In the Asian media: democracy recession, Olympic boycott and Squid Game

Dec 11, 2021
Joe Biden Summit for Democracy
US President Joe Biden has made some interesting comments about the need to convince others of the value of democracy. (Image: ABACAPRESS.COM/Tasos Katopodis)

Around Asia, the media is covering democracy conferences with scepticism, and the Olympic boycott with caution.

This week sees two big international conferences on democracy — and The Jakarta Post is sceptical about their relevance and their likely impact.

One is the annual Bali Democracy Forum, aimed at taking up such questions as poverty, exclusion and equality. The other is Joe Biden’s online Summit for Democracy, to which more than 100 countries have been invited. The Post says the conferences are timely and appropriate, since democracy is declining in many parts of the world, including India, the US and Indonesia, the three biggest democracies.

“It is not clear whether these two summits will truly address the fundamental problem of why democracy is deteriorating,” the paper says in an editorial.

The Bali meeting seemed to assume there was nothing wrong with democracy and governments should just get on with tackling the economic and social injustices caused by the pandemic.

Nor was the agenda of Biden’s conference obvious, as many of the invited leaders were authoritarian, some were from countries in the Freedom House category of “partly free” and three were “not free.”

The paper adds: “The US has serious credentials problems to call itself a democracy.”

More than 25 per cent of people now lived in a “backsliding democracy,” according to the International Institute for Democracy Electoral Assistance.

“Treating the symptoms but not addressing the real cause of why democracy is declining will not likely put an end to what Freedom House describes as a ‘long democratic recession’,” the Post says.

Cautious approach

The US-led mini-boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing is gathering momentum, with Australia, Canada and the UK joining in (with New Zealand having already decided to deliver a half-hearted diplomatic snub).

But media in the winter-sports countries of South Korea and Japan are being cautious, despite their nations’ close ties with the US.

The Korea Times says the US-China confrontation over the Olympics presents South Korea with a diplomatic challenge. “China is eager to successfully host the Beijing Winter Olympics,” paper says in an editorial that is more nuanced than much Australian commentary.  “The US is seeking to muster support from its allies and partners to contain China.

“For South Korea, which has long been sandwiched between the two gigantic nations, the boycott is posing another diplomatic challenge.”

To add to the woes, the boycott had virtually foiled a bid by the Moon Jae-in administration to arrange a meeting between the US, China and the two Koreas during the Olympic period to formally declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War. “Moon is likely to suffer a setback in his Korean Peninsula peace initiative,” the paper says.

Japan’s Asahi Shimbun quotes Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a balanced report as saying the country would make its own decision on a boycott, based on its national interests.

Concerns had been raised, the paper says, that a boycott could dramatically affect links with China in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the two countries.

But there was a fly in the ointment. The Kishida administration had said Japan’s diplomatic policy now attached greater importance to the protection of human rights.

“It is important that the universal values in the international community, such as freedom, respect for human rights and the rule of law are guaranteed in China, too,” Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said on Tuesday.

Unusual choice

South Korea’s international cultural influence — through K-Pop, movies and TV/streaming dramas — is striking and it has now gained an unusual form of recognition within Asia: Singapore’s The Straits Times passed over political leaders and humanitarian workers this week in naming its Asian of the Year and instead chose a South Korea film-maker.

He is Hwang Dong-hyuk, the 50-year-old creator of Squid Game, the dystopian survival drama that is the most-watched Netflix series so far this year, topping the distributor’s most-popular list in 94 countries.

The Asian of the Year award is in its 10th year and has gone mainly to political leaders — such as Myanmar’s Thein Sein, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi and Lee Kuan Yew — or noteworthy groups, such as people working to produce COVID-19 vaccines.

A film-maker would not at first blush be regarded as being in such worthy company.

The Squid Game story centres on a group of people in dire financial circumstances who fight out a series of win-or-die games, with a single survivor winning a fortune. It is a provocative commentary on capitalism, inequality, human desperation and the lot of the less-fortunate.

“As a vehicle of soft power, it has taken South Korea’s global cultural influence — already high — to the next level,” said the citation to the award.

Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez says the choice might seem unusual or surprising. “But in an unreal time when many were confined to home through the pandemic and sought release through the streaming content,” he says, “a troubling and thought-provoking series got the world talking about deep issues of inequality and inhumanity.”

No smiles for refugees

Thailand is celebrating the 75th anniversary of joining the UN and the Bangkok Post is marking the occasion by pointing out deficiencies in the country’s human rights record.

The paper notes in an editorial that Thailand, the UN’s 55th member, has a proud record in international peace-keeping, health-care and humanitarian missions. 

However, the anniversary celebration came at a less-than-favourable time as Thai authorities had deported four Cambodian activists in the past month. All had fled after facing political charges and had been recognised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Bangkok Post, which maintains a liberal editorial line despite operating under a military-dominated government, says Thailand has signed on to several human rights protection treaties — including one that forbids forced return of people who might be the subject of torture in their home countries.

“The powers-that-be would wish the world to perceive Thailand as an open society that welcomes foreigners,” the paper says. “But it is anything but a Land of Smiles for the political asylum seekers and UN-acknowledged refugees who find themselves being sent back to their places of persecution without due process>”

Far-left threat

Ultra-nationalist right-wing movements have been asserting themselves in Europe and the US. In China, the extreme nationalists are regarded as left-wing, associated with such Maoist policies that led to such disasters as the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Right Campaign and the enforcement of People’s Communes.

Wang Xiangwei, one of the most experienced Chinese journalists writing in English, has picked up a warning from a senior official that China must learn from the mistakes of its past as it strives to be a major world power on a par with the US.

Wang, a former editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and now a columnist based in Beijing, says the warning came from a Han Wenxiu, a deputy director of the Communist Party’s Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs. It came straight after the party adopted its historic resolution glorifying the achievements of the past 100 years, elevating President Xi Jinping to the same status as Mao Zedong and laying the foundations for his continued rule.

Han cautioned officials, Wang said, against being overzealous in applying a one-size-fits-all approach to emissions reductions — an approach that caused a severe power crunch during the past autumn.

Wang added:

“His warning … probably reflected rising worries that China’s public vows of promoting income redistribution in the name of ‘common prosperity’ could lead to misguided and irrational calls for ‘robbing the rich to help the poor’ … Soon after Xi announced in August that ‘common prosperity’ was a fundamental requirement of socialism…Han was the first official to state the campaign was not to rob the rich but to ‘make the economic pie bigger and divide it well’.”

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