A halo tarnishesZhou Enlai, the first premier after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, devoted his life to the Communist movement and remained respected even after his death. Gentle in appearance, Zhou nevertheless was a committed and ruthless revolutionary. When asked by a foreign journalist about his conclusions about the 1789 French Revolution, he said, “It is too early to say.” That may have been the typical ambiguity of the Chinese, but it also reflects how difficult it is to evaluate revolutions even to a person who had experienced many revolutionary stages throughout his life.
The Moon Jae-in government still enjoys a halo from the candlelight vigil revolution. But the lights are flickering dangerously. It has been faithful to the revolutionary manual, doing away with the wrongs of the past in its first stage. It exposed and punished crimes and corruption committed in the past without much resistance.
The next stage is setting a new order. The stumbles the government has demonstrated over constitutional reform and the cryptocurrency frenzy shows how hard it is to push ahead with the revolutionary goal of creating a new order.
On constitutional reform, Moon in his New Year’s press conference answered ambiguously. He said he would pursue an amendment focused on improving basic citizens’ rights and decentralization if the ruling and opposition parties cannot come to an agreement on reform of the governing structure — mainly the presidential system. Given the seismic changes in society since the Constitution was last amended in 1987, overall basic rights must be upgraded to better reflect today’s society. But the 2016 candlelight vigils against a corrupt and incompetent president abusing her power primarily demanded fundamental changes in the governing system. Without addressing outsized presidential powers and ineffectiveness of the current governing system, citizens won’t be satisfied with constitutional movements.
The cries from the street to uphold democracy by thousands of people last winter were aimed at outdated political parties and a lethargic legislature. Constitutional and political reforms to redesign political parties and the legislature to better reflect the popular voice was the people’s calls.
What the people demanded was a system imposing accountability on lawmakers and institutionalizing primaries to allow a public say in candidates and civilian petitions to reflect public opinion in legislation. The people demand concrete details, not just the will of politicians to reform.
The government’s response to bitcoin has been immature and chaotic. It sat idly while thousands of young people became hooked on virtual tokens. Bureaucrats kept silent while the government offices drew up new regulations against cryptocurrencies backed by a novel data platform dubbed blockchain.
While the government fumbled in ignorance or negligence, social media — the same force behind last winter’s peaceful candlelight vigil revolt — shared information on cryptocurrencies and made Korea’s exchanges among the world’s biggest in just a few months. But then the price of the virtual currencies took a beating from a threat by the justice minister to shut down the exchanges.
Even when the frenzy over bitcoin fizzles out, the underlying digital technology will seep into various parts of our society. A government that pulled the country out of poverty and led the process of industrialization is addressing challenges of a new digital era with the same tools of past ages.
The second stage of a revolutionary administration is trickier than the first, which is focused on removing the ills of the past. It must pursue constitutional and political reforms in the way people wish. It also must revolutionize a calcified government structure to better respond to such new paradigm as digital currencies, artificial intelligence and a so-called shared economy. Was Zhou Enlai right when he said, “We will have to wait and see” about that most famous of revolutions? Or is the success of a revolution an enigma all its own?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 19, Page 31
*The author is politics professor at Chung-Ang University.