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Clinton Sees Young Generation as Face of New Vietnam

Visit: In Hanoi, he calls on youth to help shape nation and improve basic rights.

November 18, 2000|ROBIN WRIGHT and DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HANOI — Sharing a dais with a flower-bedecked bust of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, President Clinton on Friday reached beyond Vietnam's government to appeal to the country's overwhelming young population as the force for change in this Communist state.

The president, on a historic visit to Vietnam, used carefully worded but obvious language to call for basic human rights, from freedom of religion to the right to political dissent.

"Young people are much more likely to have confidence in their future if they have a say in shaping it, in choosing their governmental leaders and having a government that is accountable to those it serves," he said in his first speech in the nation, given to students at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. It was also broadcast twice nationally--the first time live--an unprecedented event for a foreigner.

Clinton hastened to add that the United States does not seek to "impose" its ideals. "Your future should be in your hands," he said.

Washington, however, is clearly counting on the young as one of the two most effective means of transforming Vietnam. The other is the pull of economic prosperity, which is closely intertwined with the demographics of youth. Both are viewed by the administration as more effective than the weapons used to confront Communist rule in Southeast Asia a quarter-century ago.

On this first visit by a U.S. president to Vietnam since the war, Clinton has received an effusive welcome from young and old in the streets of Hanoi. Three times Friday, he worked the crowds as if he were running for office again--and Vietnamese lined up all over the capital to watch his long motorcade whisk by. Both Vietnamese and other diplomats claim that they have never seen such enthusiasm or curiosity about any figure, political or otherwise.

Young people flocked to the university for a glimpse of Clinton. Pham Hong Thuy, 19, said, "If I could have asked Mr. Clinton one question, it would have been why he waited so far into his second term to come to Vietnam."

In a country with 94% literacy, among the highest in the developing world, Vietnam's well-educated young pose one of the greatest challenges to the Communist regime. Roughly 60% of this country's 80 million population was born after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. In comparison, about one-third of Americans were born in the same period.

The government is woefully unable to accommodate the aspirations of the 1.4 million young people who enter the work force annually. Already, thousands of college graduates are working as chambermaids, waiters and taxi drivers, leaving the Communist Party struggling to maintain its relevance to young people more interested the ideology of the MTV generation: a good job, material goods and a good time. Only 12% of Vietnamese younger than 30 belong to the party.

"In 4,000 years, there's never been a generation in Vietnam that has been able to look into the future with a pretty strong assurance of peace and prosperity," U.S. Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, told reporters traveling with Clinton. "So we have a whole different look at where we are and where the country is going."

American culture, cinema and fashion are wildly popular in Vietnam today. Among the most prevalent T-shirts for sale are "Hard Rock Cafe--Hanoi" and "Hard Rock Cafe--Saigon," even though the chain has no presence in either city.

"The average Vietnamese youngster knows exactly as much about the Vietnamese war as one of our high school students somewhere in America, which is probably almost nothing," Peterson said.

"They're really focused on the future," he said. "They're looking at the prospects of improving their quality of life."

Addressing the central issue Vietnam faces, Clinton told an overflow crowd of about 400 students Friday that Americans believe that the "freedom to explore, to travel, to think, to speak, to shape decisions" is critical in building nations as well as enriching individual lives. Vietnam's new generation deserves "the chance to live in your tomorrows, not our yesterdays," he added.

Tackling a theme that causes jitters within Vietnam's old-guard government, Clinton also told the students that globalization is neither something to fear nor a force that the world can either hold off or ignore.

The economies of countries that opened up to the international trading system have grown twice as fast as nations with closed economies. "Your next job may well depend on foreign trade and investment" that are part of globalization, he said pointedly.

To appease fears, the president emphasized that the United States is eager to build a "partnership" with Vietnam and increase cooperation in trade, scientific research, health and environmental advances to help the Southeast Asian nation's development.

Clinton lifted a trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, restored diplomatic relations in 1995 and secured the signing of a U.S.-Vietnamese trade agreement this year.

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