[Column] Yoon must come down off his high horse

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[Column] Yoon must come down off his high horse

Lee Ha-kyung

The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Chinese people these days miss the freedom of expression during the rule of Jiang Zemin. Jiang, who had passed away earlier this month, spoke at Harvard University on Nov. 1, 1997, a first for a Chinese president. “Although I am already 71 years old, my ears still work very well, so when I was delivering my speech, I did hear sounds from the loudspeaker outside,” Jiang said in English, referring to the boisterous rally from thousands of protestors outside the Sanders Theater chanting “Free Tibet” as he answered to a question from a Newsweek journalist.

“I believe the only approach for me is to speak even louder than it (outside noise).” The air of distrust towards a visitor from an authoritarian country suddenly disappeared upon the sudden humorous comment with a burst of laughter from the audience.

A wave of protests sprouted across China, with a masked group of citizens holding up blank sheets of paper in a show of defiance to the heavy-handed censorship and draconian Covid-19 policy undermining individual freedom under President Xi Jingping. Amid clampdown of even the mildest criticism, Chinese netizens have turned to satire. They talk of “banana peels” (xiang jiao pi) and “shrimp moss” (xia tai) as the former has the same initial as Xi Jinping and the latter sounds like “step down” in Chinese. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof quoted Xiao Qiang, the founder of China Digital Times, as saying “It’s now public knowledge that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes.” Regardless of heavy censorship, 1.4 billion Chinese know much greater freedom is enjoyed outside their borders. They have reached the boiling point from the stifling oppression of freedom.

When he met Jiang in 1996, JoongAng Ilbo President Hong Seok-hyun pointed that the Western society was concerned about the rise of China being a threat to the world. Jiang coolly responded that an underdeveloped China could pose a greater threat to the world. Jiang had been open-minded about China co-prospering with the rest of the world and eagerly opened up the market.

Jiang introduced the so-called Three Represents into the party constitution, broadening the Communist Party’s linchpin alliance of peasants and workers to include the contemporary middle class of intellectuals, science and technology workers, and business managers. He changed the identity of a working-class serving party to something akin to the European-style socialist parties. Jiang merged state enterprises to bring about South Korean-style chaebol and pledged to join the World Trade Organization. Thanks to his efforts, 136 Chinese names are cited in Fortune 500 company list of 2022, more than 124 U.S. entities.

Xi Jinping, who has succeeded in extending his term into a third term, has been preaching “common prosperity” to address deepening inequalities in China. He resorted to draconian policies and battled with the international society. Entrepreneurs like Jack Ma who called for a crackdown on counterfeit goods have become muted.

As Harvard University sociologist Barrington Moore Jr. put it simply, “No Bourgeois, No Democracy.” His remark underscores the inevitable rise of a capitalistic-democratic mass movement. The joining of office workers in the June democratization movement in South Korea in 1987 led to the end of the military regime that took power through manipulated elections. The same drama could pan out in China.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has finally shaken out of his record-low approval rating to gain impetus in governance for the first time since taking office in May. The government’s hard-line response to an illegal strike by cargo truckers has gained public support. But Yoon has yet to solve conflict with the media. MBC might have crossed a line over his hot-mic moment in New York, but banning its reporter from boarding the presidential plane to cover his overseas trip went too far. An MBC reporter was rude in addressing the president, but the president suspending the morning press briefing ritual also was an overreaction. The move can be seen as oppression against freedom of the press in the eyes of media.

America’s third President Thomas Jefferson said he would prefer “newspapers without a government” over “a government without newspapers.” The First Amendment said the Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. Gregory Johnson, a communist activist who had burned the flag of the United States during a 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, was nevertheless acquitted at the Supreme Court. Justice William Brennan said the majority of the court agreed with Johnson that flag-burning also constitutes a form of “symbolic speech” which is protected by the First Amendment. The ruling has set the norm that nothing in the U.S. can come above freedom of speech.

In a meeting of lawmakers from the governing People Power Party, who are close to President Yoon, Kim Hyung-seok, professor emeritus of philosophy at Yonsei University, pointed out that founding president Syngman Rhee fell because his ears towards his ministers and people had been blocked by kowtowing aides. Yoon also must keep loyalists at bay and listen to the uncomfortable criticisms from the media.

Yoon must exercise Machiavelli’s prudenzia, foresight and agility of leader from understanding the diverse situation in politics. Otherwise, politics will lose its crucial art of compromise to become a marketplace for bargainers thirsty for power.
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks before convening a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan, Nov. 29. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

As a prosecutor general, Yoon was an icon of fighting for justice and fairness. He must come down off his high horse to sympathize with a multitude of people living harsh livelihood. He must become selfless to hear their voices, not sycophants.

As in the U.S., freedom of speech stands at the forefront of democracy in South Korea. It makes the country different from China. It could be uncomfortable for the leader, but it keeps him from falling prey to arrogance and wrongdoing. A leader on the high horse can never win over the hearts of the people.
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