Civil society activism in authoritarian contexts: (re)structuring state-society relations in Vietnam

  • Ngoc Anh Vu

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


There is a sizeable lacuna in the literature on civil society activism in authoritarian contexts. My research aims to address this gap by offering a conceptual framework that covers two contrasting forms of activism, i.e. NGO- and citizen-led activism. In particular, the thesis provides a detailed ethnographic account of both NGO- and citizen-led activism in Vietnam and reflects upon the politics of evolving state-society relations in the same country. Analytically, drawing on the relational approach to civil society and mainstream social movement theories, the research focuses on legitimacy, autonomy, as well as formality and informality as the defining characteristics of civil society activism. This framework is applied in the context of Vietnam but arguably can be applied in other authoritarian contexts. This is because these concepts are not only grounded in theories, for they are validated and triangulated through my data collection and analysis. In relation to the NGO-led activism, the thesis showcases a detailed process through which a local NGO orchestrates mobilisation to help local ethnic minorities claim forest land from the state institutions. In relation to the citizen-led activism, the thesis examines a recent broad-based citizen-led movement (the Trees Movement) established to oppose the government’s decision to cut down thousands of large old trees lining the streets of Hanoi and to demand government accountability. Whilst the latter displays a transient, time-bound, issue-based and more antagonistic form of activism, the former illustrates a more sustainable, collaborative, embedded form. Both case studies seek to generate regulatory legitimacy for their activism by appealing to the official state agenda and discourse. Yet, critical differences exist between their legitimation strategies. Whilst the NGO focused on generating pragmatic and cognitive legitimacy, the Trees Movement was more concerned with generating normative legitimacy.In seeking to understand civil society activism in Vietnam, this thesis challenges mainstream civil society theories (liberal tradition) that portray an autonomous and conflictual state-society relationship. It also challenges dominant social movement theories (political process theory) that focus exclusively on the dynamics of overt confrontation with the state. By embracing and problematising different forms of civil society activism, the thesis argues that civil society groups under authoritarian regimes like Vietnam, regardless of whether they are formal and registered or informal and unregistered, have to orchestrate their activism within the state agenda and discourse. Since state authority under authoritarianism remains strong and resilient in the face of a strengthening civil society, being embedded in the state is critical because it offers some guarded room for manoeuvre for civil society groups to accomplish collective goals. Existing scholarship on civil society activism in Vietnam has focused on either state or society-led change. This has led to two different narratives: one around the notion of a strong state and the other around the notion of a vibrant civil society. The thesis contests these polarities and argues that a strong state is not synonymous with state effectiveness and accountability, and that a vibrant civil society does not necessarily lead to positive social outcomes such as political reform or democratisation. Crucially as civil society activism grows and takes on innovative forms, the strength of the state seems also to be growing. This thesis rejects the tendency that exists in much of the current literature to downplay NGO-led engagement at the expense of more antagonistic forms of activism, such as public protests and social movements. Existing accounts also tend to treat each form of activism separately. My research looks at the two forms comparatively and recognises their differences as well as their similarities, their opportunities and their challenges. The central argument is that the growth and expansion of civil society activism are intricately intertwined with political authority and power. The thesis shows that civil society in Vietnam is a vibrant, diverse and evolving space. Its future development and evolution will depend on its ability to successfully navigate the political and social space made available to it.
Date of Award6 Oct 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJoe Devine (Supervisor) & Oliver Walton (Supervisor)


  • Civil society in authoritarian contexts

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