There is no set recipe for democracy. Still, we can agree that the ingredients must include basic guarantees of free speech and free elections: If you don't have the right to speak out against those in charge — and eventually vote them out of power — you are living under some form of rule that cannot be called democratic.
Over the past 48 hours, China, the world's largest autocracy, has inadvertently reminded us what a democracy is. It is true that few have considered the country anything approaching democratic since the 1949 revolution that brought on Mao Zedong's decades of brutal dictatorship. But the decision in the early 1980s, by then Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping, to set a limit on the presidency of two five-year terms has at least given some semblance of renewal. On Sunday, that was swept away by the current leader, as Xi Jinping has moved to extend his rule beyond 2023, effectively giving him the right to rule indefinitely.
That other component in any would-be democracy, free speech, is a bit harder for the powers-that-be in Beijing to control. The BBC has noted that the decision to end term limits set off rounds of criticism on China's social media site Sina Weibo. Not surprisingly the censors quickly stepped in, banning such basic phrases as "I don't agree," "election term," and "proclaiming oneself an emperor."
A sprinkling of free speech does not change the fundamental flavor of an autocratic regime.
Meanwhile in China's grayest area of democracy, the former British colony of Hong Kong, the prominent daily newspaper, The South China Morning Post, went ahead on Tuesday with a front-page article, raising major questions about Xi's decision. The daily quoted Yanmei Xie, a China policy analyst with consultancy firm Gavekal Dragonomics, who blamed current problems on "Xi's concentration of power at the top level: where the person making policy is increasingly insulated from criticism or feedback, leading to bad decisions and poor results."
An interesting exception to prove the rule, for a sprinkling of free speech does not change the fundamental flavor of an autocratic regime.
Meanwhile, in countries that pride themselves on guaranteeing free speech and free elections, there are other kinds of risks. Ahead of national elections in Italy on Sunday, we are reminded that people saying what's on their minds, and politicians looking to unseat those in power, is not in itself always a good thing.
The increasingly popular leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, has made anti-immigrant rhetoric the centerpiece of his campaign, and Milan-based Corriere della Sera daily reports on at least one of the consequences. A mother of two adopted children wrote a bitter Facebook message to the candidate: "Dear Salvini, I am a mother of two splendid adopted African children … I wanted to thank you for the gift you've given to my children of moments of terror quite out of the ordinary." The 49-year-old mother says that her daughter now cries at night with the fear that if Salvini wins, she will be sent back to Africa, while her son has recently been subjected to virulent racist insults from his soccer teammates.
One of the great weaknesses of a democracy is that bad people can wind up in charge. The only antidote, of course, is that same democracy that guarantees they won't stay there forever.
Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.
TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.
Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."
Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.
After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.
Born into politics
A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.
He is an excellent actor.
Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.
However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.
An invitation for Obama
After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:
"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."
According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.
In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.
Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016commons.wikimedia.org
In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.
But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years
When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.
Leftist traditions from Hiroshima
Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.
How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?
Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.
So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.
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