HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party for the first time chose a U.S.-educated government official to join its highest decision-making body, tapping a face familiar to Western investors as it seeks to revive the economy.
Nguyen Thien Nhan, 59, a deputy prime minister who received a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oregon, was picked at a party meeting to join the Politburo, the official Vietnam News Agency reported Saturday.
Nhan was vice-chairman of Ho Chi Minh City’s main governing body when Intel Corp. decided to locate a $1 billion plant in the city.
“I’ve gone on road trips with him to the U.S. where he would run his own PowerPoint presentations for potential investors, and his whole approach was just world class,” said Fred Burke, Ho Chi Minh City-based managing director of the law firm Baker & McKenzie (Vietnam) Ltd., who has known Nhan for more than a decade.
“He is from a new generation that has had significant international exposure.”
The Communist Party is attempting to boost an economy hampered by slow credit growth due to concern over the health of the banking system and state-owned companies. The party began a shift to a freer-market economy in 1986, and the country opened a stock exchange in 2000 and joined the World Trade Organization in 2007.
“For a younger generation of leaders, making choices such as cutting down the state sector is not going to be as difficult as it was for their predecessors,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston, who specializes in Southeast Asia. “The leadership in Vietnam is really stuck between the state and market.”
Vietnam is one of 12 Asia-Pacific countries negotiating to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord. The International Monetary Fund last month cut its growth forecasts for Vietnam to 5.2 percent for this year and next.
Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, 59, a National Assembly deputy chairwoman, was also promoted to the Politburo to become the second female member along with Tong Thi Phong, who joined in 2011.
The Politburo had 14 members before Saturday’s additions, according to the Communist Party’s news website.
Many of Vietnam’s leaders came of age during the war years and were educated within the country or in former Soviet-bloc nations. In a statement received on May 10, Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said that “up to now, there have been no Politburo members who graduated from U.S. schools.”
Nhan, also a former education minister, hails from the Mekong Delta. He received a degree in cybernetics from a university in the former East Germany in 1979, and was a professor before entering politics.
Nhan’s elevation could make him a candidate for prime minister during the political cycle that will accompany the next party congress, according to Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.
The last congress was held in January 2011, and meetings are typically held every five years.
“Nhan’s primary skill is seen as dealing with the West,” said Thayer. “This is someone who has a great network of international contacts.”
The Politburo is Vietnam’s most important political institution, according to Abuza from Simmons College.
“They don’t always micromanage policy, but they set the parameters in which policies can be implemented,” Abuza said. “If it’s an important decision, they are the only ones who can make it.”
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