More and more state-owned enterprises in Vietnam, from banks to shipbuilders, are being turned over to private hands. Government-run television stations broadcast competing commercials for consumer goods. For some urban families, weekly trips to megamalls and KFC have become de rigueur. In cafes or on social websites, the young show off branded clothes, electronic toys and photos of trips abroad — while in the streets loudspeakers blare out news of party meetings and decrees.
Communism and capitalism make awkward bedfellows, especially when it comes to culture. The government continues to monitor art exhibitions and music shows, films and TV programs, books and CDs. In classic Communist tradition, it still officially bans “offenses against the state” (an all-encompassing and ill-defined crime), violations of custom (like mannequins without underwear) or behavior it deems deviant (like hair dyed in bright colors). But the new enforcers of these old restrictions are driven less by ideological purity than by a mixed bag of political correctness and market-driven concerns — and this may be hampering artistic creation more than conventional censorship did under classically Communist governments.
For years after the Communists took power in the mid-1950s, party leaders would spell out the limits of what was culturally acceptable. Their mind-set was patriarchal, authoritarian and suspicious. Dull bureaucrats with dull minds would debate a song’s patriotic fervor or a painting’s shades of red. Artists were expected to extol the party’s determination during the war against America and portray the people of reunified Vietnam as peaceful and contented.
In reality, many Vietnamese suffered terribly during the postwar years, thanks largely to a mismanaged central economy. By the mid-1980s, even the Politburo had taken note, and it began a policy called Doi Moi, or Renovation. Some private enterprise was allowed. Farmers could set their own production rates and prices. The country opened up to tourism. Official shackles on culture were also loosened: It was now in the government’s interest to let writers and painters describe the social problems the state was professing to fix.
It was during these laxer days, in 1989, that I first came back to Vietnam. (Like many Vietnamese from the South, I had left at the end of the war.) I met many local artists who were eagerly turning their backs on Soviet-style socialist realism. Painters were embracing abstraction. Writers like Nguyen Minh Chau, Bao Ninh and Nguyen Huy Thiep were detailing not the heroics of war but its horrors, and the enduring hardships of living in post-conflict Vietnam.
By the mid-1990s, however, a new generation of leaders decided they had heard enough criticism, especially about abuses of power, nepotism and corruption. The culture ministry began forcing artists to attend “working sessions,” instructing them to produce more positive images of Vietnam. Renegades were sanctioned.
An exhibit of Truong Tan’s tormented homoerotic paintings was taken down; as was his installation of a giant diaper with the absorbent parts made to look like the pockets on the uniforms of police officers. Le Quang Ha and Le Hong Thai made unflattering portraits of politicians, but even when they painted over them, the faintly discernible silhouettes that remained would earn them official reprimands.
By the time I moved to Vietnam, in 2006, protest art had all but faded away. I opened a gallery in Hanoi seeking out alternative artworks — pieces questioning the hypocrisy of party policies, the traditional treatment of women, the rising influence of money. For a couple of years, the police openly followed me around. Officers would ask me about the intellectuals I met; they would ask my artist friends about me. Yet the gallery was allowed to stay open, and it still is today. This is because it caters to a very small audience and has no ambition to be commercial.
Vietnam has entered yet another era in its history of cultural control. Forget apparatchiks with comb-overs and coordinated suits trying to protect the revolution against degenerate thought. The people who now run Vietnam’s publishing houses, film festivals and cultural exchange programs are artists — many of whom were once censored under Communism — and they have been co-opted by the lure of condos, cars and washing machines.
In the 1990s, Dang Xuan Hoa was noted for making paintings featuring traditional ceramic pots or hand-carved wooden furniture set upside down or lying askew; critics argued that the disarray in the compositions defied the Communists’ insistence on rosy depictions of society. Today, Mr. Hoa’s friends and colleagues wonder about his role as an officer of the Artists’ Union, which vets exhibitions and performances.
A writer whose stories decrying the lack of decency in contemporary Vietnam were once banned is now a state editor for TV and film scripts. Ten years ago, she would complain about the cost of making a cellphone call; she now rides around in a chauffeured S.U.V. Other writers tell me she O.K.’s scripts in exchange for bribes, using her connections with state authorities to bypass restrictions.
One gallery owner describes how customs officials and intermediaries invoke vague cultural proscriptions to prevent her from bringing into the country, or sending out, unconventional artwork. Yet for the right amount of cash, they will let almost any piece through. In the old Communist days, strict party discipline limited bribery. Today, corruption is rampant, and censorship has become a pretext for extortion.
This breeds a curious kind of self-censorship. Artists must choose either to produce noncontroversial, commercial works and pay up, or resign themselves to doing what they want for a tiny audience. Mainstream art is dumbing itself down while truly experimental or critical work is becoming increasingly marginal.
The more avant-garde groups — like the film studio DocLab, the artists’ collective Nha San Studio, the music school and performance group Dom Dom — protect their activities from official scrutiny and bribery by registering as design companies and nonprofit organizations, and working closely with foreign embassies.
Other artists go overseas. Lai Thi Dieu Ha and Nguyen Phuong Linh, two young female painters and performance artists whose works focus on modernization, displacement and repressed sexuality, are better known abroad than in Vietnam. The same goes for the painter and performer Tran Luong and the painter and experimental musician Nguyen Manh Hung, two committed critics of Communism.
For a time, the country’s embrace of capitalism seemed to promise greater freedom for the production of art. But under Vietnam’s new artists/censors, the profit motive is proving even more stifling than political propaganda.
Nguyen Qui Duc, a journalist who covers Asia, runs the alternative-art space Tadioto in Hanoi.