HO CHI MINH CITY -- Vietnamese are increasingly turning to social media and what some call "mystery blogs" for information not covered by the mainstream press. And so it was that, late in the evening of Jan. 9, people gathered at Da Nang International Airport in the hope of witnessing the homecoming of an anti-corruption crusader after receiving medical treatment in the U.S.
The chartered flight was said to have been delayed twice due to bad weather; it had been expected Jan. 5 or Jan. 6. Finally, on the night of Jan. 9, video footage uploaded to Facebook showed cars with blue government plates, as well as an ambulance, heading from the airport to a Da Nang hospital.
The man at the center of all this attention is Nguyen Ba Thanh, who served as the central city's top official from 2003 to early 2013. He spoke out against corruption and pledged to eradicate officials on the take. But since the end of 2013, after a trip to China, he stopped showing up at big meetings and conferences.
The central commission tasked with caring for senior party officials said nothing about Thanh until October 2014, when it announced that he had been treated in the U.S. While dissidents inside and outside the country questioned his long absence, the regular media stayed mum.
The real story?
In their search for answers, Vietnamese are turning to mystery blogs, which are launched months before big political events and often have behind-the-scenes stories on Vietnamese politics. One blog, chandungquyenluc.blogspot.com (portraits of manpower), claimed Thanh had been poisoned by a political rival during the trip to China. This rival is supposedly up for a cabinet post in the next administration.
At the beginning of the year, when the blog posted its theory about the poisoning, it said Thanh would be brought back to Vietnam on Jan. 5. When reporters asked government officials about the plan, the leader of the central commission said it was only a rumor and that there were no immediate plans to bring him home. Soon afterward, however, the blog followed up with more details, prompting local reporters to pursue the matter further with hospital and municipal leaders. They confirmed Thanh's return trip.
According to a local paper, Thanh fell ill in May last year and was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a disease marked by the inability to produce blood cells. He sought treatment in Singapore in June and July and then in the U.S. in August. He is now said to be receiving further treatment in Da Nang, his hometown.
However, Thanh's actual situation is unclear. On Jan. 10, health experts insisted his health was improving. While the mainstream media has not released any photos of Thanh's current condition, the Internet is full of images linked to Thanh, showing a man who appears to be receiving cancer treatment. Thanh's family has been silent on the matter. There is even some speculation that he is dead.
What people are saying
There have been three main talking points regarding Thanh's story making the rounds on Vietnamese social media over the past two weeks. All of this discussion has taken place amid slow Internet access speeds due to what the government says is a broken undersea cable. But observers have commented that these kinds of technical problems tend to arise during politically sensitive times in the Communist nation.
One focus of discussion revolves around the belief among many Vietnamese that while Thanh himself may not have been the cleanest of politicians, he helped build Da Nang into what some call Vietnam's most livable city. Local social activists have said this acceptance of Thanh illustrates just how disillusioned Vietnamese people have become about their leaders. That is, as long as a politician shows genuine concern about people's lives and the country's development, the public will readily forgive them for any misdeeds they may have engaged in.
A local newspaper cited Australia-based Vietnam expert Carl Thayer as saying Thanh was a popular leader because he advanced grass-roots democracy, improved administration and pioneered direct elections. Thayer also said Thanh oversaw the transformation of Da Nang into a truly modern, attractive and outward-looking city.
Many regard him as their last hope in the frustrating battle against the problem of rampant bribery and corruption across the country. Vietnam ranked 119th out of 174 countries and territories in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, down from 116th place the previous year.
A second talking point on social media is the belief by the majority those online that Thanh was poisoned. Although a mainstream newspaper cited government officials as rejecting that notion, the Internet community refuses to be swayed, reposting links of photos, documents and other "evidence" offered by mystery blogs. This is yet another indication that the public is losing its trust in officials and mainstream newspapers, which are widely seen merely as government mouthpieces.
A third focus of discussion revolves around predictions that the fighting among Vietnam's various interest groups will become fiercer as the Communist Party of Vietnam prepares for a new Politburo, including a new party general secretary. The new politburo members and general secretary will not be officially selected until the party's 12th National Congress in early 2016, but candidates have already been suggested and voted on at the provincial level.
Rumors of bribery, corruption and huge unreported assets among Vietnamese politicians have been growing in the wake of high-profile cases involving top government officials. Although Vietnam imposed a law in 1998 requiring government officials to declare their assets, no incumbent senior officials who have huge assets have done so.
Social media such as Facebook and mystery blogs will undoubtedly be used as tools in the fight for power leading up to the selection of the new Politburo. The sites will leak information focusing on certain individuals, distracting the public from pressing national issues. Interestingly, while access to the personal websites of activists and dissidents is restricted, there do not seem to be any firewalls blocking access to the mystery blogs.
Those who manage the blogs also take advantage of Vietnam's active Internet population -- 36 million of the country's 92 million people are online -- to transmit information that benefits particular individuals. The information and photos uploaded to these blogs, traditionally censored by the mainstream media, will spread quickly spread via Facebook, the most popular social network in Vietnam, which has more than 19.6 million users, according to statistics for 2013 from Socialbakers.
Activists, dissidents and local journalists are generally of the view that the information leaked on these sites is accurate, detailed, purposeful and comes from sources close to high-ranking goverment officials.
While the people who manage these sites are also trying to distract local newspapers ahead of next year's National Congress, the majority of Vietnamese Internet users widely see the blogs as tools for forecasting where the country is heading politically.
Pham Chi Dung, a well-known economist and political analyst, wrote on his popular blog that this is the first time the party system and mainstream media have been thrown into such turmoil by a mystery blog.
"In 2015, Vietnamese will see more new mystery blogs, just like Chandungquyenluc, flooded with confidential and secret information," he wrote. "And the identities of the politicians who stand behind these blogs may be disclosed. This will create chaos, suspicions and individualization in the party and government, and possibly lead to ... party collapse."