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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 December 2006, 03:48 GMT
Vietnam's leaders test internet waters
By Bill Hayton
BBC News, Hanoi

Vietnam's Communist Party has taken a modest step towards open government by hosting - for the first time - an online chat with a senior politician.

Vietnamese youth using internet cafe
Vietnam continues to employ strict curbs on internet usage

For two hours on Wednesday morning a former deputy prime minister, Vu Khoan, answered questions submitted by members of the public via the Communist party's own website.

It wasn't exactly thrilling, however. The chat was not live, all the questions had been vetted in advance and the discussion stayed on safe political ground.

But the fact that it happened at all shows that Vietnam's communist rulers are trying to demonstrate that they are listening to the people.

The online chat focused on Vietnam's imminent membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) - it will formally join at the end of the month.

Mr Khoan is probably the most informed person in Vietnam on the subject, having been the country's chief trade negotiator for several years.

'First priority'

One questioner, Phan The Luong from Ho Chi Minh City, wanted to know about the benefits and risks for farmers of joining the WTO.

Mr Khoan tried to reassure him: "WTO membership will affect farmers, but not much. There's nothing to worry about."

That seems to be at odds with the opinion of the head of Vietnam's Farmers Union, who told the BBC last month that a third of the country's farmers will have to leave farming as a consequence of economic development and global competition.

But Mr Khoan did promise Nguyen Thanh Huong, from An Giang province, that the government will continue to subsidise agriculture - but in ways which are compatible with WTO rules.

"Agriculture and rural areas will remain the first priority," he said.

Press curbs

In answer to another question he demonstrated how far Vietnam's nominally communist leadership has moved away from old-style communist policies.

"The science and technology sector must leave the broken boat of the ask-and-give subsidy mechanism and turn to a more efficient market mechanism," he said.

Farmers in Vietnam
Vietnam's entry into the WTO is making some farmers anxious

In tandem with its embrace of a "socialist-oriented market economy" - to use the official term - the leadership seem ready to experiment with new ways of using the media to cement the Communist party's position at the head of political life.

The chat was announced as the first in a series of online events involving senior politicians answering questions from the public.

But it follows a mini-crackdown on the traditional media in November during which two papers were permanently closed down and two others banned for a month.

Last week, Vietnam's Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dzung, said that the country would never allow the privatisation of the media or "permit anyone to use the press for their personal interests or to undermine the state's interests".

Every single publication in Vietnam, whether it is a newspaper or a magazine about interior design or golf, has to be registered with a Communist party organisation.

Journalists do have increasing freedom to tackle difficult issues like corruption but they know there are limits to what they can write about - and if they don't, then their editors remind them.

'Safe limits'

There are controls too on the internet.

A national firewall prevents access to websites the authorities don't like and last month the campaigning group, Reporters Without Borders, named Vietnam as one of 13 "enemies of the internet" around the world.

But Vietnam's leaders seem to be ready to embrace the internet as a communications tool - albeit within safe limits.

"I hope that electronic newspapers, ministries and branches will organise direct online dialogues more often, instead of receiving people at their offices. This is a very good conversational channel in the era of science and technology," Mr Khoan told his audience.

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