Leadership in East Asia is closely shaped by the political system and ideological doctrine of the state. Some have conceptualized the role of morality (e.g. anti-corruption campaigns) in political leadership legitimacy as the dawn of the “sage kings.” Strongmen are given authoritarian rule over the land in exchange for political legitimacy garnered through a clean and non-corrupt record (perception or otherwise).
Political succession is also handled gently in East Asia. It may be an outcome of factional compromises, as in the case of habatsu factional politics in Japan; or the pre-eminence of one leader over others, as in the case of the “core leadership” of Chinese President Xi Jinping; or the anti-nepotism, anti-corruption, and anti-cronyism politics of Confucianist South Korea. In the case of China’s recently-concluded 19th Party Congress, international journalists even counted the number of times elite delegates looked at their watches and monitored the decibel levels of clapping. Every little detail in the major events of political succession are scrutinized. Many leadership transition events are also scripted with events carefully negotiated behind the scene before public announcements.
Loyalty is an element that is prevalent throughout all leadership transitions. This was especially apparent in Beijing’s criteria for the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; the selection of candidates for Politburo membership, including the Standing Committee, in China; and the habatsu rallying around their leaders in Japanese politics. Leadership succession is carefully crafted in order not to damage the legacies of former leaders, ensure a smooth transition, and to maximize face-saving exit spaces for retiring leaders. Beijing also expects loyalty, patriotism and love of the motherland from its Hong Kong counterpart.
Related to loyalty is the idea of collectivism. Japan is emblematic of collective leadership held by factional habatsus. The interests of factions come before self. Therefore, the Prime Minister, as first amongst equals, helps to consolidate the interests of different factions within his own party to stay as leader of the party and to get the party’s endorsement to be their candidate for the Prime Ministership. In China, while President Xi is the “core leader,” he maintains non-confrontational relationships with his predecessors — former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — and incorporates some of their factional members in the Politburo while maintaining strong and unambiguous dominance over the political system as the core leader. Unlike China, Vietnam continues to maintain a collective leadership to a greater extent, sharing power between major factions.
Similarly, related to both elements of loyalty as well as collectivism, East Asian leadership maintains a reverence for senior former leaders. Japanese veteran party leaders are treated as genro or elders who are often consulted on important decisions by the Prime Minister. In China, former Presidents are still publicly respected with their political thoughts retained in manifestos and written into the annals of the Communist Party’s official records. In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in was a protege of former President Roh Moo-hyun and remains true to the pacifist, liberal, and left-leaning causes of his senior.
The qualities listed above are gender-neutral. Japanese female politicians exhibit the same qualities as their male counterparts. Former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada for example was a strong right-leaning politician who shared the same ideas as her Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on foreign policy, the constitution, and domestic issues. On the other hand, former opposition leader Renho was consistent with her political constituency in liberal policies and ideas, and her opposition party was drawn into a pseudo-alliance with the Japanese Communist Party. In terms of leadership trends, we are quite likely to witness the rise of more women in East Asian politics. South Korea already had a former female Prime Minister and a female President, and at this point of writing, its first female Foreign Minister.
Carrie Lam’s background as a working-class person resonated with the Hong Kong public, who are grappling with issues like expensive housing prices and the cost of living.
Another important criterion is identification with the working folk in East Asian societies. In China, President Xi tries to connect with the common folk through crafted images, for example, by eating dumpling buns at roadside stores and instituting his anti-corruption campaign to weed out corrupt elite party and government officials. In South Korea, President Moon came into power as a graft buster, putting the South Korean house into order by managing the dynastically-oriented chaebols and maintaining his rags-to-riches image of a working-class son of North Korean refugee immigrants.
Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, also experienced the same kind of working-class childhood — having had no study desk in her childhood room but obtained entry into the prestigious Hong Kong University and then rose through the ranks to become an elite administrative officer in the Hong Kong Civil Service. Eventually, she became chief secretary to the Chief Executive and is now the leader of Hong Kong. Lam’s background as a working-class person resonated with the public, who are grappling with issues like expensive housing prices and the cost of living.
Personal ties between charismatic and strong leaders have also emerged as a feature of major power relations in East Asia. The mass media (both domestic and international) often cover bilateral meetings between top East Asian leaders, or with their US counterparts, with exceptional attention and exposure time. They analyze every single diplomatic protocol detail, note how their leaders were treated in bilateral leadership summits, and feted in state dinners. Every little detail is noticed — how much US President Donald Trump fed the koi at Akasaka Palace, his facial expressions when watching Peking opera, and US First Lady Melania Trump’s Gucci qipao outfit at the state dinner.
Regional leadership also seems to be predicated on championing free trade in the region. Beijing has instituted its Belt and Road Initiative as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are differentially trying to revive the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) without the US. South Korea is supportive of both the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership spearheaded by Beijing and the TPP initiative which was formerly spearheaded by the US Obama administration.
Regional leadership also appears to be predicated on avoidance of conflict and face-saving diplomatic gestures to defuse tensions. Beijing and Tokyo have been playing a cat and mouse game over the East China Sea with Chinese warships entering exclusive economic zones and then leaving when Japanese coastguards arrive before entering again. Both sides show incredible wisdom and self-restraint in avoiding conflict and mostly deploying their coast guards instead of naval assets. In recent times, this issue has remained quiet.
In the same way, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy towards China has defused tensions with Beijing and, using personal diplomacy and a charm offensive, both sides have become quite effective economic partners. South Korea defused tensions with Beijing when President Moon suspended the deployment of a second Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) System in favor of better relations with Beijing, and Beijing responded by standing down on boycotts against Korean supermarkets like Lotte as well as Korean popular culture (K-pop).
Finally, soft power is often the neglected aspect of power and leadership in East Asia. In this aspect, as the first country to modernize and Westernize, Japan has a long history of soft power through its popular culture. The anime, comics (manga) and games (ACG) industries form the basis of Japan’s soft power. Japan’s exports of its popular culture like J-pop and ACG products have influenced consumption, how regional societies view Japan, and also boosted the number of individuals picking up interest in learning about Japan and its language and culture.