A Lexus and its nexus to our future

June 13, 2016 - 16:00

Summers are hot and humid in southern Việt Nam, as elsewhere in the country, and there is nothing surprising or controversial about local leaders traveling to and for work in air-conditioned cars.

Trịnh Xuân Thanh. — Photo vietnamplus.vn
Viet Nam News

By Thu Vân

Summers are hot and humid in southern Việt Nam, as elsewhere in the country, and there is nothing surprising or controversial about local leaders traveling to and from work in air-conditioned cars.

We can go one step further and say that there could be nothing unseemly about leaders travelling in their own air-conditioned cars, instead of the official ones, to work in such hot weather.

So, why all the brouhaha, one can be forgiven for asking, as Trịnh Xuân Thanh, deputy head of Hậu Giang Province, found himself in hot water just because he travels to work in the comfort of a Lexus 570.

That car must be driving him crazy now.

Thanh and his car have made national headlines and become the talk of the town, online and offline, with debates extending to the point of what this portends for the country’s future.

A quick look at the factors that ignited the controversy should be in order here.

Local media carry reports of “public outrage” over his use of the black Lexus, with a blue registration plate normally reserved for State-owned cars, a perk that someone in Thanh’s position is not entitled to. 

Thanh, who was appointed to his position in May last year, explained that because of the province’s difficult financial situation, it was not able to arrange a vehicle for him to commute to work. Therefore, he’d borrowed his friend’s car for the purpose.

The car was registered as a private car in Hà Nội, where Thanh hails from. However, he is not the registered owner.

Then things get a bit dicey.

The friend who owned the Lexus, estimated to cost VND5.7 billion (US$250,000) or so, turned out to be Thanh’s driver, receiving a salary of VND3 million  ($130) per month from the State Budget.

As this became a hot topic on social networks, Trần Công Chánh, the province’s Party Committee Secretary, waded into the controversy, saying it was “funny” that people were talking about something that did not involve any wrongdoing.

He spoke too soon.

In an interview with a local media outlet, Lieutenant General Trần Sơn, a former official of the Ministry of Public Security’s Department of Traffic Police, said there was no way to legally get two registration plates for a car. Ergo, officials who’d facilitated the issuance of a blue registration plate for the Lexus had violated the law.

Not so funny, maybe, but the case got “funnier” still as no less a person than the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Viet Nam weighed in.

In an unprecedented move, Nguyễn Phú Trọng has ordered at least eight central agencies to study the case.

While the blue registration plate has been replaced since with the original one for privately-owned vehicles, but the controversy continues to rage.

Outrage over the abuse of official perks, especially cars, for private purposes is not new, and the Party and the Government have taken steps, tighter regulations, to curb it.

But people still have the right to ask this question whenever public servants behave like they are the bosses: Are they really serving the people? Do they consider themselves above the law? The Government recently ruled that State agencies should only buy cars that cost less than VNĐ1.1 billion (US$49,000).

At first glance, it seems unusual that the Party General Secretary himself intervenes in a relatively small case of abuse of privilege. But Trọng has gone a step further, bringing a much bigger picture into focus.

He has asked relevant agencies to check on Thanh’s rise through the political ranks, and...things have gotten really interesting.

Before being appointed to his current position, Thanh was the chairman of PetroVietnam Construction Corporation (PVC) from 2007 to 2013. At the end of 2013, PVC books showed losses of between VNĐ3.2 trillion (US$142 million). A report submitted by an oversight agency at PVC’s annual meeting in 2014 also mentioned that the corporation’s affiliates were experiencing great difficulties and many units virtually had nothing to do.

Next, Thanh was appointed to Deputy Chief of Office at the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

In January 2014, the then Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng asked the Việt Nam Oil and Gas Group (PVN) to assess the role of those responsible for the corporation’s huge losses. Just a month later, Thanh was appointed to head the trade ministry’s Enterprise Innovation Department.

In the national general election which took place earlier this month, Thanh was also elected a National Assembly deputy.

Thanh’s leading a charmed life in the context of enquiries into loss-making leads to one question: how come?

Officials have said all procedures were duly followed in Thanh’s appointments. Then why is this story heading towards an unhappy ending?

The Party leader’s actions have been welcomed by the people as someone in the top echelons directly leading efforts to promote accountability, transparency and the rule of the law, which everyone agrees are vital to to the nation’s development, particularly when it faces major social, environmental and economic challenges.

Just last month, Trọng made an important speech in Hà Nội, pointing out weaknesses damaging the Communist Party’s reputation and causing mistrust among the people. He stressed the importance of promoting transparency and integrity, and of ending wrongdoing by Party members. Gaining and preserving the people’s trust was essential for the party’s survival, he said.

A World Bank’s report released last month echoed these concerns, saying one of several important measures that the country should take is to enforce fairly the rule of the law, holding all people and institutions accountable.

Earlier this year, an annual corruption index published by Transparency International ranked Viet Nam 112 out of 168 polled countries and territories on the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Phạm Trọng Đạt, chief of department of anti-corruption under the government’s inspectorate said Transparency International’s assessment should only be for reference, implying that this ranking is not an absolute one.

But one thing cannot be denied. The lack of transparency and corruption is chipping away at people’s confidence and the leadership is aware of it.

General Secretary Trọng’s direct intervention in the Lexus car case is part of efforts to redress the situation and repair public trust.

So the debate over the bearing this case will have on the country’s future is not misplaced. Will it prove to be a harbinger of things to come on the anti-corruption front? The breath is bated. -- VNS