Everything for a Dollar

What remains of southeast Asia's communism? A political monopoly, growing capitalism and lots of corruption

An Israeli visiting Cambodia and Vietnam these days feels at home. Everyone is talking about mounting corruption, but in the meantime the economy is thriving. It started at the end of our first day in the city of Siem Ris, on the way back from the important temple site at Angkor Wat, which draws millions of tourists to Cambodia each year. Our guide, Feli, pointed to a luxurious villa, surrounded by a landscaped garden.

"That's the home of the district governor," said the young guide. "He earns a salary from his job as a schoolteacher." And how much does a teacher earn, we wanted to know. "The state pays a teacher $60 a month," answered Feli. "And on a salary like that, can one buy a villa with a garden?" She was careful not to speak out against the district governor. After all, Cambodia is not really a young and thriving democracy.

The next day, after we had acquired her trust a little, she revealed some of the rules of the game. "Sixty dollars," she said, "is barely enough to get to the end of the month. Students in the local school learn that in order to get an apartment, it's not enough to be an outstanding teacher or an honest principal. They learn that in order to get ahead in life, it is not enough to be a talented and industrious child."

Feli said that in order for their children to succeed in exams, parents send their offspring regularly to the teacher's house - not just to supplement the student's education, but to supplement the teacher's income. Those who can, buy the test from the teacher, she added. Feli spoke calmly, as if she were referring to a natural phenomenon. Her face also had the same look of accepting fate as we stood next to a chilling display of a pile of skulls, a monument to the victims of the Khmer Rouge's massacre of her people and her family.

The first encounter with the line between a communist-traditional society and a modern, capitalist society comes upon arrival at the airport in Cambodia. One after another, tourists emerge from jets, drawn from around the world to see the famous, stunning 1,000-year-old temples. Behind the counter is a long line of clerks in dark uniforms and caps. The first clerk gazes for a long time at the passport and passes it on to the clerk on his left. She looks at the passport photo, and the tourist hands her the photos he has brought with him. And so on and so forth - another clerk, another stamp. From there, you proceed to the policeman-clerk, who photographs you with a digital camera and prints a color document you must keep with you wherever you go.

The dusty road from the airport to the town of Siem Rif is strewn with luxury hotels and vacation spots splattered with greenery and surrounded by coconut trees bursting with fruit. Between construction sites and stinking cesspools, there are still a few wooden huts, soon to be replaced by more tourist accommodations. Yes, they will add more dollars to her modest means, Feli admits, but she adds that the big money, most of the money, will not remain in Cambodia. It will flow into the bloated pockets of big investors, and not just those from the West. Kim Jong-il, the strongman in Pyongyang, saw how economic prosperity was generating large homes and new cars for the powerful folks in Phnom Penh, and jumped at the opportunity to enjoy income from tourism - without having to endure the tourists themselves.

From the outside, the Pyongyang restaurant looks no different than the other restaurants. The clothes of the hostess, and the waitresses' blue chiffon dresses, hinted at the uniqueness of this place. One woman took the microphone, began playing on the keyboard and burst into song. Her friends entertained the diners with a dance. We told the waitress that we were from Israel, and she said she had never heard of such a place. The name Jerusalem also did not mean anything to her.

She also did not know we were unwanted guests in her country, and gladly told us that she, her friends, the manager and the cooks were all sent here from North Korea. We remembered Feli the guide, who complained that North Korea, the country so careful to shut itself off from the influences of the West, discovered in Cambodia a bee whose honey can be culled without the risk of being stung. North Korea found it could take in the dollars of American tourists without exposing its people to "their bad influence."

With an iron hand

The recent Tet - or New Year - newspaper holiday supplements in Vietnam are reminiscent of those in Israel. The Web site of the Communist Party - there are no others, of course - invited Prime Minister Tan Dung to answer citizens' queries and respond to complaints. President Nguyen Minh Triet summarized the year in an interview with the Vietnamese news agency.

Both spoke proudly about the economic flourishing in Vietnam (growth last year reached around 8 percent). Both referred to the corruption (the party formed a "steering committee to prevent corruption and waste"). In Vietnam, as in Cambodia, as in other countries in transition, there are many who know how to take advantage of the opportunity. A Western diplomat who knows some of the Hummer and Mercedes owners parked in front of the exclusive Hanoi restaurants, says most have more connections than skills.

Citizen Le Than wrote in an e-mail that the previous party secretary promised to fight corruption "with an iron hand and with integrity." He wanted to know how the prime minister relates to "an iron hand" and "integrity." Dung answered that the leader must relentlessly pursue the corrupt, regardless of their political stature and without fear or revenge. The prime minister added that a leader should not under any circumstances be associated with corruption, or with people who committed crimes against the people. "Corruption is a crime," said the prime minister, "but turning a blind eye to corruption and violating the law while fighting corruption are also crimes."

"The party, the people and the army are determined to transform our country from an undeveloped country into a modern, industrialized nation by 2020," promised the president in a holiday interview. "At the same time, we will strengthen the party leadership's abilities, promote a process of renewal, preserve social-economic stability and continue integrating into the world economy." (Vietnam was accepted as a full member of the World Trade Organization last year.)

At the end of the year, the international community agreed to provide a record $4.44 billion in aid to Vietnam. The government in Hanoi will have to pay the price, among other things, in the currency of democracy, transparency and a free market. These are three currencies that are rather foreign to a communist country, where many were weaned on a diet of intense hatred of Western values.

