No laughing matter: the Vietnam Communist Party’s thin skin

Eyes glaze over legal or historical analyses, but humor goes viral.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
No laughing matter: the Vietnam Communist Party’s thin skin An event at Hanoi Medical University had a slide with the Health Ministry’s logo featuring a snake with an envelope in its mouth wrapped around a lancet, in a swipe at rampant medical corruption in the Southeast Asian country.
Photo: RFA

Vietnam’s human rights record is grim. There are now over 150 political prisoners, and the regime is showing even less tolerance of dissent than before. But a recent spate of arrests is revealing one thing: the political elite’s fear of public mockery, as it’s hard to rule an authoritarian system when people have no fear of laughing at the leadership. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

The Envelope

It was there for everyone to see and to quickly spread like wildfire across Vietnam’s vibrant and 60-million strong FaceBook community. 

Projected onto a screen that served as a backdrop to the 17 September 2022 Ministry of Health-sponsored event at Hanoi Medical University was the ministry’s logo, the familiar snake wrapped around a lancet. 

But this logo was different, for in the snake’s mouth was an envelope. And no one in Vietnam needs to be told what the envelope symbolizes. Even the state-owned media covered it without comment. 

In the eyes of the public that is inured to government corruption, the Ministry of Health’s recent scandals have made them a poster child for government graft and a distinct object of derision.

Earlier this year, a major bribery scandal involving Covid-19 test kits, brought down two members of the Communist Party’s elite Central Committee, including a former Minister of Health. Over 20 other officials in the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and within the esteemed People’s Army’s medical establishment were felled in the $22 million bribery scandal. The current Minister of Health was formally reprimanded for his lax management.

While a $22 million bribery scandal is not unusual in Vietnam anymore, the fact that it touched the VCP General Secretary who awarded the firm a commendation, and so many other senior officials across the government and military, was. This scandal exposed rot across the government. 

Police were immediately dispatched to find who replaced the logo, and no doubt someone will be severely punished for this transgression because nothing threatens an authoritarian regime more than people laughing at them.

Noodle vendor and former activist Bui Tuan Lam, also known as “Onion Leaf Bae,” seasons a dish in the theatrical style of Turkish celebrity chef Salt Bae. Video courtesy of Bui Tuan Lam
Noodle vendor and former activist Bui Tuan Lam, also known as “Onion Leaf Bae,” seasons a dish in the theatrical style of Turkish celebrity chef Salt Bae. Video courtesy of Bui Tuan Lam
Onion Leaf Bae

Mockery is costly in Vietnam. Just ask “Onion Leaf Bae,” a noodle seller in Da Nang, who  recently ran afoul of the authorities for his satirical performance that poked fun at To Lam, the Minister of Public Security.

In November 2021, after placing a wreath at the tomb of Karl Marx in London, To Lam and his entourage were filmed being personally served gold-encrusted steaks by the flamboyant Turkish restauranteur Nusret Gökçe. “Salt Bae”, as Gökçe is known, is filmed with his trademark black sunglasses and black latex gloves theatrically cutting and spicing the $2,000 steaks, that he served Lam on a skewer. 

Bui Tuan Lam donned the ubiquitous black latex gloves and sunglasses and filmed himself imitating Salt Bae as he spiced his noodles, just days after the Minister’s expose. He posted the video on 11 November 2021, and after a police summons, took the video down from his TikTok account. But the video, which generated howls of laughter across the country, spread across FaceBook. 

Police arrested Lam, no relation to the minister, who called himself “Onion Leaf Bae”, in September 2022. He was charged under Article 117 of the Penal Code, for “creating, storing, and disseminating materials and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” According to the state media, Lam had been actively posting seditious material online after the video incident. 

Without a doubt, the Minister of Public Security was taken to task within the corridors of power  not for eating a $2,000 steak in a country whose average per capita income in 2021 was a mere $3,694, but for being filmed doing so. 

Lam, who is serving on his second politburo and is eligible to succeed the current VCP General Secretary, may have taken himself out of contention with this lack of discretion. And after shining an unwelcome light on the entire senior party leadership, To Lam maintained a pretty low profile throughout much of 2022. 

While the government will point to Lam’s involvement in online discussions that “violated his democratic freedoms”, most people will conclude that the Minister of Public Security used all the coercive powers that he has at his disposal to target the noodle seller. While a private rebuke from the General Secretary was inevitable, what was intolerable was public mockery.

League of Legends gamer Nguyen Thi Thanh Loan, also known as Milona, is seen in this screenshot from Facebook Video.
League of Legends gamer Nguyen Thi Thanh Loan, also known as Milona, is seen in this screenshot from Facebook Video.
The Gamer

The ridicule doesn’t have to be well planned; authorities fear spontaneous acts of derision as well. In September 2022, a popular 22-year-old gamer, Nguyen Thi Thanh Loan, who goes by her handle Milon, made casual remarks during a live session on the FaceBook gaming platform, League of Legends.

“But I'm sure the Presidents don't do anything all day at home, they watch 18+ movies, so they're all bald,” she said in a clear reference to President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who’s known for his comb-over. Perhaps catching herself, “The head still has hair, the head still has a few strands of hair, right??” But she continued: “Why don't you do anything, just stay at home all day watching 18+ movies.”

Her offhand remark went viral on Facebook.  And while police did not arrest her, Loan was fined and put on notice. So was everyone else who had a laugh at Phuc’s expense. 

Breaking the Barrier of Fear

The Vietnam People’s Army employs the 10,000-man Force-47, which is charged with both amplifying pro-government and party sites and postings, and trolling dissenters and critics. It is both an influencer and a cyber watchdog. Their most recent task has been to deal with a spate of public ridicule.

And it makes sense because humor works. Criticizing government policies will only get you so far; eyes glaze over legal or historical analyses, but humor goes viral. Vietnam’s netizens already have a rich satirical meme culture. If people can’t stop the corruption, they can laugh at it.

As former Serbian protestors, Srdja Popovic and Mladen Joksik, wrote in Foreign Policy back in 2013: “Today's protestors understand that humor offers a low-cost point of entry for ordinary citizens who don't consider themselves particularly political, but are sick and tired of dictatorship. Make a protest fun, and people don't want to miss out on the action.”

Authoritarian regimes routinely use a range of coercive measures to deter dissent and sew fear amongst the public. Once the public loses that fear and starts to mock their leaders, it could be over faster than Salt Bae cuts up a gold-covered steak.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or RFA.


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