[Viewpoint] How to become third rate

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[Viewpoint] How to become third rate

It looks as if we’re headed downhill before reaching the pinnacle, like a flower bud withering before ever fully blooming. According to World Bank statistics, Korea ranked as the 15th largest economy in the world last year in terms of gross domestic product, but our ranking has slipped since peaking as the 11th largest economy in 2003. Income per capita averaged $19,830 last year, ranking 54th among 213 countries, which was five notches lower than the year before. Average income has actually declined since breaking the threshold of $20,000.

The economic battlefront is not the only place where we’re losing. I can’t shake the sinking feeling that our country’s entire system is crumbling. I was initially glad that the opposition party won the local elections last month, because a defeat in midterm elections could serve as a wake-up call for the incumbent government and spur the administration to do a better job for the remainder of its term.

But that turned out to be wishful thinking. Local governments now controlled by the opposition party are rebelling en masse against the central government. They refuse to honor debt obligations or continue with investment commitments.

School superintendents are no better. Many refused to administer nationwide standardized academic performance tests or punish teachers that broke regulations by protesting against the government.

Local governments have their own role to play, but they must do their jobs within the boundaries of the law and in balance with the wishes of the nation as a whole. But they act as if democracy, and the midterm election victory, give them the prerogative to do whatever they wish.

I had a chance to tour the northeastern part of the Chinese mainland last month. Whole cities, not to mention smaller rural areas, were buzzing with construction projects. The Chinese were abandoning shabby houses for modern residences equipped with heating and water systems.

They have already attained their initial goal of a “wen bao” society by conquering famine, and they are now racing to tackle the next stage of a “xiao kang” civilization - a modernization allowing all ordinary citizens to live in middle-class comfort.

China has been doubling its GDP every 10 years with an eye to completing its modernization project by 2050. The nation’s 1.3 billion people have achieved phenomenal development in just three decades.

The Chinese proudly describe their system as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The Communist Party of China says the goal of a socialist economy is to “liberate productivity and incrementally accomplish modernization.”

China has vowed to liberate the “productivity” of its people, but not the people themselves, as Marxist Socialism aims to do. They resemble Korea in the 1970s, whipped up by the industrialization drive under Park Chung Hee’s rule. All of the state’s resources then fed a singular goal: accomplishing economic prosperity.

However, China doesn’t rule via an individual dictatorship, but a system. The Communist Party selects its leaders through fierce internal competition. Naturally, they have a greater chance of sifting out talent than our direct-vote democratic system. They will continue to leap toward their goal based on this highly efficient engine.

Meanwhile, Korea Inc., floating on the choppy seas of democracy, has lost its direction. We believed we would enter the advanced ranks of countries once we industrialized and became democratic, but in spite of all this, we have failed to move ahead.

In fact, democracy has held us down. Fights are common between different parties, factions and governments under the banner of democracy. And they fight as if they want to draw blood. There is no energy left for state affairs, and the country’s goals are eclipsed by politicians’ career aspirations.

Once a new president is elected, the accomplishments of his predecessor are overturn. Power is also centered on the individual, breeding groups of personal loyalists who play up to the leadership, like Nosamo or the recently formed Yeongpo Club.

Our democracy has disintegrated into populism. Politicians fling out promises and platforms as if issuing blank checks, regardless of their feasibility. They oppose standardized tests because they will expose differences in student competence. They want everyone to be equal, with totally uniform opportunities.

Our system’s disarray stands in contrast to China’s meticulous march toward a coherent state goal. The country is making great strides while we’re muddling through and if this goes on much longer, our economy will eventually serve China’s.

Since it is out of the question to go back to authoritarian rule, we should build an efficient democratic system that can unite rather than divide its people, and hone the nation’s competitiveness.

We have to contemplate the flaws of the current system and seek ways to improve them. The president and political leaders should stand at the forefront of this national reform project.

The new floor leader of the ruling party has proposed constitutional reforms to decentralize power currently held by the president. Whether we should change the Constitution or not, a country should be run by a system, not by an individual.

Without political reform, the only direction we will go is backwards.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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