Best and worst in 2017: Asia’s powerful leaders won, opposition parties lost, and a Nobel winner fell from grace
Curtis Chin and Jose Collazo say Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping saw their powers expand in 2017, while the Rohingya Muslims, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation and opposition parties across the region suffered setbacks
Farewell, 2017. As 2018 dawns, we look back at what made headlines and – fitting in this day – lit up Facebook and other social media in Asia in the year that was. From a US presidential visit to Beijing to the 19th Communist Party congress to the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother at a Malaysian airport this past February, this past year’s news was all too real.
Worst Year: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya people
In 2013, Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace began. The Nobel laureate did little to speak up against the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority as she kept her eyes on the prize of leading her majority Buddhist nation. By year’s end in 2017, her fall may well be complete, with more than 600,000 Rohingya having now fled into Bangladesh following rapes, murders and the burning of their villages. Whether a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare”, as described by the UN secretary general, or “ethnic cleansing”, the world has failed to effectively respond to Myanmar’s brutal treatment of an entire people.
Bad Year: The opposition
It was not to be a year of an “Asia spring” as incumbent leaders and parties in South, Southeast and East Asia solidified their lock on power, from India to Japan. Opposition parties had it bad in the year that was. One-party rule continued in China with renewed vengeance, as in Vietnam and Laos. In Cambodia, the dissolving in November of the only credible major opposition party may ensure the reign of Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, continues for some time. Elsewhere, Thailand’s return to democracy remains on hold three years after a May 2014 coup. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party scored impressive election results, swamping the nascent party of popular Tokyo mayor Yuriko Koike.
A Mixed Year at Best: Asean
2017 proved good and bad for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which turned 50 this year. The Southeast Asian region, with a combined gross domestic product of US$2.4 trillion, is now the seventh-largest economy in the world and is on track to become the fourth-largest economy by 2050. But 2017 also made clear that the association’s non-confrontational, consensus-building approach, deemed the “Asean way”, may be facing a mid-life crisis as the region’s embrace of Chinese investment continues. As Asean has celebrated, some of the region’s most pressing problems, including the Rohingya crisis and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have continued to fester, if not grow.
Good Year: Asia’s fintech pioneers
Not everyone can be a Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group (owners of the South China Morning Post), nor can every company be an Ant Financial Services Group, the Alibaba-affiliated payments company described by The Economist as “the world’s most valuable fintech firm”. But 2017 proved to be a good year for Asia’s pioneers in fintech – a catch-all buzzword for the financial technology that is challenging and reshaping mainstream banking and finance companies – as e-commerce went increasingly mainstream, attracting both consumers and investors.
In third quarter of 2017 alone, according to consulting firm KPMG, Asia was the global leader in fintech investment, outpacing Europe and the Americas, with more than US$1.21 billion raised. Most of that investment went to China, including US$220 million to Chinese peer-to-peer lender Dianrong.
And with companies like Alibaba, JD Finance, Tencent and others looking to serve the region’s “unbanked” – only 27 per cent of Southeast Asia’s 600 million people have a bank account – what was a good year for fintech is likely to only get better.
Best Year: Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un
“Best Year” in Asia goes to the leaders of the most populous nation, China, and arguably the region’s most frightening, North Korea. In China, Xi Jinping solidified his rule as his nation’s most powerful leader in decades as this year’s Communist Party congress elevated the one-time Fujian governor to the same level as Mao Zedong, and enshrined “Xi Jinping thought” into the party’s constitution. 2017 also saw progress on Xi’s landmark “Belt and Road Initiative” to better link Chinese investment and products to key markets.
The only uncertainty in 2017 for Xi was the behaviour of the one dubbed “little rocket man” by Donald Trump – North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. With China the primary ally and trading partner of North Korea, Kim’s survival may well rest on China’s support, more so than his nuclear arsenal.
And so, in a year that saw Xi emerge as a voice for Chinese-style globalisation and Kim survive, if not thrive, as a nuclear-armed provocateur, we give “Best Year in Asia” to the less-than-dynamic duo linked on the world stage: Xi and Kim.
Curtis Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is a managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate of River Peak Group. Follow them on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and @JoseBCollazo