U.S., China, Korea: System Reboot

By Daniele Pestilli on November 14, 2012
Great Hall of the People, Beijing. (Image: CC, by Forezt)

Following the recent hard-fought U.S. presidential elections that saw Barack Obama win his second term in office against the Republican multi-millionaire Mitt Romney come two other decisive political moments that will be equally influential in molding the course of history.


China’s top brass is set to change in the incumbent once-in-a-decade leadership transition, an event that coincides with U.S. elections every twenty years. This week-long event, which terminated Wednesday, entailed a closed door gathering of the 2,325 delegates of the Chinese central committee at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, who cast secret ballots to choose the 370 policy-making members of the Chinese Communist Party for the coming decade. Although the new leaders will only officially be known Thursday, it is expected that Xi Jinping, 59, will be President Hu Jintao’s anointed successor, whereas Li Keqiang, 57, is set to replace Wen Jiabao as China’s premier.

According to an article in The Independent, one of the vows made by the spokesman of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Cai Mingzhao, regarding corruption amongst senior cadres, was: “No matter who they are and how high their position, they must be prosecuted without fail. We will further step up our efforts to ensure power be exercised in the sunshine, and to eliminate the soil where corruption grows.” The reference was to Bo Xilai, a politician formerly considered for inclusion in China’s Politburo who was ousted from government due to a scandal which saw his wife, Gu Kailai, convicted over the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Yet corruption will be extremely hard to eradicate due to China’s strong history of nepotism.

Often referred to as princelings because of their legacy to the Communist Party’s revolutionary heroes, China’s new leaders form something akin to an aristocratic class with important connections in business, finance, lobbying and state-owned enterprises, according to the International Herald Tribune. For instance, President Hu Jintao’s successor was initially supposed to be Li Keqiang. However, he had no direct nexus in his family to the origins of the Communist Party. On the contrary, family history enabled the princeling Xi Jinping to be the favored successor for the same power-slot. Other notable examples of princelings are Yu Zhengsheng, the Shanghai party secretary, whose relatives served the Qing emperors and the Kuomintang government, or Wang Qishan, son-in-law of the powerful leader Yao Yilin. As journalist Ian Johnson of the Herald Tribune muses, the idealists of the Communist Party hoped their system would stave off the nepotism of yore, but with China’s princelings coming to power, it appears that nothing has changed since the imperial days.

The U.S. is keeping a close eye on this leadership change, as it sees China’s boldness regarding territorial disputes in the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan as well as the country’s increased military spending as a threat. China is also growing vexed by Washington’s so-called Asia pivot, a set of policies that will seek to strengthen the U.S. presence – be it economic, be it military – in the Asia Pacific region.

Chinese statesmen are well aware of the opportunities and risks this leadership change represents. During his speech at the opening of the Congress, Hu Jintao remarked, “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

South Korea

Elections are also looming in South Korea, where Moon Jae-in, Park Geun-hye and Ahn Cheol-soo are facing each other in a heated campaign over who will become the eleventh president of South Korea for the next five years.

Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, a general who seized power in a military coup d’état in 1961. Although he was praised by some for the rapid export-driven economic growth Korea experienced during his eighteen-year rule, he was also heavily criticized for his authoritarian modus operandi. During his reign, the KCIA often tortured opponents and stifled freedom of speech and press. Park Chung-hee is also renown for having sent 300,000 Korean troops to aid the U.S. during the Vietnam War. He was assassinated in 1979 by his own intelligence chief.

Upon entering the political arena, Park Geun-hye formally apologized for her father’s authoritarian rule which resulted in the deaths of many South Koreans who fought for democracy, according to the Chosun Ilbo. Were she to be elected, she wold become the first Korean female president.

Her contender, Moon Jae-in, of the liberal Democratic United Party, is a human rights lawyer who is in favor of easing relations with North Korea and who helped found the center-left newspaper, The Hankyoreh, 24 years ago. In October, Moon said that if he were to be elected he would resume six-party talks on the North Korea nuclear issue which have frozen during Lee Myung-bak’s present administration.

The final candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, announced he would be running for presidency in September. He is a medical doctor as well as a professor at Korea’s most prestigious institution, Seoul National University, and is famous for having developed AhnLab in 1995, an antivirus software that the American company McAfee offered to take over for $10 million. Ahn rejected the offer for patriotic reasons.

When prompted about his political experience, the 50 year-old Ahn replied, “While I lack direct political experience, my diverse range of experiences in information technology, medicine, management and education, will be a plus, never a minus.” According to Bloomberg, Ahn has gained the public’s favor by claiming he would donate his stake in AhnLab to charity, which is worth around $300 million. Some believe that his antivirus software combined with his ascent to politics represents the merging of ethics with capitalism.

A recent poll conducted by The Hankyoreh shows Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party in the lead with 39.3% of votes. Moon came in second with 26.3% and Ahn came last with 22.9%. However, in a two-way contest, Park would ostensibly be defeated by both candidates. The elections will be on 19 December of this year, and the outcome is still very uncertain. In the meanwhile, Asia’s fourth-largest economy braces itself for what could be a gargantuan change in its foreign and domestic policy.