And the president is paying generously. He preaches in favor of strengthening civil society and improving the level of civil servants and administration. At the same time, he speaks of the need for wage reform in the civil service. The president was surely referring to the masses of clerks, policemen and teachers who have been left behind by the rapid economic growth and the opening of the markets. It is easy to imagine what goes through the mind of a traffic cop who earns $500-600 annually (not per month) when the Mercedes owner caught by a speed camera sticks $50 in the cop's hand. From there it is a short way to false arrests and extortions. A young woman in Saigon said the new generation of cellular phones has led to a substantial drop in police corruption. Eyewitnesses catch policemen red-handed, photograph the incident and send the photo to the newspapers.

Closer to free societies

Pam Doyang Twian asked the prime minister how his order banning the privatization of the communications market suits the national goal of liberalization and democratization. If one links the sharp answer to the interesting question, one gets the Vietnamese version: "The order was intended to prevent control or influence over the media by any one entity seeking personal profit." The prime minister was careful to note the important role of the media and to praise its accomplishments, but stated he was confident that the people agreed with the privatization ban.

The monopoly over political power, the media and information, and the party's control over the "freedom" of unionization, are more or less all that's left of communism there. All other aspects are closer to open and free societies than to Eastern European communism: competition, consumption and materialism. All of this exists without the European-style social-democratic tradition.

The wealthy obtain a good education for their children and good social welfare benefits for their parents. The Western diplomat explained the guiding philosophy of 2007 Vietnam in one sentence: "You, the citizens, work and make money, and leave government to us." In other words, communist control without communism; or, in "whitewashed" words, socialism of market forces. This is how they defined the reforms in the communist economy, which started in Eastern Europe and continued in China.

The practical significance of the transition from old to new is every man for himself. In the meantime, the huge human energies released as a result of the economic freedom and the accelerated growth are contributing to social and political stability. Its fruits are evident on every street corner. Bicycles have been replaced by masses of mopeds, which are gradually becoming popular means of transport.

Along with them came not only air pollution, but also huge gaps between the upper class and the masses left behind, no social security net and an erosion of ideology. Every man for himself, taken collectively, heralds a giant class polarization. At every tourist site, we were approached by young children, including some who did not look older than six, trying to sell us postcards and souvenirs. Everything for a dollar. They are there around the clock. The schools have two shifts and a short day (the first shift ends at 11:30).

Sanctified studies

Vietnam owes its sanctification of learning and education, in the best Mandarin tradition, to its many years of Chinese influence. This tradition, more than modernization, gives Vietnam "a tailwind" in its race toward progress. Pam, our guide in northern Vietnam, was born to rural rice growers. They cut back on food in order to give him an education. After Pam completed his studies, he started financing those of his younger brother. Unlike Eastern Europe, the Vietnamese government will not do this for him. He said that despite the fact that he had to spend the New Year's holiday with us, his wife and baby were spending it with his family - the man's family - and there was "no way" they would spend it with the woman's family. Tradition.

A New Year's visit to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi illustrates how, thanks to this tradition, 94 percent of the residents are literate in such a poor country. Thousands of children and parents stood at the entrance to the temple, the first national academy established in Vietnam in the 11th century. Eighty-two stone tablets, supported by giant turtle statues, bear etchings of the test results of hundreds of graduates who studied at this important Confucian learning center between 1442 and 1779.

People come here to pray at the foot of the statue of Confucius and to stroke the head of a turtle, a good luck charm for exams. Some take part in a calligraphy competition or watch chess games in the plaza outside the temple, next to a troupe of adult women in traditional dress singing and dancing before the altar. After the completion of the prayer service and the lighting of incense inside the temple, the masses of visitors go to the monumental mausoleum of Ho Chi Min. The exalted leader, referred to as "Uncle Ho," did not touch the temples and did not suggest communism as an alternative to tradition.

Street photographers stationed along the avenue ahead of the Tet carnival invited celebrating parents to perpetuate the image of their children in front of giant Buddha statues. One photographer pasted a $100 bill on the forehead of a stature. Another painted a motorcycle with red, white and blue stars and stripes. Alongside them, a souvenir stand was selling T-shirts bearing the image of Ho Chi Min, the great fighter against the American invader and his southern allies.

Vietnam's president told the diplomat something that left an indelible impression: "We will never allow the past to control our future." Even this pragmatism about anything related to the United States and its allies in the war (which they refer to as "the American war") is rooted in Buddhist tradition. No emotions are wasted on looking back in anger. All eyes are focused ahead.

On the road to the famous tunnel camp at Cu Chi, where Vietcong fighters hid, we stopped at a humble inn on the edge of the village of Trang Bang. No one would have known its name had it not been for the photographer Nick Ut, who immortalized the naked young girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who was badly burned by an American napalm bomb. The photo of the crying, running girl, with her brother next to her, became the photo of the Vietnam War.

Her life was saved thanks to donors from around the world, who were unable to sleep after seeing the horrific image. Kim was appointed a good-will ambassador by UNESCO and lives in Canada. She refused to become a Vietnamese anti-war symbol. What remains of her story in the little village is a film her relatives show to tourists, before they try to sell them cold drinks.

On the banks of the Mekong River we met a bearded Vietnamese man known as "Mr. Tiger." Our escort said he is 87, if not more. Mr. Tiger fought the Japanese, the French and the Americans, but welcomes tourists from Japan, France and the U.S. "They're not guilty," he explains. "Their leaders are guilty."

He leads us along the paths of his vast nursery, between unfamiliar fruit trees and rare ornamental plants. Yes, he is a party member, but just like the wars of the past, he has no desire to talk about the future of communism in his country. It doesn't seem that Mr. Tiger is troubled by the fate of the workers of the world. Buy a bottle of the liquor he produces from the cassava fruit, and he will share a toast with you.