about it, because they noticed the sharp contrast between the impressions conveyed by Mirsky and those in my trip report, my book Random Curves, and the Kovalevskaia Fund Newsletter. My purpose here is to try to explain the discrepancy. I will not attempt to give a detailed refutation of the many extreme statements in the Mirsky review. Rather, I will deal just with a few of the broader issues it raises.

One of the central points of Mirsky's review (and Hayton's book) is that many subjects are "taboo" in Vietnam, most notably any discussion of the horrors of the American war and, in particular, the plight of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

This could not be further from the truth. Some of the main museums feature exhibits about the American war -- for example, the Army Museum and the Vietnam Women's Museum (both in Hanoi). When the current Vice-President of Vietnam conferred Friendship Medals on Ann and me in March, in the citation she pointedly thanked us for our anti-war activities during the 1970's. On several occasions during the decade 1992-2002 when Nguyen Thi Binh was Vice-President of Vietnam (as well as chair of the Kovalevskaia Prize committee), she spoke to us about the difficulty of providing adequate care for the thousands of victims of U.S. chemical warfare (of which there is now a third generation with genetic deformities). She told us of her discussions with President Clinton during his visit to Vietnam in November 2000 and of her frustration at his unwillingness to agree to her request for U.S. reparations earmarked for these victims.

The Hayton book claims that many Vietnamese veterans of the war feel a "voiceless rage" directed against the Party, which supposedly marginalizes them and forbids them to mention the "sheer monstrosity of the war". This is ridiculous. The Vietnamese Party leaders would like nothing better than for young people to be more appreciative of the great sacrifices made by their elders in the anti-colonial wars against France and the U.S.

What is true is that Vietnamese veterans and others of the generation that suffered through the American war -- a group that includes most of the Party and government leaders -- at times feel marginalized by the 21st century culture of consumerism that is widespread among the younger generations who were born after 1975, and feel exasperated by the self-centered materialism of many young people.

The review comments that Hayton and other foreigners "find there is something secretive about Vietnam" -- the old racial stereotype of the inscrutable oriental again rears its head -- until a group of Vietnamese "friends" (meaning pro-Western dissidents) explained everything to him.

Ann and I have not found the Vietnamese to be particularly mysterious or secretive, and we have not found any subjects to be "taboo" there. So what explains the discrepancy between our impressions and Hayton's?

In situations of unequal wealth and power -- for example, in Vietnamese relationships with Westerners -- the disadvantaged party has to be careful about expressing sentiments that might be offensive to the foreigner. American tourists or journalists might be able to sound off and impulsively speak their minds when talking with foreigners -- who cannot exactly punish the U.S. for the indiscretions of Americans -- but people in countries such as Vietnam do not have that luxury. When dealing with potentially hostile foreigners, they need to be circumspect in what they say.

In our travels Ann and I have observed that many people have had experiences with Americans that lead them to believe that Americans are thin-skinned, easily offended, and likely to become hostile if they hear strong criticism of America from foreigners (and they have probably had similar experiences with visitors from other Western countries). On the other hand, if Americans introduce the topic and make it clear that they themselves have a critical point of view, then the people we have encountered are more than happy to discuss the supposedly "taboo" subject.

Ann and I have seen this in many countries. Here are two examples from South Africa:

(1) Once at the University of the Western Cape we sat through a math education lecture by a professor of education at Leeds University. He distributed copies of a long talk he had given in Norway and then read it to us word for word as we read along and turned the pages when he did. (Ironically, the topic of his talk was the importance of good pedagogical methods!) He was treating his African audience as if they were children, and not very bright ones at that. But no one objected. This professor was accompanied by a representative of the British Council, which was funding not only his trip, but also some projects in education at UWC. Funding is very short at UWC, and they badly needed the help. So people just bit their tongues. Later on, however, when Ann joked with them about what had happened (she spoke at the seminar the following week, without the presence of the British visitors), they were glad to have the chance to reveal their feelings of resentment. A topic that had been taboo the week before -- what the Africans really thought about the British professor's idiotic presentation -- was certainly not taboo once the British were gone.

(2) During a lecture on math education in Cape Town, I spoke of some of the problems in math education that come from cultural trends in America. In particular, I mentioned the immaturity of American undergraduates compared to their peers in other countries. After my talk some of the South Africans told us that they had been shocked at the behavior of American students whom they had encountered in study-abroad programs, but until I broached the subject they had never before mentioned this to an American. The immaturity of American students in South Africa had been a taboo subject in their conversations with visiting Americans.

Similarly, in Vietnam the reason why Ann and I have not run up against taboos in our conversations is that the Vietnamese know that they can say whatever they want about America without offending us. Thus, the horror of the American war has not been a taboo subject when they talk with us, although it might have been when they talked with less sympathetic Westerners such as Hayton.

Hayton and Mirsky claim that the government has tight control of the news media and Internet. In my experience exactly the opposite is true. Last year the newspaper Tuoi Tre, which according to Wikipedia is the largest newspaper in Vietnam, published a Vietnamese translation of an article by Thomas Vallely and Ben Wilkinson of the U.S. Fulbright program. In it they attacked and disparaged the educational system in Vietnam and the responsible government officials.

