Tree-planting ceremony: a legacy misinterpreted

March 07, 2018 - 09:00

In recent times, it seems that the spring tree planting ceremony has been made unnecessarily pompous with the richness of its original meaning having been lost to many.

The late President Hồ Chí Minh (left) led the start of the tree-planting festival in Ba Vì District (then belonging to the northern province Hà Tây) in the spring of 1969. — VNA/VNS File Photo
Viet Nam News

By Trọng Kiên

There’s really no debating the importance of planting trees: the more the better.

In fact, Việt Nam has a whole festival dedicated to this activity reserved for fresh spring days at the beginning of the Lunar New Year, with officials of high rankings usually present to kick off the events and exhorting the public to join.

However, in recent times, it seems that the ceremony has been made unnecessarily pompous with the richness of its original meaning having been lost to many.

The yearly tree growing campaigns traced back to an initiative started by the late President Hồ Chí Minh nearly six decades ago, with a now famous pair of verses that nearly every Vietnamese knows by heart: “Spring is the time for planting trees // Making the country all the more resplendent as eternal springtime.”

In the first article for Nhân Dân (People) newspaper advocating for a "tree-planting festival day," President Hồ wrote “it doesn’t cost much, yet brings enormous benefits.”

The call for tree-growing made perfect sense at that time, not just due to a need to beautify the national landscapes, but also because the country had just stepped out of a devastating war to end a hundred years of colonisation by the French, which saw a severe decline in natural forests.

Forest regeneration would also be a very practical solution to provide long-term livelihoods for people when the nascent economy of a newly independent Việt Nam was mired in difficulties and the poverty rate was alarmingly high.

All the surviving photos of President Hồ during the various planting occasions show an old, lean, but agile white-bearded man unvarily dressed in a khaki suit or what’s best described as ‘farmer’s attire,’ not shy to get his hands dirty. He excavates the soil and waters a sprouting seedling himself, which has become an inspiration to many to follow.

In 1969, the year he passed away, despite declining health and staff’s caution against such labouring doings, President Hồ insisted on carrying on with the tradition he started ten years ago. He chose the mountainous Ba Vì District – now part of Hà Nội – as his (unwittingly last) destination to lead the tree-growing, due to the locality’s noted achievements in reforestation efforts.

That’s why, in recent years, anyone with a bit of awareness of this history finds it distasteful watching suit-and-tie clad officials of various ranks half-heartedly pushing a few shovels of soil into what looks like an already well-dug hole, all for what is obviously nothing more than a photo op.

This awful display of a total lack of historical and self-awareness is not new and has attracted scattered criticisms here and there on official news outlets, but mostly on social media. However, earlier last week, in a meeting reviewing the celebration of Tết (Lunar New Year), when General Secretary Party Nguyễn Phú Trọng himself called out this “showpiece” behavior, do the floodgates of criticism finally open.

In a mildly caustic tone, the party leader mocked a number of officials “that any one who looks on can see that these officials are not there to plant trees, there’s a crowd [waiting on them, ready to] hand them towels and water buckets [to clean up].”

Of course, one could argue that a ceremony, by definition, is a set of ritualised procedures that doesn’t necessarily follow the steps of the actual thing it is meant to represent—so it might be called silly to ask supposedly busy officials to dress for the occasion just to plant some trees. But aren’t the practical gains gotten from planting trees the whole point of the ceremony in the first place, at least as President Hồ saw it when he wanted to start the tradition? Is a little commitment too hard to exercise?

And then how one could possibly justify the ‘planting’ of already big trees, yes, I repeat, fully mature trees? There are already reported cases where decades-old ancient-looking trees, seemingly dug right out of a forest, are transported to wherever the stage for the performance is set.

What could possibly be the point of that, aside from stroking the ego of a certain important someone via the shiny nameplate that will honour them as the one that ‘grows’ that tree, or the successful favour-currying for the underlings that direct the affair?

That, I think, is a laughable farce, or a blasphemy.

It seems the spirit of the old tradition has not translated well to today’s ways of doing things. Maybe in this fast-paced era, many do not have any free time to care and wait for a young tree to grow up, or to actually study, understand (and follow) what the founding father of Việt Nam had taught?

As tradition has it, the top leaders usually visit a certain locality to take part in the event. General Secretary Trọng himself said he had told the local governments to conduct the event “in a practical, not ostentatious or too appearance-focused manner” several times but many times it seems his words “were fallen on deaf ears,” making him the embarrassed central figure of a tackily arranged event. Imagine that, the party leader is being frustrated at the lower subordinates’ obstinacy.

President Hồ said being a leader means “leading with examples.” And yes, I won’t deny the fact that there is a need for a leader in a campaign to galvanise the works. But if this appearance-focused mind-set is any of an indication, amongst several other symptoms of our officials ‘talking the talk, but not walking the walk,’ how can people have any trust in the governance system?

Interestingly, Trần Quốc Thuận, former vice chairman of the National Assembly Office, compared, through thinly veiled allusions, the showy planting of long grown trees to the ‘plugging’ of wholly unqualified relatives or “acquaintances” into high-ranking positions in local government’s bureaus, as reported intensively in the media especially in recent times with the crackdowns on corruption and nepotism reaching an all-times high.

The planting of trees in Việt Nam is frequently associated with the cultivation, or the education, of a person. If the previous generation only cares about the shiny but hollow thing, how can we expect the later generations to have a firm base to stand upon, to flourish?

Amidst all this heated controversy, it is a silver lining to know the results of the tree-planting focus have been positive, seeing a whole 3.5 million of new trees planted across the country in this spring alone.

Hopefully, after this year, when the Party leader himself has made such burning criticism, there will be substantial changes to the thinking of officials at the tree-planting festival and actual leadership will prevail, resulting in a greener Việt Nam.

Even greener and more vibrant, that is, if our officials can escape their tendency towards pretense and crass, wooden photo-ops. — VNS