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Global Perspective: Democracy amid corona crisis must see beyond 'violence and destruction'

A Black Lives Matter protester salutes passing traffic while supporters of President Donald Trump rally in the background at the intersection of U.S. 17-92 and S.R. 436 in Casselberry, Fla., on July 14, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the United States is breaking down and pulling others in its downfall. For a long time, the country has been at the center of the world, and the impact of its collapse is enormous, accordingly.

As widely reported, on May 25, George Floyd, an African-American man, died as an obvious result of excessive violence by white police officers in Minneapolis. In the wake of his death, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has become widespread across the United States and around the world. The BLM protests have largely been peaceful, but some people took advantage of the situation and engaged in acts of vandalism, while suspicious deaths of African Americans and cover-ups came to the surface one after another. These developments exposed the depth of division in U.S. society.

Behind these recent moves lie deep-rooted historic and societal factors, such as racial discrimination dating back to the nation's founding and the slavery system, as well as structural oppression and violence by law enforcement agencies. But in recent years, the focus has been on so-called "white nationalism," to refer to the title of a recent book by Professor Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University. Some white residents of the United States, who used to be part of the mainstream, are making culturally reactionary moves as their social positions are threatened by the influx of Hispanics and others and they are losing their economic footing. White supremacy is difficult to deal with as it is often accompanied by violence.

President Trump appears to be in a position close to those whites emotionally and politically as he retweeted a post expressing such a position, although he later deleted the tweet. In addition, according to the memoirs of his former national security adviser, John Bolton, the president expressed his endorsement and encouragement of the detention and indoctrination of the Uyghur population in China.

Even though the United States has been involved in many atrocities throughout its history, at the same time, it has also raised the torch of freedom at home and abroad. Now the country is blatantly regressing normatively from top to bottom. Naturally, the international leadership of the United States is being eroded.

What is serious is that the destruction of values is not confined to the domestic sphere, but extends to the multilateralism that has been fostered internationally since the end of World War II. In fact, the Trump administration has unilaterally withdrawn from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris accord on climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the treaty on the abolition of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), and other various agreements and institutions that have shaped global governance, indicating that it is no longer willing to fulfill its global responsibilities. The COVID-19 crisis seems to be accelerating this drive. President Trump has declared his withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) and suggested a restructuring of the G7. These steps are forcing many countries, including Japan, to reconsider their way of life, which presupposed the leadership of the United States as a given.

However, the problem is complex. This is because internal U.S. developments are not only negative, but also include creative destruction aimed at the accumulated negative legacy of the country.

It gouges out invisible, structured oppression and discrimination. For example, two-thirds of U.S. police officers are white, and blacks are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be shot with a gun. Many citizens have experienced discriminatory treatment, abuse of authority and excessive violence by police officers. The backlash against such injustices, and hence the desire for freedom and equality, will never go away. On the contrary, it has been openly recognized everywhere, and is also supported by many whites. Moreover, it has spread throughout the world and linked up with objections to the structure of similar residual discrimination and oppressive practices in Belgium and France, for example.

This development is similar to the #MeToo movement, a series of protests against sexual violence by Hollywood's former powerful producer, Harvey Weinstein, and the like, that has spread from the United States to the rest of the world. Through that movement, the structural oppression, discrimination and violence that remained were exposed and prosecuted. This shows that the quest for freedom and equality is not over; rather, it can begin in the United States and spread throughout the world. In Japan, too, the sexual abuse accusations made by journalist Shiori Ito against a male journalist have given many women the courage to speak up.

The exact opposite of this contemporaneous movement would be what's going on in China. While the effectiveness of the country's counter-coronavirus response has been widely touted, the courageous doctors and intellectuals who have denounced its inadequacies have been socially erased.

In addition, the oppression of minorities and rural areas in China has only deepened. One of the most depressing pieces of data I've seen recently is the dramatic drop in the birth rate of the Xinjiang Uighurs. This phenomenon, which is suspected as a result of sterilization and forced abortion, strongly bears the hallmarks of genocide.

And the most visible case of oppression is Hong Kong. In violation of the Sino-British agreement that promised a high degree of autonomy to the former British enclave following its return to China in 1997, the national security law, which was newly enacted in Beijing, easily took away judicial independence and freedom of expression -- elements that formed the basis of Hong Kong's identity. In the hands of today's China, the movement for freedom and equality can be systematically suppressed.

But as the Bulgarian political theorist Tzvetan Todorov wrote rather impressively in his book "The Inner Enemies of Democracy," democracy rejects the attitude of fatalistic resignation. People are not angels and can take a wrong turn, but on the other hand, many directions exist within them and thus, as long as it is a democracy, it is impossible to determine what will happen.

There are many who have a somewhat fatalistic outlook that the corona crisis will lead to exclusionary populism via unemployment and loss of income that will arise from this. Such an outcome, however, can be avoided.

From this year to next, many countries, including Japan and the United States, will be holding pivotal national elections. These elections are likely to be of great significance in predicting the future of the world after the outbreak of the corona crisis. Amid the rapid growth of authoritarianism, their outcomes will have an impact on the meaning of democratic systems around the world. The voters' choices are of crucial importance.

(By Ken Endo, Dean, Graduate School of Public Policy, Hokkaido University)

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