More than 1.4 million Koreans have signed an online petition calling for his impeachment. Among the gripes: the charge that Moon was too slow to ban visitors from China, putting commercial ties with Beijing ahead of public safety. Moon entered 2020 in lame-duck territory; he’s ending the second month of the year fighting for his political life.
If Moon can find any solace, it’s that he has some high-caliber company.
Over in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also coming under attack for Tokyo’s shockingly incompetent handling of the coronavirus outbreak. China’s Xi Jinping, too. International condemnation of Beijing’s glacial and opaque response to a virus emanating from Wuhan, China, is one thing. Rare public outrage at home is something far more dangerous for a leader often viewed as invulnerable.
The most unexpected side effect of this potential pandemic is how it’s shaking up Asia’s political order.
So is Moon’s approval rating. It’s solidly below 50 percent, which gives his parliamentary majority little room to maneuver. This was supposed to be Moon’s big reform year. He was elected in May 2017 to dispel the cloud of corruption that got predecessor Park Geun-hye impeached. (Her predecessor, former president Lee Myung-bak, has also spent time in jail for bribery.)
Along with restoring trust in the presidency, Moon planned to take on oligarchs, give middle-class families a raise and catalyze innovation. Instead, he’s battling existential crises — one political, one involving public health — as Korea’s coronavirus caseload tops the 4,330 mark and Seoul dithers.
Japan’s Abe has his own explaining to do. As public panic bubbles under the surface, a plethora of “Where’s Abe?” stories are showing up in the local and foreign media. Tokyo’s dreadful response to the virus is drawing unfavorable comparisons to its botched handling of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Abe finally acted last week, declaring a month-long closure of all schools in the country as the number of cases topped 970, including infections aboard a coronavirus-ravaged cruise ship. The British-registered Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama on Feb. 3 and eventually racked up 705 cases. Team Abe kept the 3,711 passengers and crew quarantined for more than two weeks, likely allowing the virus to spread more widely. Many passengers claimed they weren’t tested while on board and that information updates were few.
Abe’s close relationship with Trump also is going terribly awry. Thanks in part to Trump’s China tariffs, Japanese growth fell by an annualized 6.3 percent in the fourth quarter. Now the coronavirus is devastating Japan’s tourism industry. Funny to think Abe started the year believing he could score an unprecedented fourth consecutive term. The question now is will 2020 be his last in power?
Xi’s fate in China is a more complicated calculation. Only time will tell if the Wuhan debacle is Beijing’s Chernobyl moment. Yet the ineptitude displayed by Xi’s government — and indifference to public safety — is laying bare absurdities of autocracy with Chinese characteristics. And risking Xi’s standing in top Communist Party circles.
Though he’s the most commanding Chinese leader in generations, Xi’s plan to stay in power indefinitely requires support from the Politburo. This tension is derailing Xi’s campaign to kick China’s addictions to credit and exports. The imperative swung back to stimulus at all costs. It means Beijing’s $34 trillion mountain of public and private debt will continue to surge, imperiling global stability in 2021 and beyond.
China Inc. has grown even murkier on Xi’s watch, denting trust in the planet’s second-biggest economy. Beijing’s soft power is taking fresh blows as Team Xi shields the true magnitude of the coronavirus crisis. The same goes for Xi’s standing at home as criticism on social media spreads faster than censors can erase.
East Asia hardly has a monopoly on bungled responses. Attention is rapidly turning to failures from Tehran to Trump’s Washington. Yet with bewildering speed, the virus has upended what all policy experts thought they knew about how events from Seoul to Tokyo to Beijing would unfold in 2020. Two months in, this black swan event is raising political temperatures — and economic risks.