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Let Our People Trade

By Nguyen Dan Que

09/06/1999 — The Asian Wall Street Journal, Page 10

When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's plane touched down in Hanoi yesterday, she arrived in a Vietnam once again feuding with America. And again the Vietnamese people are paying the price. It is a measure of how much the world has changed that this time the fight between the U.S. and Vietnam is not over ideology, the "domino theory" or communism but the terms of an agreement, initialed in July, to extend Normal Trade Relations -- formerly known as Most-Favored-Nation trading status -- to Vietnam .

Nearly a quarter-century since the end of the Vietnam war, the situation has changed dramatically. This may not be as apparent to Americans, because Vietnam's economic stagnation means that its cities look almost exactly as they did 30 years ago. At that time, however, it was not hard to believe that communism was the wave of the future, especially with its string of victories over Western imperialist powers. But the subsequent collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have changed everything.

Clearly many non-communists in America as well as communists in Vietnam have not yet appreciated the magnitude of this change. One sign are the problems and politics holding up the latest agreement between Washington and Hanoi.

The agreement, which awaits approval by both Vietnam's National Assembly and the U.S. Congress, will grant Normal Trade Relations to Vietnam. This will allow Vietnamese exporters to the U.S. to enjoy the lower tariff rates that most other nations now pay. The agreement will also mean lower tariffs for U.S. goods entering Vietnam, and includes measures to strengthen protection for intellectual property rights.

Many Vietnamese communists are wary of the inevitable liberalizing influences that would come with more open trade and investment from the outside. On the other side, many Vietnamese anti-communists in the U.S. do not want America to have anything to do with Vietnam at all, so they are likewise suspicious. Others in the U.S. oppose liberalizing trade with Vietnam because of concern over human rights violations.

But this is a good agreement, if only because it recognizes that the old division of the world into East and West is no longer viable. The new division has various names, but at its heart it is a competition between those who open themselves to trade and thus integrate themselves into an increasingly global economy, and those who shut themselves off. The Vietnamese people, so long deprived of their basic human rights, are desperately in need of the former.

Thus the dispute between trade and human rights is more apparent than real. As the record in Vietnam shows, people have a hard time realizing their human rights without trade and the individual self-sufficiency it brings. If human rights are to have any meaning, individuals need to have the knowledge and wherewithal to improve their own lot in life and resist abuses on their own.

The last few decades have impressed upon the Vietnamese the crucial link here. Because everywhere you look in Vietnam, you can feel the absence of precisely the economic self-sufficiency a more open economy would bring. Power remains concentrated in the Politburo in Hanoi, and the people have been largely helpless to resist. The natural outcome of this monopoly of power is that the people and the country have been reduced to poverty.

In the old days Communist leaders urged the people not to go against the tide of history, which did indeed seem to be running on their side. But today we need to redirect the question to them: The world has long since been moving in the opposite direction, and it is obvious that the ultimate death of the kind of systems we see in Indonesia, Vietnam or Burma is now inevitable. The only questions are when they will come and whether or not they will be peaceful when they do.

In short we need to move beyond the contests and categories of yesteryear, and into a new humanism that recognizes the world around us. In Vietnam this new humanism is very popular, because it reunites a population that has been divided by the old divisions of nationalism and communism. Unfortunately, the Communist Party has been among the slowest entities to embrace that change. In short we need a new politics -- and we need the trade agreement to help make it possible.
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Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a medical doctor and head of the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam, has spent 19 of the last 21 years in Vietnamese prisons for his democratic beliefs.

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