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New Books at Biddle: “Law and Society in Vietnam”

September 24, 2008


Since serving in the Army in Vietnam in 1969, I have maintained a keen interest in materials that are produced on this country.  Even after “9-11,” the politics and culture of Vietnam are enduring topics for books, articles, and films.

Mark Sidel is Professor of Law at the University of Iowa and a research scholar at the University’s Oberman Center for Advanced Studies. His research focuses on comparative law in Asia with a focus on Vietnam, China, India and South Asia. He also taught Vietnamese and Chinese Law at Harvard Law School. He managed the Ford Foundation’s programs in Vietnam from 1992 to 1995.

Law and Society in Vietnam
(Cambridge University Press, 2008) is an analysis of the struggle to construct a rule of law in a socialist state that is gradually transforming into a market economy. It addresses the formation of a strong civil society and non-profit sector and the emergence of economic law, the rise of lawyers and public interest law, and other key topics. Comparisons are made to parallel developments in the People’s Republic of China.

Sidel uses actual cases to allow readers to see legal issues through the lives of the ordinary Vietnamese and their legal problems. He points out the important roles that Chinese, French, Russian and (in the South) American Law have played in the development of different historical stages of Vietnamese law.

In chapter one, “Constitutionalism and the emergence of constitutional dialogue in Vietnam,” Sidel discusses Vietnam’s adoption of four constitutions since it declared independence from the French in 1945.

Sidel devotes the second chapter, “The Emerging debate over constitutional review and enforcement,” to the challenge of enforcing constitutional law in a country with a history of authoritarianism and political corruption like Vietnam.

Chapter three, “Motorbike constitutionalism: the emergence of constitutional claims in Vietnam,” is interesting because motorbikes are a prized symbol of autonomy, prosperity and fun in Vietnam and a convenient form of transportation for work and family. When the national police announce a “one person, one motorbike” rule, Vietnam’s first mass public assertion of constitutional rights is sparked.

In chapter seven, “Testing the limits of advocacy: the emergence of public interest law in Vietnam,” Sidel suggests that law schools should be assisted in establishing legal clinics for the assertion of rights–not merely the drafting of laws–and law colleges should protect those clinics that assert rights.

The book includes two interesting tables that show Vietnamese labor exported from 1980 to 2006, year by year. You can check out my earlier blog entries for other books on Vietnam.