HANOI—Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung survived a leadership challenge Monday as he struggles to stabilize the country's foundering economy, but he and other top leaders now face growing pressure from a new and pervasive threat here: the Internet.
Ruling Communist Party Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong acknowledged in a televised broadcast that the party had mishandled the management of Vietnam's economy, which is now facing mounting bad debts and slowing growth rates that are taking the shine off what had been one of Asia's brightest economic success stories. Speaking at the end of a two-week meeting that analysts viewed as a judgment on Mr. Dung's performance, Mr. Trong urged the Politburo, the country's top policy-making body, to overcome its weaknesses and exert stronger leadership.
Mr. Dung wasn't mentioned by name, but analysts say it was a scorching rebuke for a man who has built a considerable power base in the government and bureaucracy since being appointed in 2006, and the verdict will likely spread more power among other key Politburo members. The prime minister couldn't be reached to comment.
Indeed, the meeting triggered widespread speculation about how long Mr. Dung, 62 years old, could survive as prime minister of this tightly controlled state after a series of economic missteps, including the bankruptcy of state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin in 2010 and several currency devaluations.
And, in what could become a recurring problem for Vietnam's rigid Communist hierarchy, much of the speculation and criticism came from a series of popular new Internet sites.
The most influential of these sites appeared five months ago. Called Quan Lam Bao, or Officials Doing Journalism, its anonymous contributors purported to provide an inside track on the goings-on at the highest echelons of power in Vietnam with a distinctly tabloid flair.
Quan Lam Bao's first posts detailed the alleged love lives of leading party figures, and then reported the arrest of banking executives implicated in financial scandals before their detentions were widely known. More recently, users have logged on to the site to lay into Mr. Dung. Typical posts describe Mr. Dung as "a parasite" or "a dictator," or else attempt to ridicule his record during Vietnam's war with the United States by calling him a nurse, among other things.
Mr. Dung wasted little time in responding. Last month he ordered police to investigate Quan Lam Bao and two other websites and shut them down for publishing misleading articles, while a government statement described them as part of a "wicked plot" planned by "hostile forces"—a term frequently used here to describe pro-democracy activists. Separately, three prominent bloggers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in what analysts say was an attempt to scare off Internet users from breaking the country's strict laws by calling for multiparty democracy or challenging the authorities of the Communist Party.
The sites, though, continued to draw wide attention, driven in part by their controversial allegations, and the approach of a crucial Communist Party meeting to determine Mr. Dung's fate and discuss ways to inject fresh vim into Vietnam's sputtering economy.
"The success of these Internet sites is a failure of the Communist Party to make itself transparent," said Nguyen Quang A, one of Vietnam's best-known economists and the founder of its only independent think tank, before it was disbanded three years ago. "Now the Internet is amplifying the rumors because people think that what they read is true," he said. The Internet is playing an increasingly important role in Vietnamese life.
Around 34% of the country's 90 million people are online, a greater proportion than in neighboring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, and there are over 110 million registered cellular phones. Digital activists and independent analysts say ordinary Vietnamese frequently turn to the Internet to get a better idea of what is going on in the country because of extensive state control of mainstream television broadcasters and newspapers.
Analysts say Vietnam's leaders are wary of the impact of the Internet, and closely observed the spread of Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa last year. Today, only China detains more Internet users, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Vietnam's economic slowdown also encourages people to make their voices heard. A persistent double-digit inflation prompted the government to sharply raise interest rates last year, stalling bank lending and stifling the rest of the economy. This year the government expects the economy to grow 5.5%, well off its customary 7%-plus growth rates in recent years.
At the same time, some Vietnamese are growing more concerned about whether their land will be reallocated when a series of land-right agreements expire over the next couple of years. Already there have been several violent clashes as security forces attempt to evict farmers. In Vietnam, the state owns all land, and the government distributed large plots in land-use agreements 20 years ago and which are now expiring.
"People are much more willing to express their dissatisfaction now, and often go online to do it," said Maria Patrikainen, an analyst with IHS Global Analysis in London, who adds that the government now has to perform a difficult balancing act between allowing a degree of criticism, and protecting its own standing in the country.
"There is a lot of frustration, and this is a long-term problem the Party has to face," she said.