How Asia’s ‘people of the year’ muddled through in 2017

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Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Since Charles Lindbergh was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1927, the annual honor has evolved with, some would say, societal progress or, others would say, the publication’s wish to be seen as politically correct (and sell subscriptions from newly empowered groups, especially women).

The first “Woman of the Year” was Wallis Simpson, the person behind a major political scandal in Britain surrounding the abdication of her lover, King Edward VIII, as war was brewing in Europe. That was 1936, nine years after Time kicked off this tradition.

The very next year, Time readers were presented with a “Man & Wife of the Year,” Chiang Kai-shek and Soon Mei-ling. But it wasn’t until 1999 that the title was changed to “Person of the Year.” And now, in 2017,  we have what could be called “Hashtag of the Year.”

Political correctness has never been enthusiastically embraced in Asia. Neither has genuine political progress. Western-style democracy has been reluctantly applied here and there, usually sporadically, and has nearly always disappointed, most notably in Asia’s oldest (and the world’s most populous) democracy, India.

As the “information age” makes the truth about how democracy has fared in Europe and the Americas, and as the most successful dictatorship in history has dominated Asia and beyond – not by force of arms, like the European and American empires of old, but through trade and investment – democracy has become a very tough sell.

One senior manager at Asia Times has suggested that in East Asia, it might be appropriate to name a “Dictator of the Year.” That’s a bit cynical, but only a bit.

As the ‘information age’ makes the truth about how democracy has fared in Europe and the Americas, and as the most successful dictatorship in history has dominated Asia and beyond, democracy has become a very tough sell

Cambodian strongman Hun Sen this year put the last nail in the coffin of “not quite dead” democracy in his country.  The Thai junta, having rewritten the country’s constitution to ensure that after elections are finally held again they will put in place a weak civilian regime overseen by unelected generals and their cronies, now seems unsatisfied even with that – as election day gets pushed further and further into the future, the generals have less and less interest in returning to their barracks.

In other places, religious extremism has made bolder inroads into politics. Long held up as an example of peace, tolerance and social justice that the rest of the Muslim world should follow, Indonesia has increasingly allowed political Islam to turn back the clock, and this year Jakarta’s Christian governor was replaced by a man backed by Muslim hardliners amid accusations of blasphemy that, until recently, were more at home in Pakistan or the Gulf dictatorships.

In India, home to the world’s largest Muslim minority, political Hinduism (known as Hindutva) has taken power in the New Delhi center and in most state legislatures in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused by many of looking the other way as vigilantes target the country’s religious minorities.

Even Buddhists, previously honored across the globe for following the peaceful principles claimed but too rarely practiced by the adherents of the other great religions, have besmirched that reputation in Myanmar through the brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims. And this crisis threatens the viability of one of the world’s newest (albeit nominal, given the level of military oversight) democracies.

The Rohingya crisis gets all the headlines (if little useful aid except from Bangladesh, itself a very poor country), but Myanmar is not the only center of Buddhist bullying. Another is Sri Lanka, which the world has largely ignored since one of Asia’s longest (nearly 26 years) and bloodiest (estimated 50,000 deaths) civil wars came to an end in 2009.

As in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, that dispute was both ethnic (Sinhala vs Tamil) and religious (Buddhist vs Saivist Hinduism), always a toxic mix. Under international pressure, the Sri Lankan government made some initial efforts toward reconciliation between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities, but there are reports that the regime of President Maithripala Sirisena has been dragging its feet on these since his election in 2015.

Another Muslim-majority democracy, Malaysia, while religious intolerance plays a role there too, a different plague more familiar to Westerners eats at the soul of the country: corruption. The scandal over the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) drags on not just inside the country but beyond, now involving even the United States’ Justice Department and that country’s royal city, Hollywood.

Rich jurisdictions not problem-free

The three most prosperous East Asian democracies are not immune to threats to their long-term well-being. The Hong Kong government is throwing in jail young people alarmed by Beijing’s interference in local politics, in violation of the “one country, two systems” principle agreed before the 1997 handover from British colonial rule.

Singapore, whose ruling People’s Action Party continues to suppress political opposition, teeters on a tightrope between its long-standing loyalty to the United States and the growing need to collaborate with China, as the Western-spawned neoliberal ideology that has long pushed its wealth close to bankruptcy due to worldwide populist anger driven by economic inequality.

Japan’s prosperity meanwhile floats on an ocean of debt and economic trickery such as quantitative easing, as its ongoing racist culture restricts the immigration needed to support its aging population. The technological prowess it once enjoyed is increasingly usurped by the Koreans and, more recently, the Chinese, who can produce products just as good for less.

While in the West the bogeymen are Russia and Islamist terror, in Japan they are China and its ‘territorial aggression’ surrounding a few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, and the bellicose rhetoric from the ‘Rocket Man’ in Pyongyang

Meanwhile there is growing evidence – seen to a considerable extent in the last general election – that Japan’s ruling class, less and less able to offer voters anything positive, is falling back on the fear tactics that have worked so well in the US and much of Europe. While in the West the bogeymen are Russia and Islamist terror, in roughly equal measure, in Japan they are China and its “territorial aggression” surrounding a few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, and the bellicose rhetoric from the “Rocket Man” in Pyongyang.

While the fear that Kim Jong-un is on the verge of triggering a nuclear holocaust is very likely exaggerated, it is true that US-led geopolitics has for much of 2017 been centered on the Korean Peninsula.

The administration of Barack Obama kicked this off with his “pivot to Asia,” and the concomitant Trans-Pacific Partnership, both aimed at “containing” China’s rise. Both failed thanks to the election of Donald Trump as US president, but the Pentagon has managed to cash in on the “pivot” by ramping up its presence in China’s (and North Korea’s) near abroad. The world will have to wait for the new year to see more clearly who – Beijing, Pyongyang or Washington – is the real danger in that region.

It’s unlikely to be Seoul. Clinging to rationality in the midst of region-wide bellicosity, South Koreans this year elected the moderate former human-rights lawyer Moon Jae-in as president, after his predecessor was impeached on corruption charges. It’s very early in his tenure, and the chaebol still wield massive power, but there is reason to be optimistic, so far, that Seoul will be one of the few bright spots in the gloom of East Asian democracy.

When good intentions go awry

But regardless of the successes (and, too often, subsequent downfalls) of the likes of reformers Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela, one major lesson learned over the history of democracy is that it is no panacea. A fundamental flaw of “rule of the people” is that large sectors of hoi polloi are uneducated, easily manipulated, or just plain stupid. Even in the handful of jurisdictions worldwide (and even fewer in Asia) where elections are relatively free and fair, the instances of the majority voting against their own interests are too many to count.

A basic reason for this, which may appear to be more prevalent in Asia than in the West but in fact is more likely to be universal, is a natural human preference for strong leadership – authoritarian rule. This is more obvious in times of crisis than in times of peace and prosperity, but it is always just below the surface. As a result, belligerence, bellicosity, bravado and sometimes sheer brutality very often win the day and, when authoritarians win power, they often enjoy popular support that baffles liberals.

This explains why, in one of the liveliest democracies in Asia, Rodrigo Duterte was able to sweep to power, not in spite of his reputation as a violent thug, but because of it.

Duterte is often compared to US President Donald Trump, and while there is no evidence that the Filipino leader’s style owes anything to the American’s, there are indeed strong similarities in their formulas for seizing power. Both are skilled opportunists, neither is concerned with political correctness except when it serves their interests, both play fast and loose with the truth, both shift their positions with the winds of political benefit, and, most important, both shrewdly capitalized on the anger of a large sector of the populace no longer willing to buy the bill of goods on offer by an increasingly out-of-touch ruling elite.

Both pursue policies and practices that outrage right-thinking liberals but shore up support among their base. One prominent American observer said recently that he had gone to a deeply Republican US state and asked them if they were sorry they had voted for Trump now that he had been shown over and over again to be a pathological liar, even about the things they care about such as job creation, military drawdowns and tax policies that favor them instead of Wall Street, and they told him all that was irrelevant. They love him because he shouts about the things that make them angry; his volume, not his veracity, is what is important. It is very likely that the same is true of Duterte supporters.

When all is said and done, people everywhere, in the West and in the East, have very simple demands. They want to be able to put food on the table for their families, and be able to keep them healthy, maybe even educated. When politicians, elected or not, lose sight of their subjects’ modest hopes, they risk losing their power. The dictators in China and Thailand know this, and both of those countries enjoy basic standards of living millions of people elsewhere in the world – including purported democracies – would envy.

Progress happens

So, should the violations of human rights in China, the suppression of free speech and political activity in Thailand, or the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s drug war be free from criticism? Of course not; progress does happen, and always from the ground up.

Even in Malaysia, which is just as paranoid about recreational drugs as the Philippines, the mandatory death penalty for narcotics offenses was recently rescinded. Millions have been brought out of poverty in China and Southeast Asia in just a few decades. Several countries in the region have access to health care still denied to millions in the US; efforts to fight infant mortality, AIDS, malaria and other health woes have seen remarkable success in nearly all of East Asia.

So who wins the “Dictator of the Year” sweepstakes? Maybe it doesn’t matter: Ultimately, the people have the power. It just functions in different ways.

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