The 9-year prison charges against journalist, author and human rights defender Pham Doan Trang made Vietnam's total disregard for human rights more glaring than ever.  The "change through trade" which supposedly gives Western governments inside track on leveraging for human rights has not been utilized at all.


On Tuesday, the Vietnamese activist Pham Doan Trang was jailed by a Hanoi court to nine years in prison. It was “a searing indictment of everything that is wrong with authoritarian Vietnam today,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Trang, a prominent independent journalist, book publisher, and human rights defender, has been harassed by the communist authorities for years, briefly going into hiding in 2018. She was arrested by the police in October last year and charged with disseminating anti-state propaganda. State prosecutors had asked for Trang to be jailed for between seven and eight years, but the Hanoi People’s Court increased the sentence to nine years.

Trang has been called the “most famous activist” in Vietnam. Her easy-to-read textbooks on political history, as well as her music and wider activism, especially on environmental issues, made her a key voice on social media. In 2019, Reporters Without Borders awarded her its Press Freedom Prize. She was also something of a key node between the disparate progressive camps, the link between pro-democracy urbanites, environmental campaigners, and rural land-rights activists.

“This prison sentence is a giant middle finger from Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security to those in the United States and elsewhere who criticize Vietnam’s human rights record,” Bill Hayton, a former correspondent in Vietnam and now of Chatham House, told me. “The Vietnamese leadership knows that it can get away with jailing activists like Trang because Vietnam has become an important component of outside powers’ strategies in East and Southeast Asia.”

Trang was detained in October last year on the same day officials from the United States and Vietnam met to discuss human rights and freedom of expression. That hasn’t been lost on many commentators, who accuse Western governments of doing next-to-nothing to confront Vietnam (now a close friend of the West because of its stance against Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea, as well as its  economic importance and key position in global supply chains) about its dire human rights record.

The implicit claim many Western governments have made is that as they trade more with Vietnam, and make Hanoi increasingly dependent on economic links to free societies, they gain additional leverage to pressure the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) into purposeful political reform. But so-called “change through trade” hasn’t worked. As Western trade with Vietnam has increased, political rights in Vietnam have deteriorated. A report published by Amnesty International in late 2020 asserted that around 170 prisoners of conscience are currently detained in Vietnam, a record high in recent history. The 88 Project asserts that there are now 217 activists in prison, and another 306 at risk. Freedom House, in its latest survey of political rights across the world, downgraded Vietnam’s score to 19 out of 100, the second-worst in Southeast Asia, after also-communist Laos.