Hanoi, Vietnam – When Ngan saw a police car drive past her cafe in Hanoi’s Old Quarter on a recent afternoon, she hurried to grab the chairs cluttering the sidewalk and brought them inside.
After police passed out of sight moments later, they returned the chairs to the sidewalk, where they would remain until the next patrol arrived warning vendors to keep the area clear. By using the space in front of his 16-square-meter store, Ngan can double the number of customers who can be seated at a time.
“Every day we have to ‘act’ for a few seconds,” told Al Jazeera Ngan, who asked to use a pseudonym. “They wouldn’t punish us anyway, since our ‘fees’ have been duly paid. “
Ngan, whose company supports a family of seven, pays VND 6 million ($ 260) in cash every 6 months to a police officer in charge of the neighborhood where his store is located. On several occasions, she even helped him collect money at other stores in the neighborhood.
“He would never tell me the amount he wanted. I was always the one who offered the amount, and he would negotiate then, if he was not satisfied, ”said Ngan, who has been selling coffee at the same location for over a decade.
For many traders and street vendors in Hanoi, regularly greasing the hands of local law enforcement, known colloquially as “nuôi công an” or “feeding the police”, is just another cost. Business.
Vietnam was ranked 104th out of 180 countries in last year’s Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit that fights global corruption, with a score of 36 out of 100, where 100 is considered the cleanest. The police are widely seen as one of the most corrupt sectors in the country.
When Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong launched his ‘wood-fired’ anti-corruption campaign in 2018, leading to the prosecution of more than 11,700 economic crimes, the police and military were among the main targets alongside the upper echelons. of the ruling Communist Party.
The campaign did not, however, eliminate petty corruption, which remains widely tolerated by businesses and authorities.
Although the acceptance of bribes by public officials and officials of state and non-state organizations has been criminalized under a 2018 anti-corruption law, payments to police and others Lower-ranking officials are generally interpreted as “protection fees”.
While strong anti-corruption measures have been implemented nationally – including setting up a hotline to report police corruption – provincial authorities have refrained from addressing the problem, according to national officials.
Other measures have shown signs of progress. In 2019, the Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index, which surveyed 14,138 citizens in 63 provinces and cities, reported the largest decline in corruption since 2011. The rate of respondents reporting corruption The decrease in corruption was five percentage points higher than in 2018.
The Hanoi Municipal Police Department and the Ministry of Public Security did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
For Tu, owner of a small fondue restaurant in the town of Hoa Bình, gifts and payments are insurance against police harassment.
“In a restaurant, noise is inevitable. We could be fined for disturbing the peace in the neighborhood at any time, ”she said. “It is better to pay and be quiet. “
Being on good terms with the local police saves Tu a lot of paperwork, trips to administrative offices, and other bureaucratic burdens that come with following the strict letter of the law.
“I don’t have a lot of education. I don’t know how to meet their demands, ”said Tu, who asked to use a pseudonym. “These requirements are never transparent and can change at will. My business could be legal today and illegal the next day.
A good relationship with the police can also encourage authorities to be flexible when it comes to bribery.
During a two-month lockdown that was lifted in September, Ngan’s police contact waived the “fees” as the restrictions deprived his family of income.
Earlier this month, a local police officer called Ngan to inform him that he would be “visiting”. Explaining that the store was not doing good business due to an increase in coronavirus cases, Ngan asked for a “discount.” The policeman agreed, but told her that she should make up for it when things get back to normal.
A former Hanoi police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that local police rely on small businesses for bribes because large business owners are too well connected to shake.
He said that even if he was allowed to keep a small portion of the bribes he collected, most of the money would go to those “above him”, especially the head of the government. the police in the neighborhood where he was assigned.
“My boss asked us [subordinates] to pay him a certain amount of money every month, ”said the former policeman, who resigned last year. “If we didn’t, we would be in trouble. “
Hung, who runs a cafe in Hanoi’s ng Đa neighborhood, struggles to blame lower-level police for the culture of corruption, which he sees as a form of “tán lộc” or sharing of fortune. , which is necessary to avoid bad karma.
“To survive in the business world, you have to know how to respect local authorities,” Hung Jazeera, who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “Reciprocity makes everyone happy.
Hung is certain that the bulk of the $ 40 “unofficial fees” he pays police each quarter goes to senior officials.
“The police don’t need you to follow the law,” Hung said. “They want you to break the law so they get the money to submit to their superiors.”
“We cannot blame them if their bosses are indecent”, he added, calling this petty corruption “nothing compared to the corruption of high officials”.