In Vietnam, propaganda lives on

Colourful, strident and ever optimistic, propaganda posters have lined Vietnam’s city streets before and after every big national event for decades, celebrating everything from yearly reunification and independence anniversaries to rarer legislative elections and political congresses.

No longer about war and resistance, they hail the country’s new ideals – development, modernisation, prosperity. Set against the country’s fast growing capitalist skylines, however, their slogans, look and feel like relics of a by-gone era.

“I don’t care about propaganda posters and I don’t find them interesting at all,” said Nam, a young electrical engineer taking a lunch break on the banks of Hanoi’s scenic West Lake. Not far down the street, property broker Thao said the posters were invisible to her. “Every single year, they’re the same.”

Fellow broker Quan thought differently. “They make me feel proud of my country and the party’s traditions,” he said.

Voices like Quan’s were widespread once upon a time in war-torn Vietnam, when “people looked to propaganda posters for a sense of direction,” said historian and National Assembly deputy Duong Trung Quoc. But today’s posters are “boring and repetitive” because of “a lack of investment in logical thinking,” he added.

“Unite – Create – Strive Build and Protect the Homeland”: Security officers on duty near a poster about the Communist Party’s 12th National Congress in Hanoi. (Photo: Do Khuong Duy)

More problematically perhaps, low public interest is a result of the government’s tight lid on political participation. The posters broadcast party lines and government directives often about ideas, issues or events off-limits to the man on the street.

“Take the Party Congress,” said Mr Quoc, referring to the Communist Party’s once-in-five-years gathering in January that installed a new slate of leaders and saw Hanoi’s biggest poster blitz in recent years.

“Everyone knows it’s an important event that affects the country’s development, but people don’t get to participate in it. Only party members do,” he said.

Doan Thi Thu Hong, the chief artist overseeing party poster campaigns for the last 15 years, admitted artists grapple with repetitive themes but dismissed doubts about their relevance in the age of YouTube, Facebook, and the Internet.

“Propaganda posters carry an immense spiritual value to the whole society and community,” said Ms Hong, the deputy director of fine arts at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. “They’re not displayed in galleries or luxurious places, but on the streets so everyone could enjoy them.”

“Build and protect our homeland”: Poster defending Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty produced in the wake of a 2014 oil rig spat with China. (Photo: Do Khuong Duy)

“Youth. Love. Great Ocean.”: Poster defending Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty produced in the wake of a 2014 oil rig spat with China. (Photo: Do Khuong Duy)

Ms Hong’s culture ministry organises regular nationwide poster competitions offering prizes between US$300 and $1500, a tried-and-tested way of generating posters in a country where the minimum wage is $150.

30-year-old Le Duc Tuan Dinh is a repeat winner and one of the 200 estimated graphic designers behind Vietnam’s modern day propaganda. A marketing manager by day and aspiring artist the rest of the time, poster work for Dinh is part-hobby, part-community service.

Le Duc Tuan Dinh is one of an estimated 200 graphic designers behind Vietnam’s modern day propaganda. (Photo: Do Khuong Duy)

“I’ve covered hot social issues like traffic, environment, and more recently, we’re working on posters about insurance,” he told Channel NewsAsia.

Selected artists are also invited to art camps, where the creative process comes with a thorough briefing on the given themes of the year.

Only winning posters make it to the streets, but before that, they go through rounds of selection and a final screening by the decision-making elite of the Communist Party, the Politburo.

How much they cost is a mystery. Leasing a prime location billboard in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City could set a company back US$10,000 a month and up, according to advertising agency estimates. Media owners are likely to offer free space for party messages out of goodwill, but this means the opportunity cost of putting up hundreds or thousands of posters across the country could run in the millions of dollars.

As recently as the 1990s, propaganda posters were the only advertisements and decoration on the streets, said Dominic Scriven, founder of investment group Dragon Capital and a collector of Vietnamese wartime propaganda. Fast forward to 2016, they are competing with corporate commercials in a visual struggle for Vietnam’s communist identity, flagging projections of the state and party’s lasting power facing an uninterested target audience.

“They do not pack the ideological punch of their predecessors,” said Mr Scriven, who has more than a thousand original, hand-painted propaganda posters from the ‘60s and ‘70s in his collection.

“But that doesn’t mean they don’t look good as wall decoration,” he said.


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