(Bloomberg) -- Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong is talking about institutional corruption more than at any point since he took power in 2011, underscoring a push to clean up the economy and draw in investments.
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The 78-year-old general secretary has regularly referenced the principles of the late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh in pushing ahead with an anti-graft campaign that’s swept up hundreds of officials. He often repeats the phrase “negative phenomena,” which encompasses a broad range of wrongdoing including taking bribes, lax oversight and allowing corruption to foster.
Negative phenomena, along with mentions of corruption, were used a combined 854 times in Trong’s speeches since the start of July last year. That’s more than during any one year period since Trong assumed the post in 2011, according to a Bloomberg analysis of more than 430 speeches and government website postings as of June 30.
The use of such language signals a concerted effort by authorities to stamp out graft as Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economy seeks to bolster its appeal as a destination for foreign investment amid mounting trade tensions between the US and China.
Vietnam’s economy is on course to surpass its 2022 growth target of 6%-6.5%, with better-than-expected second quarter performance showing a broad-based recovery.
The leadership recognizes that widespread corruption diminishes its influence over society and can hurt economic development, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“This is a serious threat to Vietnam,” he said. “This undermines the legitimacy of the party, of the system, and that is what Nguyen Phu Trong has been attacking.”
The party last week reiterated the anti-graft crusade as having “a mindset of no tolerance, no forbidden zones, no exceptions.” Investigations so far have ranged from examining stock price manipulation to rounding up high-level government officials tied to bribery accusations involving pandemic repatriation flights.
The campaign has led to the high-profile arrest of former health minister Nguyen Thanh Long for alleged ties to a nationwide bribery investigation involving a maker of Covid-19 test kits. Criminal proceedings were also initiated against more than 70 people, local media reported.
The idea of negative phenomena has been steeped in Vietnam’s communist ideology for decades as a tool to stress urgency in the need to root out widespread corruption. Ho Chi Minh himself saw the party’s role in rectifying immoral behavior among members as crucial to its own survival and achieving national prosperity.
Trong used negative phenomena 340 times since July last year, compared with 418 times from 2011 through June 2021. The concept has become so integral to the anti-graft effort that last year the Politburo renamed the body handling the issue as the Central Steering Committee for Corruption and Negative Phenomena Prevention and Control. Trong directly oversees the committee.
During a meeting with top leaders on March 10, Trong called on them to “drastically” ramp up efforts to combat corruption. Back in January, he highlighted “many large corruption cases with more sophisticated moves and more serious violations.”
“Just a single corruption case can deprave a system with a great number of officials,” he said.
Vietnamese authorities initiated 3,725 criminal proceedings and investigations into corruption, abuse of power and economic violations in 2021, government data showed, more than triple the number from the year before.
Trong’s anti-graft push echoes that of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own crusade that brought down some of his biggest rivals in the party over the past decade. Trong himself outmaneuvered then-reformist premier Nguyen Tan Dung to take the powerful party post in 2016 for a second term, while emphasizing the need to stamp out corruption and boost the economy.
In a June 30 teleconference focused on corruption with some 81,000 participants, Trong said accusations that anti-graft cases were political came from “hostile forces.”
Rather, he said, party “rectification” has helped the nation’s economic development and ensured political stability: “We have done well but there is still a lot of work ahead and we must do even better in the coming time,” he said.
Still, some in Vietnam perceive the current crackdown as signs of party infighting. The lack of transparency and Vietnam’s one-party system raise questions over why some people are charged with crimes and others avoid trouble, according to Ha Hoang Hop, a visiting senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“People don’t know what is the real thing,” he said.
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