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The stereotypes of traditional norms and values in agrarian society of Vietnam in the new context of market - oriented economy

The stereotypes of traditional norms and values in agrarian society of Vietnam in the new context of market - oriented economy(*)

Assoc. Prof. Nguyen Tien Dung

Hue University of Sciences


Abstract:

Studies on changes of tradition values and norms in Vietnam in general, and rural society in particular in the context of transitional economy is an emerging research domain that requires even longer timeline for testing its theoretical and practical implications. Within frame of this short discussion paper, the author only wishes to provide an overview on the issues, that pushes further need for in depth studies from different perspectives of political sciences, ethics, culture and economics.

Back to the history, before 1975, Vietnam was divided into two parts. The North follows socialist system with strong political economic supports from the Soviet Bloc and CMEA countries. The economy in the Northern Vietnam at that time was basically agrarian under two forms of ownership – state owned and collectives. Majority peasants joined agricultural cooperatives that were divided into production teams/units and operated under control of co-op management board. The division of production units was based on two criteria, namely production activities and geographical distribution of the farm households. Under this system, the only source of labor income (mainly in-kind) was from distribution of cooperative production based on judgment among their team members about each individual labor daily contribution called labor-days or man-days (ngày công in Vietnamese). The other commodities were mainly sold by agricultural trading cooperatives with high subsidy prices, especially using coupon quota per person for indispensable goods such as sugar, clothes...These mean peasants’ livelihoods heavily depended on the cooperatives.

In order to mobilize labor force and increase production, the cooperative members were assigned a piece of land, where they had their own right to make decision on production and consumption, called ‘5% land’ (because this type of land was limited under 5% of total cooperative land area). This is regarded as important premise for formation of agricultural market in the North Vietnam at that time.

Under this specific political economic context, agricultural cooperatives proved their pivotal roles and effectiveness in mobilizing resources for the course of country liberalization and unification.

From social perspective, it was agricultural cooperatives at the same time helped strengthen agrarian social structure, enhance traditions, values and norms in Vietnam rural society. Process of agricultural development and social structure, social ties were bolstered within boundary of traditional village/commune that supports the concept of ‘village culture’ (văn hoá làng xã).

The ‘village culture’ also manifested a simple and close culture space of communal social economic basic needs. Moreover, it also nurtured a psychological norms in daily people lives that proves strong existence and influence of localism, family clans and kinships, where village regulation (huong uoc) and unwritten laws were more respected and enforced than formal law and regulations. At the same time, there exists the norm that set village at a center of any relationship (community and individual) in which they live and work together, share joy and fun, take care of each other, give a hand when needed…, as the say that: “neighbor is better than brother” (in Vietnamese proverb ‘selling brothers living far away, buying close neighbors’ – “ban anh em xa, mua lang gieng gan”). These manifest traditional norms that keep Vietnamese together for their survival in agrarian society.

However, apart from above positive aspects, the ‘village culture’ also holds negative effects that violates the personal lives in their community, such as unwanted intervention in personal matters but still regarded as the right thing to do, even as expression of good care of others, poor professional work culture (tardiness, late to work…), low law enforcement…

          On other side, agricultural production in the South of Vietnam before 1975 was basically feudalistic but under support of better facilities and equipments imported from capitalistic countries. This production form helped to make efficient land use. The relationship among people in agricultural production was still in close sphere. The village culture was dominant.  However, it is important to note that agricultural production in the Southern Vietnam during this period set basis of market economy in the real sense.

After country reunification 1975, under the leadership of Vietnam Communist Party, Vietnam continues to follow the socialism ideology. This strategic option has decided the nature of social economic and political regime of Vietnam. Learnt from socialist countries, especially Soviet Union, Vietnam carried out collectivization in agriculture in the whole country (which later de-collectivized and privatized again after economic reform). Imposed by viewpoint of quantitativism, Vietnam merged different provinces into larger provinces (a new province was formed by simply merging old 2-3 provinces under the French colonialism, e.g. Binh Tri Thien was founded based on merge of Quangbinh, Quangtri and Thuathien Hue provinces, and so on). The belief behind this was that large scale of production requires large space and other resources. In the same way, new cooperatives were formed, so-called advanced cooperatives, which is much larger than the old ones.

However, not far later it proved this model of cooperatives was not suitable to the management skills and knowledge of the cooperative management boards, which was known as one of important causes of a sluggish stage of agriculture development  in Vietnam during the period of 1975-1986. The government effort was to accommodate the masses often meant greater freedom for small markets and private operations, allowing more flexibility within centrally planning economy.

The bigger the cooperatives in a poor country without support of effective infrastructure, based on primitive agricultural technology, the deeper the peasants' alienation from any role in management. The larger the co-ops, the looser relationship and control between co-op peasants, their production units and co-op management board. As a result, inefficient uses of land, labor and natural resources were inevitable.

On the other hand, the change in new form of co-ops management had dramatically affected the rural society, in which beliefs, norms and values had changed towards more individualism. With the perception that their production resources did not belong to them and then their working efforts was not for their better-off, peasants begun to look over each others, rely on others and the government. Especially, the egalitarianism in distribution of collective production output became strong disincentive factor in co-op production activities, which exacerbated the ineffectiveness of the new advanced cooperative model.

Due to low income, many peasants lost their belief in the cooperative, and started their non-collective production activities for their own way of living earning, which was discouraged (or even banned) under the management mechanism at that time, such as small trading agricultural inputs, vendor... which were regarded as signals of market activities after economic reform. Even it was not uncommon in some places that peasants turned to be too lazy to take part in cooperative production activities, but rather they opted to beg for their living. As paddy rice – based agriculture country, but Vietnam had suffered serious food shortage for a long time and had to import rice from its alliances because during this time the US embargo had been in effect to the Vietnam economy.

