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.
HONG KONG: China's legislature imposes electoral reforms to strengthen Beijing's influence
The National People's Congress (NPC) approved a sweeping electoral reform plan for Hong Kong on 11 March that will consolidate Beijing's control over Hong Kong's Legislative Council and the office of chief executive. Though the electoral system has long been stacked in favor of the pro-Beijing camp, some analysts believed that the pro-democracy camp – riding popular support from the 2019 protest movement – had a chance to gain a slim majority in elections scheduled for September 2020. Those elections were pushed back by a year, ostensibly due to the pandemic, and are now likely to be postponed until September 2022.
The election reforms will leave the pro-democracy camp with even less influence in the city's Election Committee, which chooses the chief executive. The plan enlarges the committee from 1,200 to 1,500 members by empowering a fifth “sector” to choose 300 members alongside the four existing sectors. The fifth sector will be drawn from various quasi-government organizations whose membership Beijing controls, while the composition of the four existing sectors is also tilted further in Beijing's favor.
The reform plan also enlarges the Legislative Council (LegCo) from 70 to 90 members. The 70-member LegCo is currently divided evenly between geographical constituencies, which elect members directly by popular vote, and functional constituencies representing special interest and professional groups. Under the new system, the Election Committee will choose some legislators. Finally, the plan establishes a new Candidate Qualification Review Committee empowered to approve or reject candidates for the LegCo, the chief executive, and the Election Committee based on a determination of whether the proposed candidate is a “patriot.”
The plan passed this week is a “decision” setting broad guidelines for electoral reform. In the coming weeks, the NPC Standing Committee will proceed with corresponding amendments to Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Finally, the LegCo will enact corresponding changes to local Hong Kong statute. These forthcoming amendments and statutes will specify details such as the definition of “patriot” and the breakdown of the LegCo between geographic constituencies, functional constituencies, and Election Committee seats.
MYANMAR: Junta digs in, raising risk of economic isolation
Despite growing international criticism, the junta shows no sign of stepping back from its heavy-handed response to street demonstrations, increasing the possibility of more sanctions from Western governments. The EU is reportedly preparing sanctions against military-affiliated companies, including the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation.
Media blackouts, internet cutoffs, and journalist detentions are making it difficult to ascertain the junta’s response to both the protests and the general strike led by several unions this week. On 8 March, the government cancelled five media licenses. Available information, much of it posted to social media, indicates that security forces are targeting neighborhoods where protesters gather, while sending troops to hospitals and public utilities.
On 11 March, the junta turned to attacking Aung San Suu Kyi with corruption allegations. Junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said she had illegally received USD 600,000 plus additional gold, though he did not disclose the source of the alleged payments. These allegations will mark the third set of criminal charges against Aung San Suu Kyi. Though the Rohingya crisis tarnished her external image, she remains popular, as evidenced by the overwhelming victory of her National League for Democracy in the November elections and by protesters' high-profile use of her image.
By portraying her as corrupt, the military is attempting to weaken that popularity, but success in this effort is doubtful. After weeks of demonstrations, political polarization is high, and the charges – including the two previous ones for possession of imported walkie-talkies and violation of pandemic rules – will be seen as politically motivated.
JAPAN: Vaccine program advances, but supply concerns still loom
Authorities have begun dispensing second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to frontline medical workers as part of the trial program to inoculate a select group of medical workers before distributing it to a broader group of healthcare workers later this month and to the general public – beginning with residents over 65 – in April. Despite growing evidence that the first dose provides a high level of immunity, the government decided to follow the initial guidance for two shots spaced three weeks apart.
However, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been calling upon the Suga administration to consider spacing out the time between doses to enable more individuals to receive a first dose, in light of lingering concerns about shortages and bottlenecks in vaccine shipments from Europe to Japan. Separately, the government and medical authorities are debating whether to use a different syringe – a type commonly used by diabetics for insulin – that some facilities have found can extract seven doses from a vial. For now, the distribution program is proceeding largely as scheduled by the government.
Accordingly, it appears unlikely that the administration will lengthen the time between doses, partly because medical establishments in other developed countries have not yet endorsed the new findings about the effectiveness of the first dose. However, this debate could change if supply shortages drag on into the summer. Assuming that workers are able to extract six doses per vial, Japan currently has only 2.6mn doses on hand, significantly less than the nearly 10mn it will need to distribute two doses to the roughly 4.8mn medical workers who are in the first group for inoculations.
The government expects it will not have enough doses for all medical workers until the beginning of May. At that point, demand will grow substantially as the government begins distributing vaccines to roughly 36mn residents over 65, starting with a limited 50,000-person group in April. Until the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare approves other vaccines – the ministry is currently reviewing applications from Moderna and AstraZeneca – it will be difficult for the administration to scale up the vaccinations for the elderly. On 7 March, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura suggested that the ministry could give its approval by May at the earliest. The ministry is also still waiting for Johnson & Johnson to submit its vaccine for approval.
SOUTH KOREA: Land speculation scandal could scramble political landscape
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun declared “war” on real estate speculation on 11 March after 20 officials at the Korea Land and Housing Corporation, which manages land development and housing construction in cities, used inside information to purchase undeveloped land slated for new housing in Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul. These developments were part of President Moon Jae-in’s plans to build “new towns” to contain soaring housing costs in major urban areas, a top priority for the young, urban professionals who are an important constituency for Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). The officials allegedly purchased roughly KRW 10bn (USD 8.9mn) in land between 2018 and 2020, and investigations may reveal further corruption related to the new town program. Opposition lawmakers have suggested that corruption is more widespread. In an effort to prevent the scandal from crippling the Moon administration and the DPK's control of the National Assembly, the DPK called for a parliamentary investigation into whether lawmakers were involved in land deals and threatened to expel lawmakers found guilty.
These revelations could have broad political ramifications. In the immediate term, they could threaten the DPK ahead of mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan in April. The Moon administration's inability to contain housing costs was already an electoral liability, and these revelations could further discredit the administration’s handling of the issue. Meanwhile, the corruption scandal could also shake up the race to succeed Moon ahead of[AF1]next year's presidential election. Yoon Seok-youl, the former prosecutor-general who resigned last week to protest the DPK's efforts to prevent him from investigating corruption related to the administration, has quickly emerged as the frontrunner to succeed Moon. Though Yoon has not declared his intentions, his popularity and his reputation as an anti-corruption crusader could make him an attractive candidate for the conservative opposition – all the more so if the land speculation scandal widens.