Why are so many Asian countries run by families?


In the United States, it’s the Kennedys and Bushs; in South Korea, it’s the Parks. On December 19, South Korea elected Park Geun-Hye as president — but she’s not just the country’s first female head of state, she’s heir to a controversial political legacy. Her father, Park Chung-hee, was South Korea’s dictator in the 1960s and 1970s. And Park’s not the only recent ruler with family ties. Across Asia, heirs of political dynasties have taken power.

Three days before Park’s win, Japan chose as prime minister the right wing Shinzo Abe, son of a Japanese foreign minister and grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who as a cabinet member in 1941 signed the declaration of war against the United States, and served as prime minister almost two decades later. (Abe himself was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007.) In China, there’s a new princeling-in-chief, too. In November, Xi Jinping became Communist Party chairman, 30 years after his popular father Xi Zhongxun, respected for his principles and his decency, ascended to China’s elite decision-making body, the Politburo. And when Kim Jong Un became supreme leader of North Korea in December 2011, he too was following a family tradition: two generations of Kims had preceded him.

More than ever before, Asian summit meetings resemble family reunions. With few exceptions outside the dictatorships in the southeast and central part of the continent, virtually every country in Asia has been ruled by the offspring of a high-ranking politician in the 21st century. And these are mostly democracies we’re talking about. Listing the family connections between current and former rulers quickly becomes tedious: There’s Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra, whose father was a member of parliament and whose brother, Thaksin, is the now-exiled former prime minister. In Bangladesh, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first president. (Her longtime rival, former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, is the widow of a former president.) In Pakistan, current President Asif Ali Zardari was married to the assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is herself the eldest daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And so on.

It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t have clear socio-political divisions — or recipes for success. While Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and embodiment of Burma’s democratic ideals, is the daughter of Aung San (Burma’s founding father and the closest thing the country has to political royalty), Thein Sein, the repressive (though liberalizing) president of Burma, is the son of farmers. Likewise, the rulers of the dictatorships of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam come from poor backgrounds, while in the more liberal, wealthy, and democratic Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is the son of the country’s second prime minister and the nephew of its third.Lee Kwan Yew and his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, stewarded Singapore from a colonial backwater into one of the world’s most innovative financial capitals. North Korea, run by a third generation Kim, is a mess. Mongolia, run by the son of nomad, is a promising democracy. 

So what is it about Asian political clans that makes their scions so appealing to voters? That the president of South Korea’s father and the prime minister of Japan’s grandfather likely met and sympathized with each other “as defenders of freedom against the Communist hordes” doesn’t affect policy decisions today, nor make rapprochement between the two nations any more likely, says Richard Samuels, the director of the MIT-Japan program.

What lineage does do is allow voters in Asia’s often-raucous democracies to select a known brand. Many Asian nations didn’t shake off colonialism until after World War II, so the child or grandchild of a country’s beloved independence leader still benefits from the shine of ancestry. Consider how distant the American equivalent feels: The 82-year-old Paul Emerson Washington is reportedly the closest living kin of the family of the first president of the United States of America — he’s the retired regional manager for a building supplies company. By contrast, both the daughter and grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as prime minister themselves; Nehru’s descendants still dominate The Congress, India’s most powerful political party.

It may be both a function of time and of political history. Asian societies “never ran themselves through an individual revolution like we did in the West,” says Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of several books on kinship. Therefore, they more often fall back on the default system: clan rule. “It’s vanity,” he says. “You see these kids in supposedly socialist societies in Asia grooming their children like they were Tudor monarchs.”

Indeed, political nepotism is a common practice, in varying degrees, throughout the world. “We make the mistake thinking that individual democracy is the natural state of man,” says Fox. The truth is that humans tend to believe “that the charisma, the power, and the right to rule is inherited,” and accept the offspring or spouse of a ruler as “a legitimate substitute,” notes Fox. Four years after the 2000 election saw George W. Bush (son of a president) defeat Al Gore (son of a senator), Adam Bellow wrote a book arguing that “the American political class, along with other sectors of our society, is increasingly filled with the offspring of established parents.” Bellow (himself the son of Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow) doesn’t see this as a problem: His book was called In Praise of Nepotism.

Tinkering with the natural order of ancestral veneration can be dangerous. “For thousands of years the Chinese state had relied on families and clans to maintain social order, and had supported their authority with laws that enforced filial piety,” Bellow wrote. Indeed, Mao Zedong, the son of a middle-class farmer, tried to destroy the bonds that attached people to their families, replacing them with ties to the state. But shortly after the end of his 27-year rule — marred by famine and chaos — Mao’s surviving comrades-at-arms begin institutionalizing a system and a government that they could pass to their descendents. Today, four out of seven of Xi’s colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, are princelings — the offspring of those who held high-ranking party posts.

It could be an unlikely coincidence that most of Asia is now run by political scions, but perhaps it’s a universal phenomenon. In the rough and tumble world of democracy, we still like our political brands. Maybe we just prefer the illusion of choosing them.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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