Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Vietnam, doi moi and the search for business and economic strength and global relevance 6: the quest for an enabling 21st century infrastructure 3

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on April 5, 2015

This is my sixth installment to a series on Vietnam (see the UN-GAID directory, postings 34 and following for Parts 1-5.) And this is also my third installment where I focus specifically on the issues of infrastructure development in that country and on the complex contexts that this is all taking place in (see Part 4 and Part 5.)

I selected three core infrastructure development areas to discuss here in this series:

• Transportation,
• Electrical power generation, and
• Telecommunications and internet access.

And I have focused essentially entirely on the first of them: transportation up to here. My goal for this posting is to continue addressing these arenas of infrastructure development, so I begin here with the second of those three development initiatives: electrical power generation. And that of necessity means discussing both power generation itself, and the issues and challenges of addressing pollution and environmental damage as they have to be addressed in that context too.

While in Vietnam, I was consistently told that some 80% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric power sources and more generally from renewable sources. The bulk of the remaining percentage of electrical power generation comes primarily from coal-fired power plants, and in this regard Vietnam has and mines coal deposits. One of their core infrastructure development goals in this respect is to be and to remain energy independent, and both in their current and anticipated systems and as they grow and expand their business and industrial base and more effectively seek to offer electrical power nationally to their civilian population.

Independence in resource development and in meeting their country’s own needs is and will likely remain a real challenge for Vietnam and if not for electrical power per se, then most certainly for arenas such as petrochemical products production in general and for the production of diesel fuel and gasoline in particular, as needed for example to power cars, trucks and their seemingly endless numbers of motor bikes and motorcycles (see Part 3.) This seeming aside is in fact not entirely a change in topic as one of the consequences of having, for example, over seven million motor scooters and motorcycles in steady daily use in just one of their cities alone: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is that its residents face a significant increase in the levels of air pollution from this: a challenge, I add, that is recapitulated to at least a noticeable degree in essentially all of their major urban centers. Colleagues in Hanoi have discussed with me, and on their own initiative, the air quality issues of their city and I have experienced that type of consequence first hand there too, from the experience of my own breathing. My point here is that the Vietnamese are very aware of air and I add water quality and of the consequences of polluting these essential basic resources. They generate polluting contaminants themselves in their daily lives and from their own businesses and industries, and they do know about their neighbor China’s massive air, water and land pollution challenges too. Certainly in North Vietnam, an at least situationally a significant fraction of the air pollution they face in fact comes from China and particularly from its Yunnan Province and its Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

This awareness, at least as significantly as a perceived need for energy independence make Vietnam’s capacity to generate electrical power from their own hydroelectric sources very publically and yes, politically attractive. Together, this makes clean renewable, Vietnam-sourced energy production a very attractive and significant infrastructure goal, and it is one that that country is actively pursuing.

Longer-term and as their business and industrial base and their public demand for electrical power all grow, all of this is power generation infrastructure is going to have to be scalable – and certainly ideally without creating the types of problems that other countries have faced from over-engineering and over-controlling rivers and other waterways that they would utilize for their hydroelectric power and other water-diverting uses (e.g. in China and also in the United States, Russia and in a great many other nations.)

To draw out that last point, I at least note in passing the ongoing problems of downstream flooding along the Mississippi River that are arguably at least significantly due to over-engineering and over-control of potential flooding upstream along the river by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, citing that as one of the major causal factors that contributed to damage in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. And in the now former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I cite the all but disappearance of the Aral Sea from the damming and divergence to agricultural use of the major rivers that used to feed into that body of water. That specific case in point is very telling here, as over-control of Vietnam’s rivers would hold significant risk for damaging their aquaculture and fish farming systems and risk both significant sources of food for their own people and a significant, actively growing export business sector too. When the Aral Sea began to significantly dry up it became so salty and its acidity/alkalinity balance (pH) was shifted so much that essentially all of its fish died off and even where water remains – where the Aral Sea had been a major source of food for the people living around it and for trade and foreign revenue from its fishing industry. Silt accumulation and related problems that river water over-control can create also kill fish and can significantly kill off large parts of overall aquatic ecosystems.

I discussed transportation systems infrastructure development here in terms of one set of issues and challenges, and I then turned to consider electrical power generation, citing and discussing a distinctly separate if connected second set of such factors. I turn here to at least briefly and I add equally selectively discuss telecommunications and internet access as an overarching communications infrastructure goal. And I begin that by citing as a point of possible comparison a series that I offer here in this blog about Tanzania and that country’s infrastructure development initiative to bring computers and internet access into their far-flung school system (see United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID), postings 16-21 for its Parts 1-6.)

