The Hillarys of Asia


BOSTON — Every political culture must have one. The politician who gets up when she's knocked down, who is loathed by the press, and loved by the press. Who underlings fear and colleagues respect. And who just never seems to fade away.

So as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours Japan (Feb. 16-18), Indonesia (Feb. 18-19), South Korea (Feb. 19-20) and China (Feb. 20-22), we sent four correspondents on a Hillary hunt across Asia. Unsurprisingly, they found them (and even a pants suit):

The Hillary of Japan: Shintaro Ishihara, by Gavin Blair

TOKYO — The moribundity of Japanese politics throws up few figures that polarize opinion the way Hillary Clinton can. But Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is one such figure. Once heavily tipped as a future Prime Minister, the outspoken populist-nationalist is loathed by opponents.

A prize-winning novelist, Ishihara also co-authored, with former Sony chairman, Akio Morita, “The Japan That Can Say No," a critique of U.S.-Japan relations. Having served as a cabinet minister Ishihara won the gubernatorial race as an independent in 1999 with a popular mandate to fix metropolitan finances. The 2001 implementation of a 3 percent tax on profits at Tokyo banks — beneficiaries of a no-strings government bailout — won wide support. Later ruled illegal, with $800 million in taxes returned to banks, it nevertheless boosted his image as a people’s champion. Adopting the, ‘if you can’t beat ‘em…’ approach, Ishihara then established a spectacularly unsuccessful municipal bank, losing $1 billion in taxpayer money to date.

During his Tokyo tenure, Ishihara has insulted women, nearly every group of foreign residents in Japan, including the French, and most of Japan’s Asian neighbors – particularly China and South Korea. Were it not for that, it could have been Ishihara that Clinton would be meeting this week, instead of current Prime Minister Taro Aso.

The Hillary of Indonesia: Yenny Wahid, by Peter Gelling

JAKARTA — She is the scourge of the right wing. In fact, Indonesian conservatives hope Yenny Wahid, daughter of former president Abdurrahman Wahid, never seeks public office. But really, it is just a matter of time.

Now in her mid-30s, she has served as a special adviser for president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and, sometimes controversially, as secretary-general for the National Awakening Party, the political vehicle founded by her father. One magazine ranked her among the top 20 most powerful women in Indonesia.

She is probably most influential in her role as a campaigner for religious pluralism. She heads the Wahid Foundation, which promotes pluralism and tolerance, and has been chastised by the religious right for not adhering to a strict Islamic dress code. Though the majority of Indonesia is moderate, Islamic conservatives have a powerful voice and it has always been politically prudent to appease them when possible. Female public servants here almost always wear a headscarf.

Wahid, instead, sporting a Hillary-style pants-suit, has made it her business to rile the religious right, which some believe might hinder her political ambitions. Conservative factions in her own party, the third largest here, have already caused her problems. Earlier this year they attempted to oust her from the party leadership, causing a rift that will surely damage its chances in July's presidential elections. Still, Yenny Wahid has been down before and the Harvard-educated, former journalist, is gaining a deserved reputation for being a fighter.

The Hillary of South Korea: Kim Dae-jung, by Jiyeon Lee

SEOUL — Hillary Clinton's rebound from presidential loser to secretary of state was fast. But in terms of political bounce backs, there aren't many who can match that of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung.

Perhaps the most well-known South Korean leader in the international community, Kim proved that losers do not always stay in the shadows. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 and was the first South Korean president to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But back in 1980 he was convicted of charges of treason and was put on death row during South Korea's military dictatorship.

The former president, now in his 80s, entered politics in the 1960s and became a fighter for democracy. He has also survived an assassination attempt and in 1973 he was abducted, and later released, by agents of what was then the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

Kim served as president from 1998 to 2003 and led South Korea through the Asian financial crisis and opened a new era of reconciliation between the two Koreas. Since his presidential term, Kim has remained mostly out of sight.

The Hillary of China: Xi Jinping, by Kathleen E. McLauglin

BEIJING — Members of China’s Politburo typically cleave to carefully crafted public personas, offering few passionate statements or potential for publicized missteps that set one apart from another. Premier Wen Jiabao is known popularly as a kindly grandfather, while President Hu Jintao has cultivated a tough, more aloof image.

Yet Hu’s heir apparent, Vice Premier Xi Jinping, has shown signs of a Clinton-esque knack for frankness and tough talk. Xi, 55, has built a reputation of being open and forthright, particularly compared with his peers in central leadership. On a recent visit to Mexico, Xi took that frankness even further during a speech to Chinese citizens there, scolding those who criticize China for human-rights abuses.

“There are some foreigners who have eaten their fill then have nothing better to do, pointing fingers at our affairs,” Xi said with a wry smile. “China, first, does not export revolution; second, does not export hunger and poverty; third, does not give you unnecessary trouble. There is nothing else to say.”

Though he said what many Chinese citizens would like to hear, Xi’s comments, including the video of his speech, were censored by mainland media. China-watchers said Xi’s tough, almost casual words could signal new confidence and swagger among the country’s leadership.