About Viet Nam’s “gifting culture”


Giving gifts to people in authority has become normal, but we have to be aware it institutionalizes an ‘underworld.’

Also known as an “envelope culture” (văn hóa phòng bì) because envelopes are used for more than sending letters, so passé in the digital age, and giving “lucky money” (lì xì) at Lunar New Year.  A recent essay explains how small-scale corruption works and is recommended reading for those interested in learning about some of what goes on behind the curtain.  

Here are some of the money paragraphs, no pun intended:

The situation has been left for so long that it has become normal. And when this happens, people’s trust in the system is undermined, even as they go with it.

We have the option of eliminating this system entirely by refining our legal and administrative procedures to make them more transparent, more accessible to the public. In the long run, we would also need to learn how to spend the national budget more efficiently and more effectively. That way, not only can we reduce financial burden on our businesses, people can also see that their tax money is put to good use.

On a side note: did you know that as many as 90,000 businesses in Vietnam went bankrupt last year, a 50 percent increase compared to 2017? That happens despite how the country’s GDP grew by over 7 percent last year, the highest in a decade.

While that might signal a competitive economy where only the cream of the crop survives, I sometimes wonder how many of these businesses went bankrupt not because of their poor performance, but because of something else? You should also be asking that question, and so do policymakers.

While I agree with the thrust of the author’s essay, it’s a bit of a stretch to blame petty corruption for corporate bankruptcies.  There are many other factors, including lack of experience and knowledge on the part of the businesspeople whose companies go belly up.  The failure of most new companies is not something that is unique to Viet Nam.  

At any rate, how to solve this systemic problem and ensure that the new normal becomes a thing of the past?  

  1.  Raise the salaries of civil servants and take away the rationale (excuse) for the envelope culture;
  2.  Make it illegal for them to accept “donations”;  
  3.  Create a hotline for citizens to call to report bureaucrats who request “donations”, assuming the business owner, for example, has evidence that supports this accusation, e.g., audio or video recording; and, last but not least, 
  4. Reward conscientious citizens for reporting verified cases of petty corruption.  

The above measures could be the beginning of the end of institutionalized petty corruption.  Now Viet Nam just needs to come to terms with massive corruption, an area in which it has been making some inroads in recent years, thanks to the efforts of Nguyễn Phú Trọng, General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of Viet Nam.  

25thlogo_3Since Viet Nam is so adept at learning from the experiences of other countries, why not study the case of Sweden, once mired in corruption and now a squeaky clean country, comparatively speaking?  In the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index Sweden ranks 6th among 180 countries with a score of 84/100.  (Viet Nam ranks 107 with a score of 35/100.)  Now that’s an achievement worth recognizing, celebrating, and learning from!  

Postscript:  Here’s a bit of good news from Viet Nam.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA