The New Kids on the Block: East Asia’s New Leadership.
We’re now a quarter of the way through 2013, and I realized that I never got around to writing my power transition post I meant to do six months ago. The long and short of it is that we’ve got new political leadership in the three most important East Asian powers. This post will serve as an overview on each of the three new leaders: Xi Jinping of China, Shinzo Abe of Japan and Park Geun-hye of South Korea. I’ll also offer a brief commentary on each of them…
So without further ado….
All three leaders are part of a multi-generational power elite.
Xi Jinping is a Taizidang (“Princeling”) and son of Xi Zhongxun a former Vice Premier of the People’s Republic.
Shinzo Abe’s the son of Shintaro Abe, who held important cabinet positions in the 70s and 80s (Chief Cabinet Secretary, Minister of International Trade and Industry, and Foreign Minister) as well as grandson of Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi.
Finally, Park Geun-hye is the daughter of South Korean President Park Chung-hee who took power in a coup in 1961, then served as the effective dictator of South Korea until his assassination in 1979.
From the perspective of their country’s governing elites, all three are essentially establishment figures. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whatever its origins has been firmly in control of the country for sixty years, and Xi has been a party politician for most of his life. Despite a brief sojourn out of power Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been the party in government nearly non-stop since the 1950s, and Abe himself was Prime Minister between 2006 – 2007. Park Geun-hye meanwhile had been heavily involved in politics, playing the part of first lady for her father after 1974 and having been a member of the conservative parties in legislature since the late 90s.
The implications of three establishment figures coming to power at this point in history will be something to tease out later on….
The Princeling turned President
Xi Jinping is both General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the President of the People’s Republic of China. His arrival heralds the rise of China’s “fifth generation” of leaders, though what precisely this will mean remains a bit nebulous. Xi himself has served in various posts, but perhaps his most notable position prior to his rise in the central party was as party secretary of Shanghai.
He’s thought to identify more with Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai Clique, rather than the recent Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth Movement, putting him squarely within the elite business circles. While some in the western media identify the fact that he’s a taizidang as if it’s a faction in its own right, the term itself simply refers to second or third generation leaders who come from party elder stock. It does have a class connotation and there are some grumblings about their disproportionate influence in a supposedly egalitarian country, but it doesn’t have the same political identity connotation as say being a “Public School” grad in Britain or a blue-blood in the US does.
Compared to the more volatile figures that were bandied about as potential fifth generation presidents, Xi is a moderate establishment figure. He doesn’t have the fiery provincial populism of a Bo Xilai or the media friendly face of a Wang Quishan, while his commitment to reform and opening government seem more muted than his predecessor. In a way he’s a bit of a pre-9/11 George W. Bush like figure: a moderately conservative, establishment figure, somewhat bland but extremely personable.
Some have suggested he’ll be a gradual reformer, and I hope they’re right, but I haven’t really seen anything that backs that premise. As a politician Xi’s had a variety of constituencies, but on the whole they’ve been relatively establishment oriented: Shanghai’s business elite and the military have been his major backers. The likelihood is that he’ll press for further economic liberalization while forestalling as much political and social reform. His military connections might make him more likely to feed red meat to the nationalists, and continue to support the PLA’s modernization to keep the generals happy.
Ghost of Japanese Politics Past
If Xi Jinping is the pre-9/11 George W. Bush, Shinzo Abe is more like his post 9/11 incarnation. He’s (by post-war Japanese standards) a radical nationalist who carries the torch for the revisionist histories popular in the right-wing fringe. He has in fact outright denied that the Yasukuni war criminals are criminals under Japanese law, and has been vocal in denying the victimization of Comfort Women.
He’s a right wing ideologue of the worst sort. Now granted, this is my perspective as a rather westernized Japanese liberal. I fiercely dislike the ignorant revisionist drivel peddled by Abe and his cronies, so it makes me far less of an objective observers here than if it were a blander, more generic politician like Shigeru Ishiba (who is problematic enough).
Now, lest we think the Japanese people have gone crazy and are going to start holding rallies in front of Yasukuni in favor of say lionizing Hideki Tojo, let’s note that the results of the 2012 general election were more of an indictment of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) than an endorsement of Abe’s nuttery. The perceived mishandling of the post-Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami and the continued bland economic outlook both served to undermine the public’s faith in the DPJ’s ability to govern.
Although there were a raft of alternative parties, ultimately governing experience was chosen over idealism, and the LDP won a landslide based on the premise that the DPJ had been a failure as a governing party, and we may as well try the alternative.
Thus far Abe has been somewhat (and I use this term loosely) less controversial in matters of history and has instead pushed an economic reform package which centers on currency devaluation, inflation targeting and opening the country up to private investment. All well and good as far as such things go. The 80 yen dollar was causing substantial problems for the export sector, and the deflationary pressures on the economy were leading to a lot of misery. The results of his policies have led to a 20% devaluation of the yen in the last several months, which should help some export oriented firms. Whether or not this will have a good impact on the long-term economy remains to be seen.
In terms of skepticism of actually fundamentally solving the problems facing Japan, I think Abe is the wrong man at the wrong time. Hopefully his second term in office is no better than his first and he resigns within a year….
South Korean’s Jeanne D’Arc
Last but certainly not least is South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. She is the first female president of South Korea and was elected on a mix of populist economics and hawkish national security positions. I freely profess that I don’t know nearly as much about her presidential platform as I ought. However, she has been a strong figure in Korean conservative politics since she was first elected to an office in 1998.
As the Grand National Party’s chairwoman, she was a powerful and successful figure nicknamed the “Queen of Elections”. As a member of the national assembly, Park was an influential member of the GNP who took principled, no-compromise stances on a variety of key party issues.
She’s known for her support of the US-Korean alliance, and she’s been more adamant about taking a harder stance against North Korea’s more recent aggression. She’s also expressed her admiration for Margaret Thatcher and I’ve seen some media portrayals that describe her as a mix between Jeanne D’Arc and Baroness Thatcher.
Variations on a Theme?
While it can be a bit facile to look for trends in political leadership, all three of the new East Asian leaders share some qualities. For the most part they have economic challenges to deal with at home, are more hawkish than not, and have a degree of nationalistic backing. They come to power at a time of shifting power balances in the region and a difficult foreign policy problem with an increasingly erratic North Korea.
There’s a likelihood that the next few years will herald an increasing amount of nationalist bluster, particularly over issues of island territory combined with greater trade integration. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is more likely to find support with Park and Abe at the helm, and this at least presents an opportunity for the US.
The increasing tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkakus, the renewed bellicosity of North Korea, and a general unease at the modernization of the PLA all add up to opportunities for the US to increase its ties in the area. This combines well with the Obama Administration’s pivot, but I’m uncertain what the long-term implications will be.
There’s a lot of uncertainty lingering around East Asia. The Pacific is now inarguably the center of the world economy. Its stability will influence the rest of the world in large, unpredictable ways. Pro-business, but nationalistic leaders make things difficult to read. It’s likely that we’re in for some interesting times in the near future….