Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

The politics of protest in Asian democracies

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Across Asia we are witnessing political turmoil and vigorous political contestation. South Korea’s “candlelight revolution,” involving millions of citizens demonstrating for several weeks in Seoul, instigated the landslide vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye by the National Assembly on Dec. 9. In Taiwan, there have been mass rallies favoring and opposing same-sex marriage as citizens grow impatient for promised reforms.

Simultaneously, in Jakarta there have been massive street protests by hard-line Islamic groups targeting Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok,” due to comments he made while campaigning for re-election that some fundamentalist observers have chosen to interpret as blasphemous. Being Christian and ethnic Chinese makes him a handy target.

Peaceful street protests are a sign of a vibrant democracy, and are especially gratifying in these three nations, where authoritarian governments once repressed such expressions of public will. The democratic transitions in South Korea and Taiwan in the late 1980s and in Indonesia a decade later have been followed by regular changes in governments, transforming the political landscape and putting an end to the thesis once championed by Asia’s autocratic leaders that democracy is incompatible with regional norms and values.

Repressive governments everywhere will always find a reason why it is necessary to ignore the popular will and to abuse state powers to derail democratic yearnings. Witness China’s ham-fisted response to Hong Kong and the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, an assertion of rights incompatible with Beijing’s authoritarian style. This followed a similar outpouring by Taiwanese in the 2014 Sunflower Movement manifesting pervasive anxieties about being swallowed by China.

“For a moment during the 2014 Taiwan Sunflower and Hong Kong Umbrella Movements, it looked like an ‘Asian Spring’ may have been in store for the region,” says Ian Rowen from Taiwan’s national academy, Academia Sinica. “But as with the so-called Arab Spring which preceded it, bitter political realities take their sweet time to leaven.”

Recently two youthful Hong Kong politicians who expressed anti-China views won legislative seats, but Beijing barred them from taking office.

However, this democracy with Chinese characteristics — i.e., “Do what you are told, and shut up or else” — doesn’t resonate with Hong Kongers.

Taiwanese are equally apprehensive about Beijing’s intentions, and few wish to give up the civil rights that are intrinsic to their identity. This is why many Taiwanese welcomed the phone conversation between President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 2.

There was a backlash by local commentators against Western media’s hasty portrayal of Trump as recklessly endangering relations with Beijing, which many Taiwan advocates said made Western journalists look like unwitting proxies for an authoritarian regime. Espousing values shared by these commentators, many Taiwanese believe Trump’s moral support for their democracy deserves kudos and they lament liberals’ blind spot regarding China.

Taipei’s recent wave of demonstrations signals a robust liberal democracy. Despite that, says Michael Turton, a longtime resident who writes a highly regarded eponymous blog on Taiwan, “The labor movement, far more important for living standards in Taiwan, has not been the subject of mass protests. If expressing support for gay marriage means alignment with global consumption modernity, the neglect of labor shows how Taiwanese have come to regard themselves as consumers and not workers, and how their hard-won democracy is fast becoming a palette of consumption choices and flexible, displayable identities.”

In South Korea, the nighttime rallies demanding the president resign — held since October by millions of citizens — culminated in the Dec. 9 vote to impeach Park. Glaring disparities in South Korea, revelations of governmental cronyism and influence-peddling by Park’s close friend inflamed political passions about a system rigged to benefit the elite.

This friend, for example, pulled strings to get her daughter into a prestigious university. In response, Alexis Dudden, currently a Fulbright fellow at Yonsei University in Seoul says “an overwhelming number of regular Koreans who work extremely long hours for middle-class existences erupted over the issue of a spoiled rich kid getting into excellent schools on no merit and getting good grades without even doing the work or going to school.”

Outrage fed on the “general belief that if you do everything you can for your kid’s education, your kid will have a chance,” she says. “And, that’s what was the final straw that smashed this camel’s back: confirmation yet again that if you are not richly connected you still can’t make it.”

On Dec. 2, Jun Honna, a political scientist at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, observed a protest against Gov. Ahok in Jakarta that drew 500,000 participants. He told me that this show of force was also aimed at Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and cleverly orchestrated by radical Islamic groups to regain political clout. He argues that the street rallies represent new tactics by hard-line Muslim organizations that “enjoyed political patronage during former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s two terms, from 2004 to 2014, but have lost this channel for money and power under the current administration. Now, these hate preachers found that Jokowi’s close ties with Ahok could be exploited to attack the former and to change the political landscape leading to the 2019 presidential election.”

Incidentally, Yudhoyono’s son is running against Ahok in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections and benefits from the protests staged by hard-line Islamic groups associated with his father.

Honna asserts that long-standing Indonesian prejudice against ethnic Chinese is being manipulated for political gain.

“Hate preachers have been attacking Ahok’s ‘blasphemy,'” he says, “but also link Ahok and Chinese conglomerates and their patrons to mainland China, arguing that Indonesia is going to be hijacked by China and ethnic Chinese Christians.”

He believes that the protests are a backlash against the secularism and pluralism embraced by Jokowi, and warns that recent mass mobilization reflects “religious fanaticism and its hate provocation against non-Muslims. Now far-right Muslim politicians and hate preachers will be tempted to use it again and again in electoral politics, threatening the country’s democratic consolidation.”

Until now, parties with explicitly Islamic agendas have not fared well in national politics, but that genie is out of the bottle.

Asia currently exemplifies what Rowen in Taiwan calls a “vibrant, volatile and re-networked region,” where tolerance, accountability and transparency confront intolerance, impunity and poor governance. How will Asia’s open societies navigate such interesting times?

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.