[INSIGHT]‘Reform’ can be an empty sloganThroughout Chinese history, utopias have been proposed many times. In these ideal scenarios, land is distributed equally and the people work the same number of hours and pay the same amount of taxes. But no dynasty in Chinese history achieved such an ideal. Later, the ideal of an egalitarian society became a slogan of revolution, but politicians had to give up the slogans because even under imperial rule they realized that an egalitarian society is an impossible ideal to achieve.
Whenever a dynasty fell and a new one arose, however, the ideal was voiced again. It was a slogan of political reform and the people realized that the slogan was not feasible, but the voice of reform continued throughout history. The latest version of that ideal was proposed by Mao Zedong, under the name of a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and an uncountable number of people were sacrificed.
Man lives on dreams. Knowing what is possible and what is not, the people build ideals and live dreams. That can be a driving force behind the development of a society and its people. And yet, mistaken dreams can destroy a country, kill a person and drive the people into despair. We have learned that lesson from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and North Korea.
Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, finds examples of idealism that kill people in the policies of U.S. presidents. American liberals since the Woodrow Wilson administration were too idealistic, he wrote. “Liberals hamstrung the CIA (thus impairing intelligence collection), scorned the military (undermining a humanitarian force in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan), campaigned against sweatshops in Bangladesh and Cambodia (forcing teenage girls out of manufacturing jobs and into the sex industry) and imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar (destroying the middle class and propping up military dictators),” he wrote in a recent column.
The Bush administration was angry that Beijing is forcing farmers to abort second children and cut U.S. support of $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund. The action resulted in unexpected disasters ― cancellation of programs in Africa to train midwives, fight AIDS and help pregnant women. “The upshot is that women and babies are dying in Africa because of Mr. Bush’s idealism,” Mr. Kristof wrote.
The Bush administration’s labeling of an “axis of evil” is also an empty idealistic slogan of U.S. conservatives, he said. The slogan would lead Pyeongyang to nuclear development rather than to dialogue. The campaign against Iraq would lead the Saddam regime to provide anthrax and smallpox to terrorists. An invasion would lead thousands of young Arabs to join Al Queda, he worried.
“The irony is that some on the right seem to be sinking into ineffectual idealism just as the left has shown signs of growing out of it,” Mr. Kristof wrote, adding that leaders should worry “less about ideals and more about practical results.”
Koreans have now seen the inauguration of its third nonmilitary government. We have heard the same slogan of reform for the past decade, and we are hearing it again today. We may be the hostage of reform. Since the past two governments failed in their reform policies, I think that it is time to redefine reform in our country.
First, reform must not be the hostage of an ideology. Whether it is right or left, no reform can succeed if it is the slave of an ideology or idealism. Instead of educating talented students effectively, an ideological approach that all students should have a standard education will lead to failure, and Seoul National University will have to teach its freshman highschool math. The same mistakes were seen in medical reform.
Koreans’ self-esteem is important, but such an ideal may lead the North to make a bad judgment and ignite a war on the peninsula. Trying to resolve a problem with an ideal is predestined failure. We must not be the captive of ideals ― we must see the reality.
“Reform” is a trite slogan. The world changes and those who fail to see the changes cannot succeed. Accepting changes is an everyday activity. Companies are changing and individuals are changing ― and please do not call that a reform. Instead of shouting reform slogans, the government must focus on embracing the changes in our society. Amid the changes, politics and government are standing still. Instead of trying to reform others, the government and the politicians must have the determination to change the political structure first.
Reform is an effort to normalize the democratic order. It should be an effort to correct wrongdoings under military dictatorships ― the development-preoccupied oppressive regimes ― and the democratic struggles against them. The fundamentals of our reform should be normalizing our democratic order to meet global standards. Any other interpretation is just deceptive padding.
* The writer is executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Young-bin