Once upon a time there lived an emperor whose only ambition was to be always well dressed. One day two swindlers came and claimed that their clothes were invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid. The emperor had them make a suit of the special cloth for him.
He sent his trusted officials to the swindlers to see how the suit was progressing, but none of them would dare to admit that they couldn't see it. When the emperor finally viewed the suit he didn't admit that he could see it either and neither did anyone else. It was only when he marched through the city in the new suit that at last a young child cried out, “But he has nothing on at all!” Hans Christian Andersen wrote this fairy tale in 1837.
“Protests over racism and #BlackLivesMatter are spreading across the country,” wrote a Washington Post report over the weekend, “including in small towns with deeply conservative politics. The scale of the protests is unprecedented.” As seen in Andersen’s short tale, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Watching from an East Asian nation with an emperor system, what is happening in the United States is both disheartening and concerning. The following is my take on the virtue and deficiency of a constitutional monarchy and a republican presidency. Both may work almost alike under democracy but are essentially two different systems.
Emperors have reigned but not governed in Japan
The separation of church and state, an important philosophic and political concept for a modern secular statehood, was achieved in 13th century Japan, several centuries earlier than in Europe, when the samurai ousted the 82nd Emperor Go-Toba out of Kyoto and installed a new emperor in 1221.
Emperor Go-Toba, who happens to be my ancestor, was the last emperor who exercised both spiritual and political authority. Since 1221, shoguns and prime ministers have represented political power while emperors only have religious authority. The exception was the period between 1867 and 1945.
Presidents have more responsibilities than monarchs
Compared to constitutional monarchs, presidents of democratic republics are doubly burdened. Unlike kings or emperors, who only bear ethical responsibility, presidents must represent both the ethical and political values of their nations. This is easy to say but exceedingly difficult to implement.
The president of the United States is no exception to this rule. Especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbating America’s politico-economic, cultural and racial divides, the U.S. president must do his best to unite the union and to mend the wounds that many minority Americans have suffered at least for the past few months.
Monarchs and presidents must be a symbol of national unity and healing. If they stopped fulfilling their responsibilities, they can easily lose the public's trust and their nations will be eventually torn apart. The U.S., I am afraid, will be the same if its president does not carry out this indispensable duty.
The mad dog finally barked
A letter written by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis, published by The Atlantic magazine, came as a surprise. The retired general harshly criticized President Donald Trump's recent response to the George Floyd protests. The highly trained “mad dog” finally barked.
“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath,” the general wrote, “would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Then he wrote this excoriating paragraph: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us…. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.” In short, he said enough is enough.
The same can be said about the modern Chinese emperor
Trump, however, is not alone. He has a friend in East Asia who enjoys both spiritual and political authority in Beijing. This modern emperor of China, unfortunately unlike other monarchs in the world, does not seem to represent the rich values of the Chinese nation.
In fact, what President Xi Jinping represents is not the spiritual values of the Chinese civilization. He only represents the inhumane ideologies of the Chinese Communist Party. For the silent majority in China, the regime is just another modern version of ancient Chinese despotism.
If so, what the people of China need most now is “separation of party and state.” As long as the Communist Party retain the “leadership of the state,” the majority of the people will not be “liberated” in the true sense of the word and will never enjoy the modern concept of secular, free and democratic statehood.
The U.S. is still a major power, if not a superpower, but China is rapidly catching up. Tokyo is not opposed to the rise of China per se as long as Beijing follows the wisdom of “separation of church and state,” which I recently learned was derived from Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.”
In Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the empire was lucky to have a little child who told the truth that the emperor was naked. In the United States, millions of Americans can say that about the incumbent president. In China, however, do the people have the liberty to speak out and say, “But he has nothing on at all?”
This is the reason why the situation in Hong Kong matters for the rest of East Asia. Other countries may not be able to force Beijing to give up imposing national security laws on Hong Kong but they might be able to at least try to remind sensible Chinese leaders that empires will fall if no one can say the emperor is naked.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.