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The rise of Japan’s new Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and lessons for China

Unless China shifts its policies toward more democracy and tends to the interests of the rising urban middle class, it risks ending up in the same cul-de-sac as Japan.

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The rise to power of Japan’s new prime minister, Naoto Kan, holds important lessons for Asia’s development model, particularly rapidly urbanizing China.

More than anyone else in Japanese politics, Prime Minister Kan has led the democratic revolt of the urban consumer and citizen against the powerful bureaucracy allied with the old rural politics of the Liberal Democratic Party that ruled Japan for decades. That alliance, which once fostered the “Japanese miracle,” ended up strangling the nation’s potential and miring it in stagnation because it didn’t adapt to the very conditions of prosperity it had produced or to a world transformed by globalization.

Back in 1999, when the Democratic Party of Japan had first gained a majority in the upper house of the National Diet (Japan’s bicameral legislature), I sat down for a long talk in Tokyo with Mr. Kan. In those days, he was hailed as Japan’s “Tony Blair” because of his “third way” approach that embraced globalization and sought to reform the overbureaucratized state.

“What Japan needs is a party of the consumer and taxpayer,” Kan said then, “not one whose power rests on the rural constituencies and big construction companies and then is subordinate to the bureaucracy. It is the politicians that are elected who should govern, not the bureaucrats.”

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