December 29th, 2011
03:30 PM ET

The top ten events that shook Asia in 2011

Editor's Note: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy, and U.S.-China relations. Adam Segal is the Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal,

If there were one word to describe Asia in 2011, it would likely be tremors—not only the physical ones that devastated Japan, but also the political ones that reverberated throughout the region shaking India, China, and Thailand, waking up Burma, and further unsettling North Korea.

1.  So Long Earthlings

After a stroke in 2008 and years of poor health, Kim Jung-il was not long for this world. Yet few anticipated that the Dear Leader’s 17-year ruinous reign would end in December 2011 due to the “great mental and physical strain caused by his uninterrupted field guidance tour” while sitting on a train. With his platform shoes, puffy hair, and love of film, he was an easy target for others’ mockery (see Greetings, earthlings, a classic cover from The Economist). Yet he consistently managed to outmaneuver Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul - testing nuclear devices, launching missiles, and demanding food and energy aid - all the while impoverishing his country. It is too early to predict whether Kim Jung-un, Kim Jong-il’s inexperienced and untested son and heir, will do anything differently - the rest of the world and the North Korean people, in particular, can only hope.

 2.  Wukan, Wenzhou, and Dalian

People protesting in China should no longer provoke surprise. After all, the country reportedly lodged 180,000 mass demonstrations in 2010 alone. Yet in 2011, three protests, in particular, reminded us of just how varied and challenging these demonstrations can be for Beijing.

In July, the crash of a high speed train in Wenzhou in southern China led to a virtual protest on China’s Internet. As the government appeared to try to bury the evidence, cell phone pictures, texts, and tweets made any attempt at a government cover-up futile, embarrassing Beijing and forcing a more transparent investigation of the incident.

The following month saw a middle-class march in the prosperous northern city of Dalian over inadequate safeguards at a local Paraxlyene factory. With protestors numbering somewhere between 12,000 (the official number) and 70,000, the government capitulated quickly, agreeing to shut down and relocate the factory. Nothing seems to frighten officials more than a peaceful but committed group of middle-class protestors…except perhaps a radicalized group of rural demonstrators.

In December, the small village of Wukan caught the world’s attention as the residents took control of the village, calling for an end to illegal land sales and rigged elections, and an investigation into the suspicious death of one of their leaders. After a week-long standoff, provincial officials negotiated a settlement granting the villagers all their demands. The 2011 take-away for the Chinese people may well be: protest and ye shall receive.

3.  Waking the Middle Class

For much of the year, Anna Hazare held the Indian media and people captive as he pushed Delhi to create an independent anti-corruption agency. Throughout the summer, tens of thousands of Indians joined Hazare’s anti-corruption protests in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and elsewhere, upending one of the commonly accepted precepts of Indian politics: the middle class is uninterested in and alienated from political life. After badly mismanaging the protests, briefly arresting Hazare, and detaining over 1,000 of Hazare’s supporters, the government conceded to his demand to create an oversight agency or Lokpal. Hazare has criticized the resulting legislation as too weak, while critics of Hazare argue that the last thing India needs is another massive bureaucracy. No matter the specific outcome of the bill, one thing is certain: Indian politicians can no longer afford to ignore the middle class.

4.  Coming in from the Cold

For pure political drama in 2011, nothing can top Burmese President Thein Sein’s surprising spate of political proposals. He released hundreds of political prisoners, halted construction of the unpopular Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam, initiated political reconciliation with jailed opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and opened the door to diplomatic discussions with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton. The President has promised more to come in 2012; let’s hope he continues to deliver.

5.  The Hard Landing that Wasn’t…Yet

The second half of 2011 was marked by increasing scrutiny of the Chinese economy, as observers looked for signs that a tipping point had been reached. The bears looked to inflation in wages and food prices, a growing property bubble, local government debt, as well as wasteful central government investment, low consumption, and falling exports. Others were more sanguine about the Chinese leadership’s ability to manage their economy, arguing that the long-term fundamentals were strong even if the country had to endure short-term bumps along the way. Expect the debate to continue through 2012.

 6.  The Pivot

The talk of the summer in Asia was all about “the Pivot.” A growing sense of concern over assertive Chinese rhetoric and naval activities provoked a number of Asian countries to seek deeper engagement with the United States. As America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, President Obama and his Asia team moved quickly to capitalize on the opportunity to strengthen traditional Asian alliances and forge new ones.

In just a few short months, the U.S. achieved a significant upgrade in military relations with Australia, advanced a regional free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), joined the East Asia Summit, and even engaged in a diplomatic dance with Burma. Pivoting will likely turn out to be the easy part; staying the course as U.S. fiscal pressures increase and making real progress on regional trade and security issues will be the true measure of America’s commitment.

7.  The Return of the Shinawatras

Last July, Thailand’s poor and lower classes elected the country’s first female prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra—an election our colleague Josh Kurlantzick has called perhaps “the most important in the country’s history.” Yingluck has already received criticism for her handling of Thailand’s worst flooding in five decades, but her greatest challenge likely will come next year when her brother Thaksin may return to the country. Deposed in a coup in 2006 and later convicted of corruption, Thaksin remains a politically polarizing figure, intensely disliked by many in the country’s bureaucratic and military elite. How Yingluck manages her brother’s return is not merely a question of smoothing politically roiled waters, but also of her own political fate.

8.  Cyber Crime Takes Center Stage

As the list of cyberattack victims continued to grow in 2011—RSA, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Sony, the IMF, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others—cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch quipped that there were two types of companies: “those that know they’ve been compromised and those that don’t yet know.” Most of the attacks were directed at intellectual property and industrial secrets. While the Obama administration has been reluctant to assign blame, Michigan RepresentativeMike Rogers and the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive recently outed Beijing as a major source of the cyber espionage. The question for 2012: if China doesn’t heed this now public criticism, what else is the United States prepared to do?

9.  Ai Weiwei

Beijing’s detention of the artist/activist Ai Weiwei last spring produced a public outcry that refused to die. Ai, whose artwork and political activism have long annoyed Chinese officials, was arrested in April on the grounds of “economic crimes” (later described as a failure to pay taxes). He was released in late June following a worldwide Internet campaign protesting his arrest. In November, Beijing levied a $2.4 million tax bill on Ai. Chinese citizens rose to his defense contributing $1.3 million to help pay the bill—some sending the money via the Internet while others floated bills over Ai’s gated house. The final outcome of Ai’s judicial misadventure remains to be seen. However, as a matter of morality, the Chinese people have already turned a travesty into a triumph.

10.  Japan: A Spring of Devastation

Japan confronted an almost unimaginable set of disasters last March: a 9.0 earthquake—the most powerful in Japan’s history—a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown. In the face of such horror, several “Japans” quickly emerged: a bureaucratic elite that appeared confused and, in the final analysis, prone to cover-up; the courageous self-defense forces that responded without hesitation to the crisis; and a public that was a model of generosity and self-sacrifice. More than nine months on, the disaster continues to haunt the country withquestions remaining as to the success of the clean-up effort, the safety of the country’s food products, the future of its nuclear industry, and the capacity of its government to manage these and other challenges. Still, Japan has weathered worse, and we’ll bet on the fundamental resilience of the Japanese people to ensure their country emerges only stronger for the tragedy that they have endured.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal.
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Topics: Asia

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    That Yingluck Shinawatra as the first female prime minister in Thailand is per se a positiv thing. But being sister of the ousted Thaksin Shinawatra she will not be taken seriously by the political elite of the international community. In Thailand she might be able to use her femininity to promote national reconciliation.

    December 30, 2011 at 4:50 am | Reply

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