Thursday, January 21, 2016

Was it worth it?

During the 1960s many took to the streets demonstrating against the Americans in Vietnam and chanting slogans such as “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh / We shall fight and we shall win” The SPGB were one of the few organisations who did not offer any support for either side in the Vietnam War. The Socialist Party argued that working class has not one shred of interest to justify their participation in any of capitalism’s wars. Workers will not invest capital in Vietnam when the war was over and peace restored. Workers will make no profit by employing the Vietnamese at low wages, selling commodities on the world market, and extracting cheap raw materials from the area. The only task workers will be called upon for is to leave their mangled bodies in the jungle slaughterhouse. The nightmare of capitalism will continue—business as usual. We repeat again: there are no issues or interests involved in any war that are the least concern of the working class. Capitalism has created an endless succession of wars. Since this Party was formed in 1904 we have condemned them all. There are no principles higher than profits and no permanent alliances under capitalism. A look at today’s Vietnam suggests that our position was the correct one to hold

In Vietnam inequality is growing, and becoming increasingly marked in the housing market . Multi-billion dollar developments are rising across Hanoi, separating the wealthy with walls and 24-hour private security from street hawkers, traffic congestion and air pollution. The multi-billion dollar Ciputra International City complex, in northwest Hanoi, covers 300 hectares (741 acres) of former farmland with mansions, private schools, a clubhouse and fine wine store. Surrounded by thick concrete walls and guarded gates, it is a private enclave of ostentatious wealth – a paradise for the Vietnamese elite. Inside the gates, wide roads are flanked by luxury cars, palm trees and giant statues of Greek gods.

Across the city, work is under way at Ecopark, a grand, $8bn (£5bn) private development being built on the eastern edge of Hanoi. Set to be completed in 2020, it promises secluded luxury with a private university, purpose-built “old town” and 18-hole golf course among the amenities planned. The first phase of the development, named Palm Springs – after the California desert resort city famous for hot springs, golf courses and five-star hotels – has just been completed.

“Before, most people were poor. Now it’s different…. some people are so rich, and some are so poor.” says Lam, who grew up on what was then the western fringe of Hanoi in the middle of fields of rice and cherry blossoms, kumquat and peach trees. The fields are long gone, and across the road a thick, high concrete wall separates Lam’s side from the Ciputra gated community, guarded by 24-hour private security. Behind Ciputra’s walls, villas are set amid lush private gardens – with price-tags of as much as £3,000 a month to rent (25 times the minimum wage). A world unto itself, the complex is a land of Greek revival architecture, tennis courts and amenities including a beauty salon and a post office. The United Nations International School moved there in 2004, followed by two other private schools, and a private kindergarten. Under construction still are a mega-shopping mall and a private hospital. Built in the early 2000s to house up to 50,000 people, Ciputra was Hanoi’s first “integrated new town development”, and the first overseas project of the Ciputra Group, an Indonesian conglomerate named after its billionaire founder that specialises in large-scale property developments and private townships. Designed so that residents rarely need to leave – or interact with the world around them – the company says the Hanoi complex offers “the very best of living, business, shopping, leisure and entertainment in one premier location”. Today it is one of a growing number of gated communities and large-scale private townships in and around the city.

“This side is just ordinary people. Over there, they are rich,” says Mien, “Over here we have just enough to live on,” she says.

As Vietnam liberalised its economy, the number of extremely wealthy citizens has skyrocketed. By one estimate, the number of super-rich – those with assets of more than $30m – more than tripled in the last 10 years. While the wealth gap may be largest between the rural poor and the urban elite, it is most noticeable in the cities where rich and poor live side by side. Fences and walls are going up, dividing high-end property developments from the villages, farms and small one-room houses, doubling up as tea shops and mechanics’ workshops. Hanoi plans to gentrify the historic Old Quarter by pushing thousands of people out of the area by 2020. In the suburbs, luxury high-rises are going up. Across the city, former collective housing blocks are being demolished and replaced by private apartment complexes.

In the area near the Ecopark development, villagers say thousands of families were forced against their will to give up their land, with many former farmers now unemployed and in debt as a result of losing their livelihood. Phu is one of them. The former rice farmer lives in Xuan Quang village, a short drive from Ecopark. He says his family lost almost 1,000 sq m of land to the project, for which they received 50m dong (around £1,500). He says this was not enough to compensate for his family’s loss, and that he and his children, who were also farmers, are now without work. “People didn’t want to sell the land because farmers have to have land, just like factory workers need factories,” said Phu. “Now that we’ve lost the land, what should we do?”

Lisa Drummond, an urban studies professor at York University in Toronto, has been studying Hanoi for decades. She says a “chasm has begun to open up” between rich and poor in the city, and that developments such as Ciputra and Ecopark reflect – and also perpetuate – these inequalities. “They remove a group of people from active everyday engagement in the city,” Drummond says. “They take that group of people and allow them to withdraw from the city, behind walls; to have their own private facilities in an economically homogenous space – because, of course, money buys entry to that space, so only those with money can be there.” According to Drummond: “There’s a lot of discussion now about how the air in Hanoi is very bad, how the city is very polluted, that it’s full of garbage … It’s beginning to acquire a bit of a sense of dangerousness, of toxicity.” But, she says, by creating spaces where “the wealthy can remove themselves from the city”, elite urban developments marketed for their superior environmental qualities “perpetuate the sense of the central city as a space that is to be avoided … and perpetuate the gap between those who have the wealth to make that move and those who don’t.”

Danielle Labbé, professor of urban planning at the University of Montreal, has been following the explosion of master-planned “new urban areas” in Hanoi for years. She estimates there are about 35 of these projects already completed in Hanoi, with as many as 200 more at different stages in the pipeline. Not all of these are gated, and most are not as large as Ciputra, says Labbé. But all share a principal target market: the wealthiest residents in the city. “The reality is that these projects, the housing and the living environments that are produced, are basically out of reach to the majority of the population,” Labbé says, despite there being “an enormous demand for urban housing in Vietnam which is not being met”. Labbé says this development boom was spurred on by two key pieces of legislation: a new land law in 2003, and a decree in 2007 that transferred power to redevelop land to local authorities (previously, decisions had to be taken by the prime minister). Last year, Vietnam also loosened its long-standing restrictions on foreign ownership of companies and property in the country – adopting new policies to boost overseas investment in real estate that could further fuel these trends.

There is a lot of money to be made in Hanoi’s gated communities, private townships and luxury property developments, and catering to the urban elite has made some of Vietnam’s wealthy even wealthier. Pham Nhat Vuong – sometimes described as “the Vietnamese Donald Trump has an estimated $1.9bn net worth from his majority stake in Vingroup, one of the country’s largest developers of shopping malls and high-end housing developments. In Hanoi, Vingroup’s portfolio includes a massive underground complex south of the city centre, complete with a year-round ice skating rink.

And it’s not just the capital that’s being transformed. Across the country construction is under way. With Vung Ro Petroleum, a Vietnamese company, the US-based Rose Rock Group, an investment firm founded by members of the Rockefeller family, is developing a massive $2.5bn real estate complex along the south-eastern coast.

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