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Tea Leaves

In US politics, the old rules get older

Could Asia lead the world into a more youthful new age?

From Left: U.S. President Donald Trump, new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Trump rival Joe Biden are all over 70. Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is a mere 67. (Source Reuters and Nikkei)

A Sinologist friend of mine used to have a running joke. On anybody's birthday, no matter how aged or decrepit they seemed, he'd greet them cheerily: "Congratulations! In another 20 years, you'll be ready for the Chinese Politburo!"

With November's U.S. election down to two candidates who both qualify to become the oldest U.S. president ever, America may be giving Asia a run for its money when it comes to veneration of the elderly. Just as the country finds itself beleaguered by its inability to keep the COVID-19  pandemic in check, its future stewardship seems in the hands of the decidedly "high risk"  leaders in terms of age. 

Despite hints about wanting to stay in office for life, President Donald Trump, 74, the Republican Party candidate, seems to be pushing both political and biological limits, especially, perhaps, in view of his junk-food habits and macho disdain for antiviral masks. His Democratic Party rival Joe Biden is better at social distancing, but is three years older.

Voters in the Democratic primaries might have anointed one of several younger, John F. Kennedy-like figures (the boyish Beto O'Rourke, 47, and the ebullient Cory Booker, 51, come to mind) but opted instead for the tried and true -- and elderly. Could ageism -- that quintessentially New World cult of the newfangled and pimply -- be dead when it comes to U.S. political leadership?

And is it possible that Asia, birthplace of blind obedience to wrinkled patriarchs, now prefers less shaky hands on the levers of power? After all, China's President Xi Jinping is a mere 67 -- even though his relatively youthful appearance relies on the customary Chinese "shoe polish" hair. That is above retirement age in many countries, but Xi is a youngster compared with some of the Communist Party Central Committee members who hobbled out at party conclaves in earlier periods. Yang Shangkun served as president until he was 86.

Surveying the rest of Asia, it is hard to find many "spring chickens." Cambodia's autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen, 68, has been in power for 35 years. In Thailand, despite a relatively youthful populace, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, crowned last year, is also 68, as is the carefully graying Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a son of Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew -- although he is very publicly paving the way for a successor. Japan, meanwhile, saw the unprecedented abdication of an emperor who, at 85, cited his advancing age and the need to make way for a younger generation. And the world watched astounded as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who turned 66 on Sept. 21, announced his exit, citing health issues.

Naturally, all records for dynastic dictators are broken by North Korea's Kim Jong Un. At 36, he could be called the Pete Buttigieg of Asia -- although unlike the 38-year-old unsuccessful contender for the Democratic Party presidential nomination he has never had to face a primary. Meanwhile, the enlightened mountain kingdom of Bhutan is also showing the way with a revered king who is just 40. The average age of Asian leaders was further reduced by the recent ouster of Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (though even at 95 a comeback is not impossible).

Most likely, the apparent change in U.S. expectations of political dynamism reflects the inching up of national pension ages, with Western countries leading the way. In Portugal, for instance, the state pension threshold is now 66 and five months. Singapore recently upped its official retirement age from 62 to 65, with rehiring possible up to 70.

Still, respect for the elderly in Asia seems to focus more on freeing them from their labors than keeping them on. Despite financial pressures to do otherwise, female factory workers in China can still quit as early as 50, but a Japanese law allowing forced retirements at 60, with rehiring up to 65, has been criticized as cruel.

Of course, none of this applies to careers in politics (the segregationist Strom Thurmond sat, literally, in the U.S. Senate until 99, and Abe's successor, Yoshihide Suga, is six years older than his predecessor). And the dominance of recycled party elders offers a rather stark choice -- in this case, Trump's megalomaniacal faith in immortality versus Biden's shaky reemergence from virtual retirement. 

The shrill, fact-bending defenses by Trump's sons Donald Jr. and Eric of their father are hardly proof that Americans have adopted "filial piety" along with other Asian influences (yoga, sushi, bubble tea). Nor should the longevity afforded by modern medicine -- Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders' quick recovery from a mid-campaign heart attack, for instance -- be confused with a Western embrace of Confucianism.

But maybe, just maybe, a more "holistic" view of life, embraced by baby boomers growing long in the tooth, is allowing more Americans to give value to age (or, at least, find ways to ignore it). Similarly, the Westernization of the East could eventually bring forth some Asian equivalents of President Barack Obama, who was 47 when he took office in 2009.

Virus risks aside, age may really be just a number when it comes to a new era of political power.

John Krich, 69, is a Lisbon-based writer.

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