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Vietnamese Happy With Life, Poll Says

Attitudes: UCI survey also finds support for reforms. Expatriates say government's role taints findings.


Under the direction of UC Irvine researchers, a groundbreaking, first-ever survey of political and social attitudes in Vietnam has found people happy with their lives and government.

The survey, part of an ongoing effort to track political and social attitudes throughout the world, was conducted in 29 of Vietnam's 61 provinces by government-sponsored researchers trained in Hanoi by Nhu-Ngoc Ong, a UCI graduate student.

The survey's findings, though, fanned sparks of skepticism among some Vietnamese emigres, who praised the effort but said the Communist government's involvement taints the results.

Conducted by the Vietnamese government-funded Institute for Human Studies, the survey found most Vietnamese believe democracy to be the best form of government and prefer private ownership of business to government ownership--seemingly in conflict with Vietnam's Communist regime.

Yet most Vietnamese said they are happy with their situations and confident in their government and military.

Some expatriates questioned whether the people of Vietnam, under Communist rule since 1975, have a clear sense of what constitutes democracy.

"They've been raised to think that they have democracy and that their party is made up of the best people selected to represent the will of the people," said Lan Quoc Nguyen, a Westminster attorney and community activist. "But do they know that democracy is when you get to vote or have opposing parties? Because of the environment, you have to be very careful in setting up your survey."

Russell J. Dalton, director of UCI's Center for the Study of Democracy, which oversaw the survey, said he stands behind the findings.

"I would guess that both sides will find things they like and dislike," he said. "For example, two-thirds of Vietnamese say there should be major reforms. That's not going to be encouraging to the regime."

Yet Dalton understands the cynicism by former refugees.

"The one part of the survey I have the greatest caution about is 'trust in government institutions,' " Dalton said, acknowledging that respondents--as in other developing nations--are likely reticent about openly criticizing their government.

Results Are Valid, Researcher Says

Still, Dalton said he believes the results reflect true opinions about levels of happiness, and about such social issues as strength of family, role of women, religion and acceptance of homosexuality.

The proof, Dalton said, lies in the answers.

"One always worries in a less-open society that people are hesitant to say things not supportive of the regime, but almost three-quarters [of Vietnamese] say democracy is the best form of government. To think that 81% of Vietnamese think that business should be privately owned is a dramatic difference from the way we used to think of communist and socialist societies."

The research was conducted as part of the World Values Survey, a project that began in 1980 to track attitudes in more than 60 nations, including the United States. The survey of 1,000 people has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Expatriate Vietnamese said they doubt respondents would be honest when someone from a government institution knocked on their door to ask if they supported the government.

"I have some suspicions on the process," said Bich Ngoc Nguyen, director of Radio Free Asia. "In Vietnam, they can't do an unbiased survey without the government watching over their shoulders."

The survey found nine out 10 Vietnamese are "very or quite happy with their situation," and only one-third said they are unhappy with their lives overall.

That measure of what is known as "subjective well-being" is higher than is usually found in developing countries and on par with findings in China, Mexico, Chile and Spain, the study said.

Family ranked high in terms of importance, a finding Dalton said was higher but in keeping with findings in previous surveys of other Asian societies, including China.

Most respondents said they have weekly contact with relatives and that family is the most important part of life, with work seen as less important but significant.

And though 97% agree that both spouses should contribute to household income, the study found traditional outlooks toward the role of women, with 86% saying that housework is as fulfilling as a paying job and that women need to have children. Just over half--56%--said men were better suited for politics.

Nearly half--46%--said they do not belong to a religion, and only 10% said religion is important to their lives. Four out of five people doubt religious leaders could adequately answer social problems, and two-thirds said religious leaders should not influence government decisions.

81% Back Private Business Ownership

In economics, 81% support private ownership of business, reflecting Vietnam's shift to a market economy in recent years.

And 60% think personal incomes should reflect individual effort, a key ingredient in a free-market economy, which was supported most strongly by young professionals.

Overall, the study found Vietnamese have more confidence in institutions (including government, the military and unions) than do people in Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

Of 14 institutions rated, the only ones in which Vietnamese have less faith than people in the other nations are churches and the United Nations.

Details on the survey are available at the center's Web site:

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