The Debate

The Global Populist Surge Is More than Just a Western Story—Just Look at Asia

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The Debate

The Global Populist Surge Is More than Just a Western Story—Just Look at Asia

Populism may be surging in the West, but it’s a phenomenon across the Asia-Pacific as well.

The Global Populist Surge Is More than Just a Western Story—Just Look at Asia
Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

Italian voters block a referendum backed by the country’s Prime Minister. Austrian voters turn back a far right candidate’s efforts to gain power. Surprises come from Germany, with Angela Merkel calling for a partial ban on the burqa, and from Sweden as groups playing to anti-immigration sentiment show they are gearing up to make a play for power in that traditionally progressive country in 2018.

American commentators tend to frame these kinds of developments as furthering, especially in the Italian case, or countering, in the Austrian case, a populist surge that began with Brexit, gained force with Donald Trump’s election, and has been “crashing in on the western world,” as a Bloomberg piece put it.

This interpretation makes sense, but as specialists focusing on the other end of Eurasia, we want to stress the value of swapping a wide-angle lens for a zoom and thinking of developments that have been unfolding over years, not just months. Populism in many forms was already on the rise in varied parts of Asia when Trump’s most widely known catch phrase was still “you’re fired” and the term “Brexit” had yet to be coined.

It was across the Pacific, not across that Atlantic, from the U.S. that the attractiveness of 21st century leaders who play to public fears about economic uncertainty, government graft, and a loss of national identity first began to clearly make its mark.  Now, the trend, which is not limited to Eurasia by any means — with heartening moves away from autocracy in some African states offering a rare glimpse of a countervailing trend — seems as geographically widespread as those fears themselves.

To be sure, the Italian and Austrians results matter. The former shows the continuing power of anti-status-quo anger, while the latter reminds us that populist candidates can come up short.  For those who fear a Brexit-to-Trump domino effect bringing about things like a National Front victory in France, focusing on Italy is worrisome, on Austria reassuring.  Still, we can get a better picture of the paradoxes and puzzles of our worrisome populist moment by going back further and telling a tale that makes room for Asia.

As different as India’s Narendra Modi, whose multiple similarities to Trump have been detailed by Pankaj Mishra, is from Japan’s Shinzo Abe, for example, visions of a corrupt and complacent status quo needing to be shaken up contributed to the pre-2016 rise of each.

The populist surge has continued to make itself felt in varying but interrelated ways across the continent this year with, for example, the May election of Rodrigo Duterte.  His tough talk on crime, crass comments on women, and unpredictability have been likened to those of Trump, while his insistence on being open to rethinking long term alliances fits in with features of both the American President-elect and the Brexiteers.

The populism we have in mind is more of a mix of rhetorical and governing styles than a philosophy. So just because Duterte’s sometimes veers left, while Trump’s takes hard rights, it doesn’t dispel the sense of kinship between what the former has done in office and the latter could do. Since being elected in June, Duterte has implemented a brutal anti-drug campaign, which has resulted in more than 35,000 arrests and 3,500 extrajudicial killings, 2,000 of which were by the police, many others by vigilantes. Even after these hardline moves, he enjoys a 76 percent satisfaction rate among Filipinos—and foreign fans of his actions include Trump. In foreign affairs, Duterte has emphasized the primacy of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national interest above all else—again like Trump.

In Japan, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in 2012 in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear crisis, defeating the weak Democratic Party of Japan. The forces that swept Abe into power were precisely those that have helped 21st century populists elsewhere: economic anxieties, public disgust toward government corruption, and a reassertion of national identity in the face of foreign threats.

Since then, Abe has governed as a light populist, maintaining extraordinarily strong popularity and accumulating “unprecedented power,” as the Economist recently put it. Abe, whose party enjoys a 60 percent approval rating, is on track to becoming that longest serving prime minister in Japan’s post-war history.

While Trump-like characteristics of Modi include vituperative comments about Islam and those characteristics of Duterte relate to things like blunt language and muscular law and order notions, the most Trump-like side of Abe may have to do with his embrace of a Japanese variation on the former’s “Make America Great Again” and “Peace through Strength” themes. Abe’s best-selling book Utsukushii Kuni E (Toward A Beautiful Country) lays out a conservative political vision, while defending Japan’s military history and stressing national pride.

