Strongman Politics in East Asia
Photo Credit: The Sun Daily
By Tai Wei Lim

Strongman Politics in East Asia

Nov. 30, 2017  |     |  0 comments

East Asia is often characterized as a high context culture when it comes to social interactions, cultural behavior, and even leadership qualities. Throughout the world and East Asian histories, political leadership in the region of East Asia is often characterized by ideas of Confucianism, paternalism, authoritarianism, collectivism, etc.

This article looks at contemporary political leadership systems, institutions, and styles in East Asia, particularly China and Japan, to characterize these forms of leadership. In the case of China, it has evolved doctrinally into “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” adapting facets of Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, and other pragmatic modifications to suit a hybrid socialist political system with a free market economy.

Because of the multiple layers of leadership elements and ideas foisted over the original foundations of Maoism, China has a pragmatic system of leadership which is very different from the Western liberal democratic system. This pragmatic system has just been given its dose of Xi Jinping Thought and power practices which has centralized power in a small group of leaders (Politburo Standing Committee which has been reduced from 9 to 7). Xi’s administration has also carried out a rigorous anti-corruption campaign to weed out corrupt officials ranging from rank-and-file individuals (the so-called “flies”) to elite party/government officials (the “tigers”). Some critics have been critical of these campaigns, labeling them as purges instead. However, the campaigns appear to have enjoyed the support of the Chinese people to a certain extent.

The strongman leadership of Xi has drawn partners to his style of leadership. Partners include other strongmen in the world like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Donald Trump of the US. President Xi’s strongman leadership has also coincided with the rise of other strongmen like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. He is the longest-serving Japanese Prime Minister in office in recent time and has garnered a supermajority victory in the October 2017 snap election. Another strongman is President Vladimir Putin of Russia. In other words, strongman rule is back in vogue amongst the top leaders of major powers, including those in East Asia. There are many different narratives to explain the emergence of strongman administrations in world politics today. Some are examined here.

Some have perceived anti-globalization forces as a possible cause of the emergence of tough leaders. The stereotyped blue-collar divorcee/white-male voter in American politics is perceived to be responsible for electing President Donald Trump. They are disgruntled at being left out of the globalization process, as they possess less adequate skills to cope with the new economy (e.g. digital skills) and are unable to benefit substantially from globalization. Worse still, they have had to compete with more affordable labor from developing economies as well as new migrants arriving on their shores who are willing to work harder for a lot less remuneration.

President Trump’s tough negotiating style and “America First” inward-looking approach have been appreciated by this demographic and income group who have developed a sense of crisis about the survival and economic viability of their communities in the US. According to this narrative, diplomacy under President Trump has therefore taken the shape and format of “transactional diplomacy.”

In other cases, for example China, strongman politics may have arisen due to leadership transitions. President Xi is the first elite leader of China who is not personally hand-picked by former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, unlike his two predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. The latter two had the endorsement of Deng. Therefore, President Xi’s elevation to power did not go uncontested as he navigated the so-called (highly generalized) Jiang, Hu, Cadre, Shanghai Clique, Princeling, and Gang of Six factions in Chinese politics. When President Xi came to power, he needed to stamp his authority unambiguously on Chinese politics, thereby accounting for the strong leadership assertion that he has shown. President Xi is now officially designated the “core leader” of China.

In the 2017 APEC and ASEAN Summits, the strongman leaders enjoyed each other’s company, leading the mass media to brand these relationships as “bromances.”

A third explanation is based on the perception of a changing world order. The unipolar order, according to this explanation, is giving way to a multipolar world based on the balance of power around a first-amongst-equals hyper-power of the US. This has necessitated the rise of strong leaders to navigate the realist and dangerous waters of a more fluid international order based on interests and alliances. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has been given legitimacy and the mandate to deal with North Korean missiles flying over the airspace of Hokkaido. He reaffirms a half-century old alliance with the US to counter the North Korean threat and move Japan towards a path of normalization. Japan will be able to mobilize its military to defend itself as well as its friends and allies, if Japan comes under threat and if there is no alternative to reaching peace through non-military means.

Regardless of explanations, there is a trend towards strong leadership in East Asia and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. Strong leadership is however no stranger to this part of the world. Other than Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan which have competitive pluralistic political systems akin to Western liberal democracies, the other political systems in the region include authoritarian states, monarchical states, one-party dominant states, one-party states, socialist states, military junta-ruled states, and special administrative regions. In other words, Western liberal democracies do not have a strong tradition or widespread implementation in East Asia as yet, although many countries in the region aspire to have such systems or a form of democracy based on their own interpretations and local conditions. Many people in their societies, non-government organizations (NGOs), and opposition groups aspire to have more democracy, freedom, and human rights.

Some scholars have forwarded cultural and sociological explanations, for example, how the tradition of agrarian societies in East Asia has necessitated collectivist authoritarian societal structures to organize themselves for effective planting and harvesting activities. Yet others have argued for the prevalence of so-called “Asian values,” and exceptionalized these value systems as being fundamentally different from the West. This was a contentious debate that had been debunked by other opposing scholars in the past.

Regardless of these explanations, it seems strongman politics is here to stay for some time. At least in the sector of top leadership summits, strongman leaders appear to have some resonance and complementarity with each other. For example, in the 2017 APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summits, the strongman leaders enjoyed each other’s company, leading the mass media to brand these relationships as “bromances.”

“Bromance” relationships were typified by President Trump’s firm handshake and embrace of certain foreign leaders, including Prime Minister Abe. They enjoyed golfing together during the Japan stop of President Trump’s Asia tour. Prime Minister Abe publicly mentioned that he was confident of President Trump’s business acumen. “Bromance” was also spotted between President Xi and President Putin when the latter attended the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory in WWII in 2015 and other occasions. President Trump also said he admired Chinese economic management when President Xi hosted the US president to a Peking opera performance, a walk through the Forbidden Palace, a lavish state dinner, and a tour of a cloisonné conservation workshop. President Trump was feted and treated as an utmost important guest of honour by his Chinese host, returning the warm hospitality received when President Xi was hosted by President Trump in the US.

“Bromance” was also present when Filipino President Duterte sang a love song on the stage of the ASEAN Summit, saying jokingly he did it on the request of the US Commander-in-chief. President Xi and Prime Minister Abe also reiterated the need to have bilateral talks and resume the trilateral talks in Northeast Asia between China, Japan and South Korea.

This blossoming of personal diplomacy appears to have contributed to the smoothening out of contentious issues in the region that had seemed to be obstacles to building better relationships. If state visits and personal ties are the barometers of diplomacy, then the region may be witnessing a golden era of strongman friendships amongst the top leaders of major powers in the region.

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