Below is the weekly update of political developments across East Asia. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you want to discuss any of the countries mentioned in more detail.
CHINA: New data privacy laws aim to rein in abuses by internet companies
China is finalizing a series of new laws and regulations governing data privacy. A new Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) is nearing final passage, after the public comment period for the draft version closed in late November. The PIPL imposes penalties on internet companies that collect and share private data without authorization and reflects the influence of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The PIPL aims to plug gaps in China’s existing legal infrastructure, which includes the Cybersecurity Law that took effect in 2017 and a draft Data Security Law released in late June, which is also likely to take effect later this year. Meanwhile, the Cyberspace Administration of China released draft regulations on 1 December governing the types of data that mobile apps are allowed to collect, while imposing penalties on apps that collect data “beyond their scope.”
The patchwork of new laws and regulations will impose new requirements on companies, including foreign companies, that collect and store personal data, but the PIPL remains vague on exactly what companies must do to ensure compliance. Some vagueness will be resolved when government agencies issue implementing regulations under the new law, but legal observers also expect a series of lawsuits against internet companies over the next two years to set guiding precedents. Some privacy advocates worry that PIPL’s penalties are too lenient to deter the illicit sale of user data, given how lucrative China’s black market in data has become. In theory, the PIPL can also be used to prosecute “organizations and individuals outside of” China who use data in a way that harms China’s national security or the interests of the Chinese people, though it remains unclear if Chinese authorities intend to prosecute foreigners for activities outside China.
JAPAN: Suga government’s incremental response continues but vaccine plans taking shape
The Suga government has continued to make incremental adjustments to its Go To subsidy programs as case numbers have remained high and threats to the medical system have continued to grow. However, in the absence of a coordinated national strategy or a new emergency declaration, prefectural and municipal governments have been introducing new restrictions independently. Eight prefectures have now requested that residents either avoid unnecessary activities outside of their homes or refrain from travel to nearby urban centers. Seven have requested that high-risk eating and drinking establishments reduce their open hours for several weeks in December.
The main focus now is Tokyo, which once again has the largest number of infections nationwide. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is looking to the Suga administration for a more aggressive response and perhaps even the suspension of Go To Travel subsidies for travel to and from Tokyo. However, a 1 December meeting between Koike and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga resulted only in an announcement by Koike encouraging individuals over 65 or with underlying medical conditions to refrain from traveling to and from the capital through 17 December, although she reportedly had wanted these high-risk groups formally excluded. The government will reimburse cancellation fees. Although the increase in severe cases has slowed somewhat, the steady increase in new cases and rising hospitalization rates suggest that the Suga administration will continue to face pressure to provide more clarity on how it intends to stem the third wave of Covid-19.
Despite the short-term challenges, however, the Suga administration’s efforts to combat Covid-19 advanced on Wednesday, 2 December with the Diet’s passage of a bill setting out plans for beginning the distribution of a vaccine before the end of the fiscal year (31 March). The national government will ensure that the vaccine is free for all residents, while cities and towns will be responsible for distribution. The bill obligates individuals to make efforts to receive the vaccine. The Japanese government has already signed contracts with Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca for doses for 145mn people, and, as vaccines near approval in other countries, Japanese pharmaceutical companies are preparing local clinical trials while hoping that overseas approvals speed the approval process domestically.
SOUTH KOREA: National Assembly passes budget with additional relief as new cases mount
The National Assembly passed the FY 2021 budget on Wednesday, 2 December, the first time since 2014 that the legislature had passed the annual budget by the constitutionally mandated deadline. After a year in which the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and opposition People Power Party (PPP) battled over how the DPK – which won a virtual supermajority in April’s legislative elections – would wield power in the assembly, the budget’s passage on time and with the approval of a large majority is a rare moment of comity between the ruling and opposition blocs.
The KRW 558tn (USD 506bn) budget includes roughly KRW 4tn (USD 3.6bn) in funding for additional Covid-19 relief and vaccine purchases. Unlike Japan and other countries, the Moon administration has not preordered vaccines from the leading contenders and may wait before committing in order to secure a better price. The bulk of the relief funding will go to small businesses that have been affected by the recent surge of cases in South Korea.
The economic impact could continue to grow as the South Korean government maintains tighter social distancing guidelines as the number of new cases has averaged nearly 500 over the past week. The greater Seoul region remains at level 2 – the third level of a five-stage system – but authorities have introduced stricter measures for high-risk facilities. These measures include bans on a variety of indoor fitness activities and a prohibition on end-of-year parties at hotels, banquet halls, and other such facilities. The rest of the country is at level 1.5, one level lower, but authorities have urged restraint amidst fears that South Korea’s third wave could continue to swell over the winter.
THAILAND: Prayuth cleared in residency case
The Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s use of military housing even after he retired in 2014 did not violate the constitutional prohibition on ministers receiving benefits from state agencies. The court said that a 2005 military regulation allowed former army chiefs to stay on base even after they retire if they continue to serve the country. Two other former army commanders, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paochinda, are also staying in military facilities as a result of the rule. Prayuth also justified the use of the military residence as offering better security. The prime minister has been one of the main targets of the protest movement and the court decision is likely to further inflame their sentiments against him, especially with the narrative that the Bangkok establishment continues to protect the elite networks around the monarchy.
PHILIPPINES: Senator Pacquiao becomes head of Duterte’s political party
Senator and boxer Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao was sworn in as the head of the president’s party, PDP-Laban, on Wednesday evening, fueling speculation that he is preparing for a presidential run in 2022. The speculation will be strengthened further by the reports that Pacquiao’s rise to the top of the party was facilitated by the current speaker of the House of Representatives, Lord Allan Velasco, who is closely tied to Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter. She is also the object of speculation regarding a possible run in 2022. With 18 months to go before the race, it is still too early to call possible alliances and lineups. Pacquiao’s elevation to PDP-Laban may, for instance, be part of a strategy to reduce the possibility that he runs as an independent candidate, and instead join the administration ticket as either its presidential or vice-presidential candidate depending upon alignments that are still to be decided in the coming year, or simply to bolster the party’s visibility. Pacquiao remains popular and voters could overlook his thin record outside the boxing ring, but it is not a guarantee that he will win, especially in a tight race. In 2004, Fernando Poe, Jr., arguably one of the country’s most popular actors, lost to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.