Vietnam’s social media outlets have been abuzz for the past week with claims that Communist Party chief and President Nguyen Phu Trong was rushed to hospital o­n April 14 and has yet to re-emerge in the public eye.

Some o­nline posts have said the country’s most powerful politician merely had the flu, while others have claimed he suffered either a brain hemorrhage or a stroke and is o­n his deathbed.

Spinning into the cyclone of speculation, some have even alleged that Trong was assassinated by supporters of his rival, former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Trong, the reports note, was visiting Dung’s stronghold Kien Giang province when news of Trong’s illness first broke.

Others have claimed that there could have been a palace coup, perhaps led by Tran Quoc Vuong, who as the Central Committee’s Secretariat is in charge of managing the Party’s daily work, o­ne of the Party’s most powerful positions.

More credible reports suggest that he was either taken to Cho Ray hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, the southern financial hub, or was flown to a Japan for treatment. If the latter is proven true, his condition is likely serious; most senior politicians receive treatment domestically for reasons of nationalism barring life-threatening conditions.

Carl Thayer, an academic expert o­n Vietnam, wrote in a briefing that private sources say Trong has “partly recovered,” most likely from a stroke, but is paralyzed in o­ne arm.

Thayer added that the seriousness of his condition could be interpreted in whether he takes part in the next Central Committee plenum, which is set to be held in May.

Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong gestures as he waits for deputies to join him o­n the podium for a group photo at the end of the final meeting of the outgoing parliament in Hanoi o­n April 12, 2016.Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Vietnam’s Communist Party Secretary General and President Nguyen Phu Trong at parliament in Hanoi o­n April 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Asia Times could not independently confirm any of the reports or speculation. But despite the state media’s reticence, Trong’s illness is now effectively an open secret in Vietnam’s tightly controlled society and internet. o­n April 14, “Trong” became o­ne of the most searched words o­n Google in Vietnam.

Trong became the Part’s general secretary in 2011. But his first five years in office were frustrated by a rivalry with then prime minister Dung, who had amassed an atypical amount of power in the civilian government apparatus at the expense of the Party.

With his power secure, Trong has launched an anti-corruption drive to remove Dung’s protégées from the Party and to sever the links between Party officials and corrupt executives in state-owned enterprises.

Trong has consolidated even more power since he became state president in late 2018, taking over from Tran Dai Quang, who passed away in September last year. It is notable that state media remained silent o­n Quang’s ill-health until just before he passed away.

If Trong were to unexpectedly fall from power, it could have a seismic effect o­n the country’s secretive and cloistered politics. For decades, the Party abided by an unwritten agreement that no o­ne person would hold more than o­ne the top four political positions at the same time.

Some analysts thought that by merging the president and general secretary posts, Trong aimed to consolidate his power and follow the path charted by Xi Jinping, who holds the same two positions in China. Another perhaps more compelling explanation is that he wanted to play a more active role in foreign affairs.

Vietnam’s relations with China can be conducted between their respective communist parties. But the United States, now o­ne of Vietnam’s closest allies, prefers to deal with members of civilian government, not those from the Party apparatus.

US President Donald Trump (L) and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, February 27, 2019, ahead of the second US-North Korea summit. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency
Is Vietnam’s leader Trong o­n his deathbed?
And if so what would it mean for the nation’s secretive and divided politics ahead of an undecided leadership succession in 2021?

ByDAVID HUTT, HO CHI MINH CITY
Vietnam’s social media outlets have been abuzz for the past week with claims that Communist Party chief and President Nguyen Phu Trong was rushed to hospital o­n April 14 and has yet to re-emerge in the public eye.
Some o­nline posts have said the country’s most powerful politician merely had the flu, while others have claimed he suffered either a brain hemorrhage or a stroke and is o­n his deathbed.

Spinning into the cyclone of speculation, some have even alleged that Trong was assassinated by supporters of his rival, former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Trong, the reports note, was visiting Dung’s stronghold Kien Giang province when news of Trong’s illness first broke.
Others have claimed that there could have been a palace coup, perhaps led by Tran Quoc Vuong, who as the Central Committee’s Secretariat is in charge of managing the Party’s daily work, o­ne of the Party’s most powerful positions.

More credible reports suggest that he was either taken to Cho Ray hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, the southern financial hub, or was flown to a Japan for treatment. If the latter is proven true, his condition is likely serious; most senior politicians receive treatment domestically for reasons of nationalism barring life-threatening conditions.
Carl Thayer, an academic expert o­n Vietnam, wrote in a briefing that private sources say Trong has “partly recovered,” most likely from a stroke, but is paralyzed in o­ne arm.
Thayer added that the seriousness of his condition could be interpreted in whether he takes part in the next Central Committee plenum, which is set to be held in May.
Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong gestures as he waits for deputies to join him o­n the podium for a group photo at the end of the final meeting of the outgoing parliament in Hanoi o­n April 12, 2016.Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam 
Vietnam’s Communist Party Secretary General and President Nguyen Phu Trong at parliament in Hanoi o­n April 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Asia Times could not independently confirm any of the reports or speculation. But despite the state media’s reticence, Trong’s illness is now effectively an open secret in Vietnam’s tightly controlled society and internet. o­n April 14, “Trong” became o­ne of the most searched words o­n Google in Vietnam
Trong became the Part’s general secretary in 2011. But his first five years in office were frustrated by a rivalry with then prime minister Dung, who had amassed an atypical amount of power in the civilian government apparatus at the expense of the Party.

In February, as Hanoi hosted the US-North Korean peace talks, US President Donald Trump is believed to have invited Trong o­n a state-visit to Washington sometime later in the year.
This would have proved somewhat problematic for Trong when he was just Party chief. But as state president, he is now Vietnam’s head of state, allowing the Party to have a greater say over foreign affairs.
But if Trong’s accession to the presidency was supposed to ease how foreign relations are conducted – as opposed to any dictatorial ambitions of Trong – his illness, if long-term and debilitating, could jeopardize all that.

If he is now unable to travel abroad, it could mean Trong has to resign from the position.
Nguyen Khac Giang, senior research fellow at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, has pointed out that Trong could be hoist with his own petard.
In early 2018, under Trong’s leadership, the Politburo issued Regulation No. 90 that rules senior political officials must pass health tests to continue in office.

“The move was then seen as an effort to ward off [the late president] Quang’s influence; it will bring some sense of irony if the regulation comes back to bite Trong so soon,” Giang wrote in the Diplomat last week.