There is also economic populism.  Abe’s own finance minister Aso Taro pointed out the prime minister’s “populist” approach in postponing a corporate tax hike last summer. Indeed, Abe’s economic platform, known as “Abenomics,” is seen by many as simply a ruse toward strengthening the Japanese military, something that Trump has encouraged under the guise in part of getting Japan to contribute more to the Washington-Tokyo alliance, and could well unleash an arms race in Asia. While Japan won’t likely build a nuclear arsenal, Abe can use Trump’s call for “burden sharing” as cover for increased defense spending.

In his rhetoric and style, Abe has sought to appeal to the ordinary middle class male and socially conservative, anti-intellectual blokes (the so-called “Mild Yankee” in Japan), echoing the appeal Trump and European populists maintain with rural voters. These are citizens who tend to support or affiliate with the military and distrust the elite.

Over the past few years, meanwhile, there have been growing fears in Japan’s schools and newsrooms about weakened free speech and press, something familiar in America now. Further shrinking government accountability, the Abe cabinet got a law passed in 2013 that allowed the state to designate information as a “special secret.”

What then of China? It is still Asia’s most populous country, even if India is gaining fast, and since several years ago once again its biggest economy, displacing Japan. There has been no shake up via a national election, but this does not mean that China has been immune by any means to phenomena that fit into the broad populist pattern.

Xi Jinping is an establishment figure if there ever was one, and he rose to China’s top post despite a short lived failed challenge by the populist Bo Xilai, who prided himself, like Duterte, on being tough on crime and sought to appeal to nationalist nostalgia via promoting “red song” campaigns in the mega-city of Chongqing that was his last bastion of regional power. Still, since besting Bo, Xi has embraced a muscular nationalism not unlike those of Modi, Abe, and Duterte, and the domestic rival he vanquished.

Xi has also borrowed other tricks from the domestic and international populist playbooks. His China Dream slogan, which looks both to old glory days and new achievements still to come, brought about by a strongman leader, has much in common with Abe’s Toward a Beautiful County vision, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, and other variants of backward and forward looking populism. And there are similarities between Trump’s call to “drain the swamp” and Xi’s statements about corruption as he has made a take-no-prisoners drive against it, in which only those close to him are sure to be spared, his signature domestic campaign.

We are not claiming that any Asian move is like Brexit or that any one Asian leader is just like Trump. Brexit was distinctive to Europe. And Trump is not exactly the same as any past or present figure in any part of the world.  We do, though, see noteworthy parallels and homologies, when it comes to moves afoot and figures in power in places some commentators may instinctively think of as parts of different worlds. It is interesting as well to point out that Trump has things common with some figures likely to become allies and others sure to become rivals in the geopolitical competitions ahead.

What unites so many current leaders right now is their appeals to a widespread sense of disgust with unfairness and anger at corruption, fears about an uncertain economic future, and calls on people to remember and recapture a past era of imagined, and sometimes real, national greatness. These traits are found in places other than the eastern and southern part of Asia—think of Hungary, Turkey, and Russia—but the extent of the recent populist tide in those regions across the Pacific is worth noting.

So what’s wrong with being popular? Isn’t that what democracy is about? After all, Trump can now boast that he has been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, a title for which Vladimir Putin, Modi, and Erdogan have all been at least runners-up. One problem is that the current style of populist policymaking, with its focus on a single muscular nationalist leading the way, is antithetical to solving the very conditions that helped put them into power in the first place.

For instance, how can corruption be credibly tackled when the press and civil society aren’t free enough to expose it? How can powerful elites be kept in check when populist governments seek to accumulate as much power as possible? And, how can innovation and entrepreneurship flourish when the government intervenes in the market, erects barriers, and cajoles companies? Finally, the populist’s focus on putting his or her country “first” will confound efforts to stem the world’s global problems of climate change, refugees, terrorism, and cyber-warfare.

As populist governments lead to an accumulation of power and corruption at the top, and weakened civil rights and economic hardship at the bottom, the supporters of these movements worldwide are in store for a heap of disappointment—just ask Venezuela.

Stewart is senior fellow and director of the Asia Dialogues program at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City. Wasserstrom is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, whose most recent book, as editor, is The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China.