Freedoms under challenge in democratic East Asia

Brad Williams says attempts by the conservative political elite in Japan and South Korea to roll back hard-won rights are unworthy of these developed societies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2015, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2015, 1:35pm

Northeast Asia lies at the heart of the region’s remarkable economic rise. East Asia’s most vibrant democracies are also located here. However, recent regional tensions and increasing inequality have combined to embolden illiberal politics, with developments in Japan and South Korea causing particular concern.

In both countries, the attempts to undermine democracy by conservative political elites have been met with large-scale protests – itself a positive indicator of democratic development

Considerable international attention has focused on Japan’s purported departure from pacifism with the passage of security legislation in the summer, allowing the hitherto prohibited exercise of collective self-defence. This legislation, plus the secrets law that came into effect a year ago, was passed despite public opposition.

The latter law grants the government powers to imprison whistle-blowers and prohibits the disclosure of classified information, even if intended to protect the public interest. Local civil society groups have criticised the law for undermining the freedom of the press and the right to know – essential elements of a democratic society.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also promoted patriotic education and announced plans to reintroduce moral education in secondary schools, rekindling images of Japan’s wartime ultranationalism. He has also imposed new guidelines giving the state enormous control over the contents of textbooks.

READ MORE: How Shinzo Abe reawakened Japan’s protest movement, outraged at his rethink of constitution

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In South Korea, a literature professor at Seoul’s Sejong University, Park Yu-ha, has been indicted for publishing a book that challenges the prevalent narrative of the nation’s “comfort women”. South Korean prosecutors insist that Park has deviated from the principle of academic freedom and suggest that this and similar rights may be restricted to maintain order and protect public welfare.

Like Abe, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has attempted to reassert state control over high school textbooks.

She is clearly uncomfortable with the historical legacy of her father, military strongman Park Chung-hee, yet has responded by distancing herself from some aspects (reconciling with Japan) while embracing others (authoritarian tendencies).

In both countries, the attempts to undermine democracy by conservative political elite have been met with large-scale protests – itself a positive indicator of democratic development.

Nobody suggests Japan and South Korea are in full democratic retreat. However, recent events take the gloss off their substantial democratic achievements and reveal a level of domestic insecurity better associated with their giant non-democratic neighbour, China.

Dr Brad Williams is assistant professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong