Asian society will be better off without idolizing their leaders
These are sad days in Vietnam, when millions are mourning for their national hero Vo Nguyen Giap, the mastermind behind Vietnam’s historic victories against colonial France and the United States, who passed away on October 4. The “Red Napoleon,” as his enemies call him, was regarded as the last “genuine communist” of Ho Chi Minh’s generation, with the charm and power to win the heart of literally every Vietnamese.
Nguyen Ngoc Tu, a Vietnamese writer, wrote that after General Giap, there will be no other Vietnamese leader that will make the public feel the same way.
But is it a really a bad thing?
The answer depends. It is bad for the current government of Vietnam, as that shows the devastating lack of public trust towards authority. Yet for the public itself in long term, it is a good thing not to have any leader whom they too much idolize.
This is not because the society does not need great leaders like General Giap. For sure, the history could not be like it is if the human beings did not have Buddha, George Washington, or Lenin. Yet they are obstacles as many times as locomotive for the development of society.
When great men prevail, the mass becomes more or less a flock of sheep controlled by the shepherd: you only move on the path that he projects. To that point, leadership will be some sort of authoritarianism, either willingly or reluctantly accepted by the public. Then having enough grass to eat or getting lost to the wolves, it all depends on the shepherd. Precisely, it depends on luck, because not all great leaders are “good.”
Shepherds in Asia
While the role of great men in moving history forward is common in every country of the world, it is more overwhelming and lingering in Asia. Just in the 20th century, here we have leaders who have been in charge of their countries for most of their lives, such as Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore, 29 years in office until retired and his son Lee Hsien Loong is now in charge), Hun Sen (Cambodia, nearly 30 years and more), and Park Chung-hee (South Korea, 16 years until assassinated).
Authoritarian regimes like those of Chinese Communist Party and Vietnamese Communist Party are some kind of “collective leaders,” while North Korean Kim family is undoubtedly an absolute monarchy.
This phenomenon rarely appears in Western societies in the last century. Why so?
The reasons are vast, but one of the most important contributors, in my opinion, is the deeply-rooted agricultural mindset that has existed since the very beginning of the continent’s civilization.
Agriculture has always been considered as the main economic activity of many major Asian nation states, at least before 20th century. It is a risky business, and even riskier in the old times when there was no modern technology to support. Farmers exposed to the danger of natural disasters and constant wars, which forced them to unite in a strong community. Economically, they also needed huge projects, like irrigation and dyke systems, which a small group of people could not do. These all required “exceptional” leaders: people with outstanding skills and personality to lead their people against foreign threats, harsh nature, and discords among themselves.
The same pattern happened in medieval Europe, but ended after the industrial revolution that shifted the economy away from agriculture. More developed nations in Asia, for i.e. South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, nowadays do have a political system in which the role of leaders is much limited by the rule of law.
Additionally, the environmental factor resonates well with Asian ideologies, particularly Confucius ideas of social order and harmony. Communism, which currently dominates in China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Laos, makes use of their leaders (both dead and alive) to maintain legitimacy and inspire the population about the promised society they are building.
How to choose your leader
Walter Lippmann, an American political writer, famously dubbed the public as “phantom” and “permanently incapable of self-government.” Yet even if the mass is unable to govern themselves, that should not be an excuse for putting their fates totally in the hand of a few elites.
The problem with the system of “exceptional” leaders, as I pointed out above, is its uncertainty. In 30 years, Lee Kuan Yew was able to transform a young third-world Singapore into one of the richest. Yet just about the same time, Mao Zedong deferred the development of modern China for 20 years by the Cultural Revolution, and Kim family has successfully managed to stick North Koreans under poverty and fear.
The difference here is that, despite being authoritative, Lee built a real political system that works independently of the maestro, so that its stability depends less on leaders, and in which its citizens still have a voice over public affairs (despite its restriction on freedom of speech, Singapore has transparent elections). So when the new leader comes on stage, he inherits not only the legitimacy to govern, but also a well-run and to some extent democratic system. Singaporean state can be called elite democracy, where public servants are among the brightest of the country, and usually get the best salaries. Lee Hsien Loong is currently the highest paid Prime Minister in the world with nearly $2m per year.
The economic success of China, and to some extent Vietnam in the last decades, can also be credited to the democratization within the communist parties, which reduces a great deal of the leadership’s power. Now supreme leaders cannot “cover up the sky” like they could in the old days, but have to discuss and negotiate with their comrades on critical issues of the countries and the party. In addition, their executive power is limited by terms like in a normal democracy. As a result, sainted leaders like Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh (Kim Jong-un in North Korea may be an exception) do not exist there anymore. Indeed, Vietnam and China are moving from a leader-based legitimacy to a socio-economic based legitimacy.
And that is the good thing. Talented leaders do not always appear on time, but the society needs to move forward all the time. It cannot afford to wait, or to risk being on the hand of “bad” leaders.
So do we need leaders anymore? Of course we still do. But leaders should be seen as normal public officials who do their job, just like workers at construction sites or teachers at school, rather than a godlike human being. More importantly, their leadership should be contested by the public, for e.g. through a free and fair election. Their work also needs to be supervised and evaluated: carrots for doing a good job, and sticks for otherwise. Unquestioned leadership is the source of all evil done by the state.
Although it’s still far from being able to hold their own fates, at least the mass can decide who should do so on their behalf. After all, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “the people are wiser than any single individual can be.”