My refutation of the Vallely report, which was translated by the mathematician Le Minh Ha, was posted on several websites (including that of the Ministry of Education) and widely circulated in Vietnam. However, Le Minh Ha, who has a friend at Tuoi Tre, was nevertheless unable to get them to publish my article (or an excerpt or summary). His friend wanted to, but the higher-ups at Tuoi Tre did not want to give space to both sides. They apparently see their role in partisan terms as an opposition force to the government.

The people at the Math Institute who were closely following the controversy told me that most intellectuals and government people agreed with my views and not with Vallely's. However, on the Internet many of the Vietnamese blogs angrily attacked me for supposedly being a stooge for the government. My friends said that it was fortunate that I didn't read Vietnamese, since some of the postings were quite insulting.

My mathematician acquaintances told me that the Vietnamese blogosphere is a wild place, full of intemperate debate and exaggerated accusations against government officials and anyone who is bold enough to take a moderate position in opposition to the bloggers. What they said made me think of similar situations in America, such as the way the Obama administration is treated by Fox News and by conservative talk shows and blogs. However, in America I don't think there is any major newspaper that would print an article by a foreigner that is harshly critical of the U.S. and then refuse to publish anything in rebuttal. This would be the analogue of what Tuoi Tre did in the Vallely case. Based on what I've seen, the claim by Mirsky and Hayton that the newspapers and Internet are tightly controlled by the Party and government is totally wrong.

Hayton and Mirsky paint a one-sided and simplistic picture of Vietnam. For example, they point out that poverty is disproportionately high among ethnic minorities there (a situation that an American or British observer has no reason to feel so smug and superior about, in view of the racial disparities in their own countries). But Hayton and Mirsky exaggerate the extent of racism. The Mirsky review claims that "backward" and "uncivilized" are the usual words used to refer to minorities. But none of our friends or colleagues in Vietnam would ever use such pejorative words in reference to minority populations. And readers of the review would never guess that in fact Vietnam has affirmative action policies for ethnic minorities (for example, they receive an advantage in the highly-coveted admissions to public universities). As in the case of Native Americans in the U.S., affirmative action has had some successes, but much more is needed. In any event, the ethnic situation in Vietnam is much more complicated than what is conveyed by Mirsky's and Hayton's polemics.

The review and the book give a bleak description of conditions in Vietnam, which Mirsky and Hayton blame on what they say is the tight control of the country by the Communist Party. Like the Vallely report that I discuss elsewhere, the Mirsky review both exaggerates the country's failings and makes huge leaps of logic in blaming them all on Party and government officials. In most cases these problems are the direct or indirect result of the strengthening of the private sector that came about after the "Doi Moi" marketization reforms of the 1980's. It is mostly the private and not the public sector that has caused such problems as increased economic inequality and degradation of the environment.

In reality, the trouble in Vietnam is not that the Party and government are too strong, but that they are too weak. Private industry is severely undertaxed and underregulated, and social services have been weakened by privatization.

Suppose that Vietnam were to take the path that is apparently favored by Western journalists such as Hayton and Mirsky and their pro-Western dissident friends in Vietnam. Suppose that Vietnam were to follow in the footsteps of Russia and Eastern Europe and move toward a similar system of capitalist democracy. Would that solve the problems that Hayton and Mirsky complain about? Hardly. In Russia and much of Eastern Europe, environmental degradation, poverty, prostitution, disease, racial or ethnic conflict, and corruption are worse now than during the Soviet period.

The Hayton book and the Mirsky review make some extremely harsh generalizations about the ethical level of people in Vietnam. Here is a passage from the book that is approvingly quoted by Mirsky: "Kindergarten teachers will have to bribe the boss to get hired, the children's parents will have to bribe the teacher to ensure their children get well-treated, high school pupils will bribe their teachers to get good marks in exams, and Ph.D. students pay to get their theses written for them by their examiners' colleagues." Each of these allegations is based on scandals that have been reported in the Vietnamese press, which is quite aggressive in uncovering unethical behavior by officials and others. But there is no evidence that this corruption is "endemic", as claimed by Mirsky and Hayton.

Let's look at an analogous situation in America. The press has reported on cases in several major cities where teachers or administrators have altered students' answers to standardized tests in order to get improved results. Apparently, this has happened frequently. However, it would be misleading and unfair to generalize to all schools and say that teachers throughout the country routinely alter students' answers to standardized tests. Only someone who is hostile to teachers (or to America) would make such a sweeping statement.

Part of the reason for Hayton's skewed perspective is that he relied primarily on pro-Western dissidents for his information about the Vietnamese government and institutions. In the U.S. the analogy would be for a journalist to report on the Obama White House using Tea Party people as his main sources.

The revocation of Hayton's visa in March 2007 was the first time in 7 years that a Western reporter had been expelled from Vietnam. Clearly he was perceived to be unusually hostile, and the expulsion only intensified that hostility. The book Vietnam: Rising Dragon is his payback time.

Most Americans -- even relatively sophisticated ones who read The New York Review of Books -- have little knowledge of Third World countries. There is a real need for books written by sensitive and insightful journalists about countries such as Vietnam. Sadly, what we get instead is the polemical tract Vietnam: Rising Dragon written by an ideologue with a huge chip on his shoulder.

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