          In a broader view, within this political economic context of the 1975 - 1986 period, the traditional norms, values and culture were not strengthened and promoted, but rather distorted towards negative situation such as increasing social evils, depraving moral of some local leaders, degrading people’s belief….These have signaled bad symptoms in a transitional economy that needs need to be cured. This was not new as Marx more than 100 years ago wrote: ‘economic status decides mental lives’. In other words “existence of the society forges it’s ideology’ or ‘substructure decides superstructure”.

After 1986, the National Congress VI of Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) decided to carry out progressive reform, especially economic reform which opens a new era in Vietnam history. It can be said that Vietnam in XX century has experienced many remarkable events such a foundation of VCP in 1930, the Revolution August 1945, Dien Bien Phu victory 1954, reunification of the nation in 1975, and the decision of VCP Congress VI on the country reform that follows succession as initiated by predecessors of Marxist – Leninism.

As an agrarian society, the economic reform in Vietnam has started with the reform in agriculture since late 1980s marking by the Political Bureau Resolution no. 10 which abandoned collective farming and granted farm households higher autonomy on their land use and resource management. For the first time, farmer have given the right to land use for a long term of 20 years and then revised up to 50 years (Land Law 2003). Thanks to dismantling production resources to the household as grass-root unit, the agriculture has experience continuous high growth rate over the last two decades. From a food imported country, Vietnam becomes the second world largest rice exporter. The economy is operating towards market-oriented mechanism and up to now several countries have recognized Vietnam having laissez-faire market economy. The people living standard has improved quickly with the income per capita of about 1,000 USD. Vietnam has also set its goal to become a modern industrialized nation in 2020.

          Under the open labor market and job opportunities, the rural people tends to leave their home to search for jobs in big cities or other regions where having better job opportunities and living earning. The roles of family gradually apparent. Also, due to migration, village population structure become more diverse.  

As a result, family structure has changed dramatically, not as simple as before reform. In one family there exists farmers, wage workers, professional labors and retired parents...Migration and urbanization help transfer to the rural families not only monetary income, but also perception, knowledge and new life styles. This makes up a better picture of rural life and adds more achievements of the reform in creating better social hamony.

The roles of cooperatives reduced to service providers, while village and mass organizations play increasing roles in every aspects of rural society. Through formal and informal farmer organizations such as collaborative farmer groups, farm union, women union, job associations, poor men and women are better represented in the political economic agenda. Their voices and influences within the organization are also increased.

In spite of the above impresive achievments, Vietnam is still an agriculture – based economy, more than 70% of country population is farmer. The poverty rate is still high, about 14,7% (based on 2005 poverty line), of which farmers accounts for 90% of the poor households. Especially, those in the North Mountainous region is  51,3% and in the Central region is 41%. The gap between rich and poor and among the  geographical regions and ethnic groups are widened. The latest release from the Statistic Office shows that the gap between the rural people and other parts of population is about 5 - 7 times, even more than 10 times in some places. This wide income gap will sooner or later lead to unstable social political situation.

Some common obsevations include:

  • Rural people mainly relies on agriculture for their livelihoods, but they are lack of land for agricultural produciton because much land has been taken for urbanization and population increases.
  • Abundant rural labor force but lack of job and employment opportunities, underemployment and unemployment are still prevailing.
  • The market infrastructure and knowledge of the rural people are relatively far behind the urban region.
  • Income from farm and non-farm activities in the rural areas are commonly low and unstable. The availability and prices of consumption goods are not compatible to the purchasing power and income of the rural people.
  • Rural social and natural environment is degrading due to low people awareness and lack of community spirit. It is so-called ‘culture village’ (Làng văn hoá) but not cutural anymore – many traditional norms and values were fading or even disappeared. Rural security is under threatenning.

It is obvious that the progressive economy reform has strong effects on agrarian society of Vietnam. It is necessary to revisit changes in traditional values and norms of aesthetics, good and evil, conscience and morals, village affections and gratitude, family and kinships – factors accommodate happy life in general, values of family and roles of women, child education, religious beliefs, spiritual life and religions, humanity values…in the changing context of the economy. It is also important to study on roles of government, judiciary organizations, administrative systems and civil society in general in orientation and readjustment of the changes to enhance the traditional norms, value and culture.

Moreover, in the context of globalization and integration, traditional values – indispensable values of paddy rice civilization should be reconsidered for preservation and enhancement of its uniqueness as humankind heritage, not only in the region but over the world. Vietnam shares many common features with other regional countries in agricultural production that works as basic for cultural links among the countries. This calls for further collaborative studies of the fields which help to examine and articulate these unique traditions of Southeast Asia region. Especially, for future of one Southeast Asia region without country boundary, nothing else but common culture will help to set the ground for closer Southeast Asian community.

With this spirit, this discussion only aims to summarize some preliminary observations on stereotypes of traditional norms, values in the transition context of Vietnam economy, that pushes further need for in depth researches on the effects of this changing process from cultural perspectives because“A tornado can start in a small cup of water”, said Montesquieu, a French philosopher.

(*) Paper presented at International Conference "Revisting Agrarian Transformations in Southeast Asia Empirical, Theoretical and Applied Perspectives", Chiangmai, Thailand, 13-15th May, 2010.

Nguồn: PGS,TS. Nguyễn Tiến Dũng


 Khoa Lý luận chính trị  29-02-2012  In
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