Duong agrees to catch up at a café in the centre of Hanoi on a humid Thursday evening. It’s one of her favourite places to hang out in the weekends—one of thousands of cafés that have sprouted up across the Vietnamese capital, where idleness and a lack of public space have created unlikely business opportunities. Her weekdays, though, are more like Groundhog Day. She works a nine-to-five job at a big university, and there’s little variation in her daily routine: commuting to work, returning home, sleeping, rinse and repeat.
She sat an exam earlier in the day for entry into the civil service. The stakes are high: a job in the public sector is akin to an iron rice bowl, a promise of job security for the rest of one’s professional life. But Duong doesn’t seem too bothered; she knows she’ll pass.
The 2016 Governance and Public Administration Performance Index confirmed that nepotism and corruption within Vietnam’s public sector is “a systemic problem”; personal connections and bribes are essential for those who wish to pursue careers in the civil service.
Such entrance exams are seen more as a formality than a challenge for young Vietnamese like Duong. Wealth, higher education, connections and career stability: these are the things that largely define Vietnam’s new middle class, and Duong, born into a privileged family, has them all. Her decision to become a civil servant is similar to her reason for working in the university: she couldn’t think of easier, faster or better alternatives.
Such privilege can easily breed apathy. “When everything is already laid out for you, you don’t really think about what tomorrow will hold,” Duong says. “It’s just going to be the same thing.”
Apathy is a disease
According to a 2015 estimate by the United Nations, half the population of Vietnam is under the age of 30, which means millennials have the potential to be a considerable force for change in the country. The Communist Youth Union, the country’s largest youth organisation, actively reaches out to Vietnamese youth to spread the message of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). But youth leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to connect with a generation comfortable with the Internet, Facebook, and smartphones—and all the distractions now at their fingertips.
Experts say that campaigns to enlist young people in public activities tend to be too rigid to engage or motivate. Despite various efforts designed to mobilise them, Vietnamese millennials still generally appear to be politically apathetic.
In 2015, Towards Transparency—a non-profit consultancy and official national contact for the global civil society organisation Transparency International—interviewed 1,110 Vietnamese between the ages of 15 and 30 for the Vietnam Youth Integrity Survey. They found that 74% of respondents had very little or no information on anti-corruption initiatives, and 45% of educated youths held the opinion that reporting corrupt behaviour was futile. They’re worrying findings, especially considering Vietnam’s fairly low ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.
This apathy and ignorance goes beyond the issue of corruption: research suggests that young middle-class Vietnamese show greater interest in consumption, leisure activities, maintenance and achievement of social status than in politics.
This was explained in the paper “Professional Middle Class Youth in Post-Reform Vietnam: Identity, Continuity and Change” as the result of a confluence between the middle class’ relationship to the state and global capitalism. The middle-class Vietnamese who rose following economic reforms in the latter half of the 1980s in many ways resemble the middle class in many other countries, particularly in areas like an orientation to consumption and harbouring aspirations for personal and career development, but also have close ties to the Vietnamese state. With their privilege and material advantages connected to the political status quo, young middle-class Vietnamese tend to exhibit the characteristics of other middle-class youth without a corresponding sense of political identity or participation.
Duong admits that she has no idea about the political structure in Vietnam, nor about any of the country’s leaders. For her, voting for local councillors is little more than an exercise in randomly choosing between one unfamiliar face and another.
“Once you have the privilege of not having to think, you just don’t”
She also says she doesn’t care about rampant corruption, local land disputes, important events such as the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, or even international issues such as Donald Trump’s polarising presidency (she’s heard of his name but doesn’t know what he’s been up to).
“Why would I have to care anyway?” she asks. “Once you have the privilege of not having to think, you just don’t.”
It’s not just her, either; Duong says her colleagues at the university—many of whom are training to become full-time professors—are the same. “We’re aware of the headlines if they show up on Facebook or on the news, but they’re simply subjects of gossip at work. Those issues quickly leave your head when there’s something else to talk about… Plus, there are many other distractions.”
Protesting via Facebook
Hoang Duc Minh was only 18 when he became the programme director of a project to raise awareness of climate change. He later founded Wake it Up, a startup aiming to empower through social activities. Minh’s recently been involved in a campaign that helped save 6,700 trees in Hanoi by mobilising hundreds to march down the streets in protest.
“Participating in social activities is not only an interest, but also an opportunity for me to develop my personal skill sets,” Minh says. “The important thing is to find voices that are loud enough to start doing something together.”
