Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Roh Moo-hyun's suicide: Chinese views

News of the suicide of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who was, it seems, overcome by despair from the relentless investigation into corruption among his family, shook Korea and the rest of Asia, but drew relatively little attention in the US. The New York Times, after printing a very good overview of the political situation surrounding Roh's death, quickly moved on to other things. In China, however, the news of how he threw himself off a cliff after leaving a note for his family and supporters prompted cries of shock, empathy, and even some soul-searching in Internet forums and the press. The always dependable Chinasmack has translated several comments left by Chinese netizens about Roh's death. Many of the comments expressed admiration of Roh's honor in the face of corruption charges, standing as it did in sharp contrast with China's own miserable record on corruption. (My personal favorite: "If we here had this kind of conscience, I bet all of our cliffs would be filled up.")

And what of China's venerable editorialists? Before I started looking, I suspected that some mainstream publications would use the occasion as an indictment of Korea's democracy, and I was right. Lu Ning, writing in the Guangzhou Daily, argues that Korea's history of corruption problems and embattled presidents shows that it has too quickly embraced western-style democracy. Lu makes a point of placing Korea firmly within East Asian culture—it has ties of blood, village, literature, people—thus implicitly using its political situation as a guide for China. He does not mince words. Corruption is a part of the very soil in East Asia, he says, but more than that, a hasty embrace of western democracy is inappropriate for all countries outside North America and Europe: "We must face squarely the fact that it's not just South Korea. In East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and even all regions outside of North America and Western Europe, among all countries that indiscriminately copy and imitate western democracy and political systems … there is almost no example of [a country] that has made a smooth transition. Instead, their vitality has been sapped." (尤其不能不予正视的是,不仅仅韩国,整个东亚、东南亚、南亚、中亚甚至于北美和西欧之外的世界各国,那些照搬照抄西方民主政制模式的国家,不管其"脱胎"时间或长或短,其"换骨"的历史进程几乎没有顺顺当当的实例,而被弄得元气大伤的国家却比比皆是。)

Lu's opinion, however, is not ubiquitous. (A full description of the opinions expressed in China's countless Internet chat rooms, newspapers, and magazines is impossible, which is itself an encouraging thought.) In an editorial written by Zhou Yun and published in the Yangtze Daily, Zhou confronts Lu directly, accusing him of exaggerating the negative simply because it is so blatantly obvious. In fact, Korea's economy and society continued to develop rapidly after it became a democracy, argues Zhou, despite two financial crises and other problems. Roh's suicide will certainly damage the spirit of the Korean people, but it will not cause irreparable harm. Instead of focusing on corruption itself, Zhou emphasizes the fact that in Korea such dark practices are often brought to light: "[Korean politicians] are gradually realizing that in this kind of political system … it will ultimately be difficult to stop corrupt behavior from entering the court of public opinion." (他们会逐渐明白,在这种体制中受到的无处不在甚至"敌意"的监督下,任何贪腐行为最终都难以逃过公众的法眼。) Lu ends his editorial by pointing out that no political system is perfect, but people choose democracy because it has proven to be the best at advancing a country's economy and society, as well as curbing corruption.

Not too long ago, such bold views would not be permissible in a Chinese newspaper, and it's encouraging to see them published unhindered. What we are witnessing in this little editorial spat, of course, is not really about Korea. It is about China, and what path China's modernity should take. That is the dominant concern of modern Chinese intellectuals, and I wish them the best in figuring it out.

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