• One of the core essentially axiomatic assumptions that I make throughout this blog and that I have seen repeatedly validated throughout my own hands-on professional experience is that social systems depend on effective communications and information sharing as their life’s blood,
• And that this holds uniformly true for businesses, for governments, and for every other form of community or organization that I have ever dealt with. When more than one person has to be involved, communications become pivotally essential if anything is to work.
• And in the context of this series and of Vietnam this means that developing and maintaining competitively effective and cost-effective telecommunications and internet capabilities. And communications and information sharing resources of these types that are readily, ubiquitously available throughout their country, are going to be essential if Vietnam is to achieve it overall goal of becoming a stronger, wealthier, more competitively effective nation state member of the overall global community.

When I wrote of transportation systems, and of electrical power generation systems in this series I wrote of systems that have very wide-ranging impact and throughout the country. When I write here of telecommunications and internet capabilities, I write about infrastructure development at a deeper, more universally fundamental level – a level that fundamentally shapes and informs all else. And I also write here about an absolute, fundamental need if this type of infrastructure development initiative is to stably succeed, to open the doors of conversation beyond the scope of any single orthodoxy: communist orthodoxy definitely included.

This creates a context where China can be one of Vietnam’s best and most compellingly meaningful teachers – if the people of Vietnam and the people in their Party leadership dispassionately and without bias really study the history that China under communism has lived through as their leadership has alternately opened and closed the door to greater freedom of communication and of expression. China is clamping down on what their One True Party sees as insidious foreign influence right now, as I write this, under the leadership of their new leader Xi Jinping. (See my series China and its Transition Imperatives, and particularly its Parts 13 and following, as can be found at Macroeconomics and Business 2, postings 205 and following. And as a specific resource from that see its Part 16 for its references on how China’s government has for example begun cutting off access to foreign sourced books and journals, textbooks included from their people. I have discussed the policy and the technical implementations of their internet access limiting Golden Shield Project, or Great Firewall as it is also called, throughout that series and in fact for a number of years in this blog now, and simply add that current policy and its implementation in China have simply served to tighten that grip – directly challenging and deterring any foreign business that would seek to do business in that country as just one emerging consequence.)

This raises issues that do not at least directly come up for transportation or electrical power generation infrastructure development projects, and certainly if the new roadways for example, and the output of those power plants are widely and openly available. Software level barriers to access to communications systems, and both for originating and for accessing information sources can be reconfigured and imposed on the more fixed hardware network and computer systems that are put in place at any time, and according to any governing governmental or Party whim – as China’s new policies show. And they are now requiring hardware level back door access into foreign business computers and networks too, as they operate within China as well.

I discuss these and related issues in a China context in more detail and with reference citations in my above noted series, simply noting here that this type of effort to control quickly and essentially inevitably becomes an action that throttles and stifles too. And that brings me to the crux of this line of discussion in this series:

• And how the essential openness that actually pursuing đổi mới or economic restructuring requires,
• Creates an inevitable, fundamental source of conflict with communist ideology per se, as challenging their fundamental, core centrally administratively planned economic model through an intentional shift to a supply and demand, market-driven economic model can only sustainably succeed if this changeover takes place in a context that allows for and supports diversity of opinion.
• Opening up and expanding communications systems and information sharing and accessibility opens the door to this diversity of opinion on all fronts – political and politically ideological included. And that holds promise to directly challenge any still remaining claim that their communist party uniquely holds truth.

I finish this posting at a multiply repeated point that came up for my in conversations in my recent trip to Vietnam, that was always raised and affirmed by Vietnamese and on their own initiative. “Vietnam is no longer really a communist country; it is now a capitalist country.” And I heard this from entrepreneurs and in their northern city of Hanoi more than anywhere else. In Ho Chi Minh City, which many still refer to as Saigon as well, the people I met with simply lived that fact in their day to day entrepreneurial lives.

• Any significant infrastructure development initiative constitutes fundamental change – which is obvious and direct insofar as it revolutionizes the systems that it directly builds upon and creates.
• But even more significantly, any large scale infrastructure also provokes and compels wider-ranging societal change as well.

That last point may also be obvious, at least as a matter of general principle, but its specific consequences can be much more profound and can reach out in directions that the leaders of these initiatives would not have imagined. Ultimately their 1986 decision on the part of Vietnam’s communist leadership to embrace a market driven economic approach started their country on a path that they will not be able to contain within any simple status quo communist-supporting “socialist face” interpretation. Massive and far-reaching infrastructure development creates new opportunities that bring people to think and act in new ways and this fundamentally changes the societies they collectively comprise and in disruptively new ways.

I am going to continue this series discussion in a next installment where I will finally explicitly turn to that third and final topic point in my three point list:

• How other countries relate to and interact with Vietnam.

I will couch that in terms of the first two of those points that I have been discussing up to here:

• Vietnam’s growing role in international commerce and the business systems that make that possible, and
• Their active and still expanding programs of basic infrastructure development that would make this possible, and that would facilitate their country’s active participation in the global community as an equal and a peer,

And in anticipation of that, I note here that I will discuss these issues in that more explicitly international context, at least in part in terms of a macroeconomic metric: the balance of trade, as well as in terms of international politics. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at the UN-GAID directory.

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