The University of Wisconsin Press

Asian Studies / History / Politics / Anthropology

The Government of Mistrust
Illegibility and Bureaucratic Power in Socialist Vietnam
Ken MacLean

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, Thongchai Winichakul,
and Kenneth M. George, Series Editors

A groundbreaking book that looks at bureaucratic documents as a major history-shaping force

Focusing on the creation and misuse of government documents in Vietnam since the 1920s, The Government of Mistrust reveals how profoundly the dynamics of bureaucracy have affected Vietnamese efforts to build a socialist society. In examining the flurries of paperwork and directives that moved back and forth between high- and low-level officials, Ken MacLean underscores a paradox: in trying to gather accurate information about the realities of life in rural areas, and thus better govern from Hanoi, the Vietnamese central government employed strategies that actually made the state increasingly illegible to itself.

MacLean exposes a falsified world existing largely on paper. As high-level officials attempted to execute centralized planning via decrees, procedures, questionnaires, and audits, low-level officials and peasants used their own strategies to solve local problems. To obtain hoped-for aid from the central government, locals overstated their needs and underreported the resources they actually possessed. Higher-ups attempted to re-establish centralized control and legibility by creating yet more bureaucratic procedures. Amidst the resulting mistrust and ambiguity, many low-level officials were able to engage in strategic action and tactical maneuvering that have shaped socialism in Vietnam in surprising ways.

Ken MacLean is assistant professor of international development and social change at Clark University, where he is also the director of Asian studies. His scholarship on Vietnam and Burma has appeared in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies and Comparative Studies in Society and History.



“An ambitious text, both for its creative use of mixed methodologies and its temporal thematic and range. . . . The richly descriptive text will be of value for graduate students and other scholars who are interested in the dynamic power relations that infuse the innovation and accumulation of state bureaucratic processes, as well as for Vietnam specialists interested in the history of Vietnamese governance, agricultural collectivization and economic policy since independence.”
Pacific Times

“A highly original book with an unusually innovative methodology. MacLean describes policy and political processes in human terms.”
—Oscar Salemink, University of Copenhagen

Media & bookseller inquiries regarding review copies, events, and interviews can be directed to the publicity department at or (608) 263-0734. (If you want to examine a book for possible course use, please see our Course Books page. If you want to examine a book for possible rights licensing, please see Rights & Permissions.)

Of Related Interest
Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War
Edited by John Day Tully, Matthew Masur,
and Brad Austin
“This collection makes good on what it sets out to do: help high school and college teachers think about understanding and teaching the Vietnam War in new and innovative ways. There is a clear need for this kind of hands-on volume.” —Mark Philip Bradley, author of Vietnam at War


December 2013
LC: 2013015051 HN
300 pp.   6 x 9   10 b/w illus.,
4 tables, 1 map, 1 chart

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Paper $39.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-29594-3
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