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History, family, and entitlement: The new leaders in Northeast Asia



3 January 2014

We should always be careful what we wish for. During the high tide of Hu Jintao's period in office, commentators and officials both inside and outside China despaired of China's national leader and his inability to articulate any strong view in public. Hu's mechanical, formulaic utterances became self-caricatures. His wooden public persona caused diplomats, who had to furnish their politicians with speaking points when they met Hu, to tear their hair out. Supplying ideas about small talk with someone who seemed resistant to the idea of talking in the first place seemed self-defeating. How we wished for a Party Secretary who could communicate then.

With Xi Jinping, we now have a leader with attitude who has little problems in this department. Hisstatementat the summit with President Obama in Sunnylands, California that the Pacific "has enough space" for the U.S. and China, was, in hindsight, a sign of how things had changed. Where did Xi get this confidence from?

Some of it must derive from a source one can see in operation elsewhere. One of the great regional stories of the last few years is that in Northeast Asia, key countries are being run by leaders from major national political clans. Xi is a relative of the former Communist leader and key Deng Xiaoping ally Xi Zhongxun. Shinzo Abe has roots going back even further, with both a father and grandfather who belonged to the Japanese political elite, serving up to the Prime Ministerial level. Park Geun-hye in South Korea is the daughter of a former president. And of course, there is the leader of the clan of clans, Kim Jong-Un, the third generation leader of the despotic Kim dynasty in North Korea. For each of these leaders, in different ways, there is a sense of historical destiny in their rule. These leaders are intimately familiar with political power, having seen it exercised by their parents.

These regional leaders, with their family political networks, derive some of their legitimacy from belonging to groups who feel that they have the right to rule and are guided by destiny. An undistinguished first period as Prime Minister for Abe has not dented his confidence the second time around. For Park, being a woman in a polity dominated by men has not impeded her path to the top. Blood is thicker than water — and gender. In Asia these days, family is the most powerful glue, binding people together. And it is also the greatest source of confidence.

Xi shares this bloodline-derived confidence. His moves against the vested interests in the petrol industry have been startling in their purposefulness and confidence. The campaign is now knocking at the doors of former security czar and politburo member Zhou Yongkang. This sort of political campaign would have been unimaginable under either Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin in their first year in power. The sure-footed way that Xi has taken up his position since November last year has betrayed his inner certainty. Xi Jinping, the man who in 1997 could not even get enough votes to be elected onto the full membership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was, in 2013, able to stride onto the domestic political stage in China, creating a plenum outcome in November where all power went to the Party and all responsibility belongs to the government under Li Keqiang.

In the late 2000s, there was a debate about the basis of the Party's legitimacy. The debate centered around then-Party Secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang. Commentators detected in Wang's speeches and actions a sense that, for him, the Party did not have a God-given right to rule. Rather, the Party had to earn this right through its performance and efficient administration. For someone with Wang's modest background this was sensible enough. This sort of attitude explains the antagonism between Wang and his successor in Chongqing, Bo Xilai. To some critics, Bo was the epitome of a powerful political clan member claiming leadership as his birthright.

Bo may have been felled, but the sense of entitlement he was accused of has won the day. For Xi and the networks around him, the Party is being returned to its rightful owners. The Party's "brand" or historic mandate is being cleansed of the outrageous profiteering and contamination it experienced under the arrivistes who had their zenith in the Jiang and Hu era. Xi's sense of entitlement lets him speak with a confidence that is both unexpected and unsettling.

Xi's foreign policy in the region and further abroad is being affected by this sense of new status. According to this perspective, China has the right to behave in a more assertive way, and should be accorded a more appropriate and prestigious status. There is one worrying issue in all of this. Within Northeast Asia, Xi is surrounded by other major countries whose leaders have very similar mindsets. The leaders of Japan, North Korea, and South Korea also want to see their respective countries' status and their own political position accorded respect and affirmation. Is Asia really big enough for all of these confident, historically entitled clans? In 2014, we shall soon find out.