Writing on Vietnam

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“Moral business” and “The Making of the Vietnamese Capitalist Class”?

I have stated that I am interested in the overlap between business and political history, but what does this mean in practice?

The ambiguity is compounded because, “business history” probably isn’t the best fit for what I am actually doing! Business history at the very least implies an analysis of firm level decision making, and although the field has broadened to encompass much more, I don’t have access to records of the firms belonging to the early Vietnamese business people. Though, I would jump on the opportunity if anyone has a lead!

So what am I trying to figure out?

My interest was partially inspired by a synchornicity. Whether or not it is a meaningful one is still up in the air, but nonetheless it provides a useful entry point into the problem I’m trying to articulate.

The Political Report of the Central Committe read at the Seventh Party Congress in 1991 listed as one of its “guiding principals” that:

“The combination of economic and spiritual drives; the harmony between personal profit, and collective social profit; the mobilization of national pride and patriotism; the tradition of revolutionary and resistance war; the will for self strengthening; and industrious nation building, should be implemented to create a mass movement struggling toward the goal of wealthy people and a powerful country.”[emphasis mine]

The particular role of the Seventh Party Congress as both a regularization of political authority and a quasi thermidorian moment in the liberalization process important, but it should be dealt with in detail in a different post. The point here is that, since the Seventh Party Congress, the slogan “Wealthy People Powerful Country” [Dân Giàu Nước Mạnh] has become utterly commonplace, with various versions of it adorning banners across the country, and even featuring in satirical memes by dissatisfied citizens.

The slogan hanging in the National Assembly: “Wealthy People, Powerful Country, Democratic, Fair, and Civilized!” 


Meme made on the occasion of rainy season flooding of Ho Chi Minh City. “Nước” can mean both “country” and “water”, put next to a sinking luxury sports car, the wordplay transforms the saying into “Wealthy people, strong water”.

So where does this pithy and catchy slogan come from? Well I still don’t know. But a synchronicity can be found if we travel back in time to August 1st 1901, when the first issue of one of the earliest privately owned Vietnamese language magazines made its debut. Nông Cổ Mín Đàm: causeries sur l’agriculture et le commerce— which, with some poetic license, we could translate as “talking business over tea”– was a joint project between a Vietnamese civil servant named Lương Khắc Ninh and a Corsican salt merchant named Canavaggio.

Many more posts will discuss the importance of these two underrated characters in early colonial Vietnamese history, but to put it briefly (and a bit contentiously), English language scholarship on Vietnamese history has paid far too little attention to this magazine, probably because, being bourgeois, it was chalked up as essentially collaborationist and therefore doomed to irrelevance in the coming social revolution. More on that in another post…

So what is the synchronicity? The first issue of NCMD features the first installment of something like the flagship column, “Discourses on Agriculture and Commerce”
 [Thương cổ luận]. It is no exaggeration to say that the editorials in this column are the whole purpose for the magazine’s existence, and they add up to a cohesive nationalist program for Vietnamese to retake control of the country by wresting it from the grips of the French, Indians, and particularly Chinese. Most—but not all—of the articles were penned by Lương Khắc Ninh, but, if the signatures are to be believed, Canavaggio made important intellectual contributions, even assisting Ninh in translating the first version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms into the vernacular from Chinese. No small feat!

More specifically, between the torn and smudged remnants of the  first article of the first issue, we can see that Lương Khắc Ninh explains to the readership:

“Cannavaggio then thought, if we were able to discuss business for a little while, […] perhaps us orientals, if we gradually gained clearer understanding of successful agriculture and commerce, it would probably be a great profit to the indigenous [người bổn quốc]. For this reason we requested permission from the government to establish this magazine, so we could discourse on technology and business. It was not at all to make profits from selling [the magazine]. The indigenous are also full of intelligent people, even a glance makes that clear, no need to talk about it at length. We just need you gentlemen to read this magazine and find it agreeable, and we plead with you in the name of the indigenous people, we encourage you to steadfastly read this magazine, and day by day it will become clear that grand commerce is the best way to make wealthy people and a powerful country [dân phú quốc cường].”

There is a lot that still needs to be explained about their project in general and this passage in particular. It should be read critically. What are their actual personal motivations? How does Vietnamese competition, especially with the ethnic Chinese, help certain interests associated with the colonial state, and personally profit Cannavaggio? What is a “grand commerce”? All these will be the topic of future posts.

But what’s interesting here is that the slogan that unites their political project, and which reappears again and again in the different issues: dân phú quốc cường, is a somewhat archaic rendering of the contemporary slogan guiding today’s Socialist Oriented Market Economy: dân giàu nước mạnh. Under very different circumstances, both groups saw the future of the nation tied inextricably to a moralized unleashing of an entreprenurial spirit among petty traders.

I don’t want to draw too strong an equivalence between these two moments in Vietnamese history. The difference are important and can (and perhaps will!) fill a book. Nevertheless, I’m not the alone in seeing the resonances between the two periods.

Drawing a direct lineage between the eras, PACE Institute of Management began publishing a series of books on “Business Morality” in 2007. Pace describes itself as a

global ecosystem of management with 8 affiliated schools (specializations in the field of management, including general management, HR management, financial management, marketing management, sales management, production management, supply chain management, and project management), 7 member companies (specializing in management areas), and 9 global partners (the world’s leading organizations in management areas). […who’s mission is to] develop high-performance leaders and professionals for business and society.”

At the very least we could say that PACE is an important agent of contemporary Vietnamese capitalist class social cohesion. There are ten books in the series, each one a didactic biography of famous businessmen. There are eight foreigners and two Vietnamese. The foreigners include: Steve Jobs of Apple, Henry Ford of Ford Motors, Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota Motor, Sam Walton of Walmart, Larry Page of Google, Jorma Ollila of Nokia, Akio Morita of Sony, and Thomas Watson of IBM. The two Vietnamese men selected are: Lương Văn Cẩn, a literatus business activist and one of the founders of the Tonkin Free School; and Bạch Thái Bưởi, one of the richest Vietnamese businessmen of Colonial Hanoi. Lương Văn Cẩn is credited with “building a business morality for the Vietnamese”. Bạch Thái Bưởi is credited with “affirming Vietnamese national business acumen”.

So here we have a few leads from which to branch out and include other important figures in what, to paraphrase EP Thompson, we could call The Making of the Vietnamese Capitalist Class. What are the origins of this class? Had they begun to form under the precolonial Nguyen Dynasty? How and when was the capital first accumulated? Who were the first activists? Did they develop distinct religious, political, and racial ideologies? How did the regional differences brought about by colonial political structures effect their political projects? Did they ever cohere into a more or less homogenous political bloc? Have they today? We’ll cover these questions in further posts in the series! 

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