The public outrage and movement to protect those 6,700 trees marked a significant change in Vietnamese civic participation, demonstrating the potential impact of public mobilisation via social media.
Like in many other countries, social media platforms like Facebook have gained traction in Vietnam as millennials’ main source of information. According to Reuters, Vietnam’s 52 million active accounts makes it one of Facebook’s top ten countries. The social network’s popularity has proven to be so instrumental in contributing to social change that the Ministry of Information and Communications earlier this year requested Facebook, Google and YouTube to remove and block content deemed “toxic” by the state. Google partly complied by blocking 1,500 out of the over 2,000 YouTube videos the government wanted removed.
Like Wake it Up, many social initiatives started by NGOs such as Live and Learn, ISEE and Viet Pride reach out to millennials via Facebook. The rise of social media has provided a platform for young people with a desire to be heard, filling the vacuum left by the lack of officially-sanctioned spaces.
Responses also differ based on the cause. Some, like environmental issues and LGBTQ equality, have gained traction in Vietnam. Other issues—corruption, gender, minorities’ rights, freedom of speech—have not yet received as much visibility; a sign that some issues are considered more political, and therefore more sensitive, than others. But the risk of virtualising activism, even for more “palatable” causes, is the inadvertent cultivation of “slacktivism”, reducing political and social movements to heavily-marketed online media events.
Bui Tra My, a young media and culture teacher at The Olympia Schools in Hanoi, has written several research papers on youth participation in social media. She believes that social networks have changed the way young people think about participation; shows of online solidarity might often be mistaken for substantive action. “You can type an online signature on petitiononline.com and feel assured that you have fulfilled your civic responsibility. And it’s also super-easy to just click and join groups and networks on Facebook,” she says.
“But caring about social and political affairs is not a responsibility, it’s a demand,” she adds. “And actions only take place when people are made aware that such problems can have a direct impact on them.”
A generation caught in transition
There are many reasons why Vietnamese youths are not engaging with politics. Tri Phuong is a researcher from Yale University who studies youth culture and youth participation on social media in Vietnam, and says that the current education system has failed to fulfil the need of young people to express themselves or encourage them to actively participate in civic activities. While young people might be aware of social problems, many lack the motivation to seek solutions as they feel excluded from decision-making processes.
“Vietnamese youth don’t participate in politics simply because it’s not meaningful to their lives”
“Young people rise up when they feel their rights are denied,” he says. “That’s clearly happened in certain parts of the world, such as the Occupy Movement or the Arab Spring, but in those contexts, there was either heavy repression or young people felt disenfranchised from the social system. They became politicised because they felt angry and they had no other options.”
“In Vietnam, I think as long as young people have other options to distract themselves, it provides a pressure release from politics,” he adds. “Vietnamese youth don’t participate in politics simply because it’s not meaningful to their lives.”
Duong, Minh and My come from roughly the same age group, with very similar profiles: all three are young, urban, and educated. But their differing attitudes towards society reveals the many complex layers within Vietnam’s new middle class.
“I was born during a period of economic transition, witnessing the ups and downs of social organisation, the reinvention of many values and the influence of many cultural currents on my generation,” says My. “Being caught in such changes makes me feel an urge to know more, and to research social developments.”
Minh, the activist, is optimistic about his generation’s contribution to society. “Over the past seven years, there have been major changes among the youth,” he says. “I still think that urban youths play a fundamental role in social activism in Vietnam. In our national context, when you consider the quality of education, as well as the economic and political conditions, it’s not difficult to understand why young people spend less time on social issues and more on personal distractions.”
“The job of social activists is comparable to that of a salesperson,” he adds. “You need to be able to sell [your cause] so that people feel inspired to fulfil their civic responsibility. You can’t just expect society to be better off by itself, or for young people to be more active on their own.”
Back in the café, Duong says she has never heard of the movement to save the 6,700 trees, or any other similar social activities. “I don’t really trust Facebook activism because there are so many fake events created as clickbait.”
She falls silent when asked about her dream job. “I feel desensitised to everything,” she says. “There are times when I think about quitting my job because I’m going to be a teacher, and that’ll definitely influence my students. But I’ve been brought up being dependent on my overprotective parents, and I just don’t think I have enough courage to change.”
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Yen Duong is a multimedia journalist and feature writer currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. She holds a Master's degree in Communication at University of Vaasa (Finland), with a focus on semiotics of contemporary culture and media.