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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reform Capital: Hedging Saigon's Urban Future

  • Author(s): Kim, Hun Kee
  • Advisor(s): Roy, Ananya
  • et al.
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Beginning in the 1990s, Saigon became a frontier of urban development for East and Southeast Asian real estate firms in a period that continues to be known, paradoxically, as “market-oriented socialism.” While maintaining one party rule and a socialist legal, political, and bureaucratic order, Vietnam enacted its own version of perestroika to create a market-based economy and in the process has become a late-socialist state. Buoyed by this reform mandate, Vietnamese state agencies have partnered with Asian investors as well as with international development institutions to reimagine and build Saigon into a world-class city. In Saigon, urban property development, along with infrastructure projects have become major sources of national growth. That is, urbanization fueled by foreign direct investment has been at the center of the country’s growth with Vietnam the second fastest developing economy after China. Based on eighteen months of ethnographic research from 2012 to 2013 this dissertation examines reform as not merely technocratic but as an innovative feature in Saigon’s urbanism. Reform, I argue, is a mode of governing that can funnel future aspirations into the present, transpose beauty onto disarray, and suspend critiques of governance and growing inequality in its pitch of Saigon as part of Asia’s world-class cities. I demonstrate how the Vietnamese state, which is itself made up of many agencies and individuals with competing aspirations, utilizes multiple and seemingly contradictory modes of reform to capture foreign investment and create the city anew.

I examine one mode of reform under a category I call opacity to describe legal and regulatory

practices in urban development that are often foreclosed analytically when identified as

corruption. I argue that these practices are in fact flexible strategies capable of catering to the

multiple and contradictory demands of foreign investor-builders from within the region (South

Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) who are crucial to national economic growth. Often, these demands are for exceptions to urban regulation, predicated on these developers’ experiences in real estate in their home countries. I trace a second mode of reform under a category that I call transparency. While investors from Asia are plentiful in the real estate development game in Saigon, western investors in contrast are visibly absent. I argue that this is largely due to the pervasive characterization of the late socialist state as an agent of crony capitalism and corruption. But other western institutions operate in the city to deal with corruption, framed as an issue of malfeasance requiring diagnosis and intervention. Corruption accordingly has spawned and legitimated interventions that fall under the rubric of “governance reform.” The aim of western institutions is to create a more transparent system of urban development. Governance reform relies heavily on concepts of liberalism, including strong private property rights, greater citizen participation in urban planning, public administrative and bureaucratic reform, and the creation of the rule of law. The Vietnamese state participates equally in these reforms to capture and comply with multilateral development organizations like the World Bank who invest in urban infrastructure such as Saigon’s subway lines and its national highways.

The dissertation argues that these two modes of reform—opacity and transparency—allow the Vietnamese state to mobilize its governance over the urban environment in order to speculate on two very distinct urban futures, futures that are linked to speculative property capital from Asia on the one hand, and western development institutions on the other. These divergent futures appear at a moment when the referents of the world-class city are shifting from West to East, from New York, London and Tokyo to Shanghai, Seoul and Singapore. The dissertation theorizes that the future orientation of reform allows the state to juggle and suspend contradictions between these two modes of reform and benefit from multiple kinds of foreign investment into the city, essentially using these modes of governance to speculate, hedge and manage the promises of multiple futures.

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This item is under embargo until April 4, 2020.