As Asia investors lick their wounds after a chaotic 2015, another realm provided even bigger disappointments: the region’s democratic principles.
From Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s end run around Japan’s Constitution to President Park Geun-hye mucking with South Korean history to President Joko Widodo’s reluctance to stare down Indonesia’s military to Hong Kong ignoring student protesters to Thailand’s junta tightening its grip to just about everything Malaysia’s Najib Razak did, it was a dismal 12 months for representative government by the people, for the people.
There were bright spots, of course. Many a tear was shed seeing Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win power in credible Myanmar elections. And by recalling the hapless Tony Abbott and naming a new prime minister, Australians reminded us how healthy democratic institutions make leaders accountable. The Philippines also demonstrates how clean government can raise living standards.
But Jeff Kingston’s new book “Asian Nationalism Reconsidered” is a disturbing reality check on where the region hoped to be today and where it actually is. “Democracy got a couple of black eyes” this year, Kingston tells me, and take your pick where.
In the two most obvious targets, Malaysia and Thailand, Kingston says, “the legitimacy of the current leadership is widely dismissed.” Malaysia’s Najib seems willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of 30 million people to cling to power among myriad scandals. They include $700 million of payments the Wall Street Journal tracked to his personal bank accounts. Critical lawmakers, human rights advocates and non-compliant journalists are being silenced to the extent that Najib’s chief minister Shahidan Kassim is reassuring the masses his boss isn’t a dictator. The generals who grabbed power in Thailand in May 2014, meanwhile, are settling in for the long haul, the elections they promised nowhere in sight.
Hong Kong is another sobering example of democratic pledges dying before the world’s eyes. The massive student protests of 2014 that closed major thoroughfares for months were supposed to lead to modest electoral concessions — to no avail. The world tends to expect the worst of China, which chooses Hong Kong’s leaders. But President Xi Jinping missed a perfect opportunity both to increase Beijing’s soft power and experiment with the representative leadership that’s becoming a pipe dream for 1.3 billion mainlanders.
Hard as it is to imagine, Xi’s China is proving to be even less open than that of predecessor Hu Jintao. Xi is expanding the Great Firewall and demonstrated that the only innovative thinking in the Communist Party’s top echelons is how to control cyberspace. Beijing’s assault on the foreign media made the financial system less transparent, effectively making the second-biggest economy a Black Box. When China’s debt reckoning arrives, it may came out of nowhere for investors and governments alike.
Most disappointing, perhaps, is how Asia’s most developed democracies fell short. Here, Abe’s Japan is Exhibit A. By using scare tactics akin for former U.S. President George W. Bush, Abe goaded lawmakers into ignoring the nation’s Constitution. A model world power for 70 years, Tokyo has every right to re-write a document crafted in 1946 by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s team. But rather than do it the right way — holding a public referendum — Abe just reinterpreted it, acting, in Kingston’s words, “like a thief in the night.”
Abe calls it “proactive pacifism,” whatever that means. It followed earlier moves to pass a draconian secrets law that could toss journalists and whistleblowers in jail, and restart nuclear reactors that Japanese came to fear after the 2011 Fukushima crisis. “Abe,” Kingston says, “is manipulating a dysfunctional democracy to ram through a reactionary agenda that most Japanese don’t support because it’s at odds with prevailing postwar norms and values. A weak and fractured opposition means he can get away with it and subvert the rule of law by ignoring the Constitution.”
South Korea, meanwhile, is in a dark period all its own surrounding World War II history. Park’s mandate when she won the 2012 election was to reinvigorate the economy. At the moment, her government is embroiled in a deepening effort to control the wartime narrative on Japan’s atrocities (including the use of sex slaves) and silencing academics questioning its facts and figures. Yes, Japan does it too, but that’s hardly a justification. Seoul even arrested a Japanese journalist for what appears to be shoddy journalism. The appearance, Kingston says, is of a government “working overtime to tarnish that nation’s hard-won image for robust democracy.”
India, too, is its own mixed bag. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s embrace of “Hindutva,” or Hindu chauvinism raises many concerns. Authors including Salman Rushdie and scores of free-speech advocates warn of rising intolerance. As academic Ronald Meinardus put it in a Globalist.com op-ed: “Some regard Modi as the bearer of hope and celebrate him for his liberalizing economic reform agenda, while others perceive him in the opposite direction — as a grave digger to the values and traditions of India’s tolerant, secular and democratic constitution.”
There’s no doubt about how far Asia has come over the last 30 years. But as 2016 approaches, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the region’s commitment to openness and accountability. While Asia is still very much a good-news story, its leaders must work much harder to ensure the region reaches its full potential. The accountability democracy ensures could be just the thing.
William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia. www.barronsasia.com
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