Older people will soon vastly outnumber the young in Pacific Rim democracies like Korea and Japan, leading to far fewer wage earners and much greater public debt, putting stability at risk. Those issues need to be front and center, say many of the 650 members of Cornell Law School’s Meridian 180, a diverse community—some describe it as a think tank—of some of the transpacific region’s most brilliant thinkers and innovators in a multiplicity of fields. Their discussions on Meridian 180’s website led to “Democracy in an Age of Shifting Demographics,” its first conference at its new Asia base at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea, on March 31.
The gathering, which drew about one hundred leaders and opinion makers from Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia, and the United States, garnered positive media attention and praise from participants for doing something that few others had done before—namely getting the best people from different Pacific Rim countries to work together on solutions to pressing, shared problems. The conference was extensively covered in Asian media, including the Korea Times, Hankyoreh Shinmun, and Seoul Shinmun, which published an interview with Riles.
“The current moment calls for a space for discussion that is capable of suggesting multifaceted responses to global risks to society,” wrote Haejoang Cho in the Hangyereh Shinmun. A professor of cultural anthropology at Yonsei University in Korea, she is considered one of that country’s leading public intellectuals. “My hope is that Meridian 180 will provide real solutions to the complex problems that East Asia is facing, while opening up new horizons for higher education and research,” she wrote.
Cornell Law School Dean Eduardo Peñalver, who spoke via video at the conference at Ewha, praised the university for “giving Meridian 180 a central base in Asia of intellectual import where our members and other thinkers and practitioners might gather together to have the kinds of face-to-face conversations that build real relationships and give us a deeper understanding of one another.”
In planning the conference, says Professor Annelise Riles, director of Meridian 180, “We wanted to find a way for people from very different disciplines professions and national backgrounds to communicate meaningfully with one another.” (Riles is also the Jack G. Clarke Professor of Law in Far East Legal Studies and director of the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture at Cornell Law School and professor of anthropology at Cornell.) “We also wanted to prod our illustrious participants to take some risk, to speak forcefully and straightforwardly outside of their comfort zone,” Riles explains.
She and Meridian 180 Korea Base Director Eunice Kim, who organized the event together, sought to create an atmosphere at the conference in which, as Riles put it: “people from different cultures and language backgrounds could respond meaningfully in real time to what was being said.” The Meridian 180 team came up with the idea of anonymous comments that could be submitted in any language and would be translated and projected on a screen behind the speakers in real time as they were speaking. Organizers also arranged for panelists to share their viewpoints in an online forum on the Meridian 180 website prior to the conference. The strategy worked: “The conference was rich in diverse opinions,” says Kim, who also is a professor at Ewha Law School.
“We also wanted to prod conference attendees to come to some collective conclusions that we could share with the media and policymakers,” says Riles. Even though people’s viewpoints were wildly different, “it was important for us to be able to summarize them in a joint communiqué at the end,” she says.
“It was exciting to hear from scholars from around the world, and to meet online colleagues from Meridian 180 face-to-face,” says Leigh Bienen, senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, who was a panelist in a conversation at the conference titled: Fairness and Equality in an Aging Society.
“We realized that our societies shared many circumstances, especially around the policy issues concerning generational disparities and communication difficulties,” says Bienen.
“If democracy is going to survive,” she says, “we need to keep learning from one another and to keep listening. Meridian 180 is a unique forum for communication and publishing, creating new methods always.”