Democratic Transition in Asia Transition and Structural Essay

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Democratic Transition in Asia

Transition and Structural Theories of Democratization

Important Asian countries participated in the Third Wave of democratization from the 1970s to the 1990s, including South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. In China and Burma, there might have been a democratic revolution in 1989-90 had the ruling regimes not suppressed their own people with utmost brutality. This Third Wave, which according to Samuel Huntington started in Spain and Portugal in 1974-75, spread to Southern and eastern Europe and then to Asia, Africa and Latin America (Haynes 1999, p. 80). It demolished the Soviet Union and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and today seems to be rising yet again in North Africa and the Middle East. These unexpected events have led scholars of history, political science and international relations to delve into the questions of how transitions from authoritarianism to democracy occur and what structural factors seem to make these more likely. Another related set of questions concerns the social, economic and cultural factors that offer the best chance for the consolidation and stabilization of democracies over time.

Given the immense cultural, historical and ethnic diversity of Asia, attempting to come up with a theory that fits all cases is probably a hopeless task. There very likely is a correlation between social and economic development and an eventual transition to democracy, for example, but even then there are exceptions like Singapore -- rich countries that have no democracy at all. Even in countries that have strong civil societies and people power movements like the Philippines, capable of overthrowing dictatorships, there is often a persistent danger of military coups as well as feudal-oligarchic tendencies that limit real democratization. Some countries with strong Confucian values became democratic, while others never did. Some countries that had been within the British Empire developed a strong liberal-democratic political culture but this hardly exists at all in others. There is simply no theoretical consensus on democratization that can encompass this vast, diverse reality that is Asia.

Within transition theory, the structural school emphasizes environmental factors such as the influence of the global economy, social class, poverty and inequality, culture and regionalism. On the other hand, the process school "stresses the role of actors and their strategic choices," especially at the elite levels during the transition and consolidation phases of democratization (Shelley 2005, p. 9). Among the many structural factors that influence democratization, rapid urbanization and industrialization are among the most important, and the correlation between democracy and economic development is one of the strongest in political science" (Bevir 2010, p. 366). As of 2010, 42 of 48 rich countries had democratic governments and "democracy makes…society more efficient in terms of use and mobilizing economic resources" (Mehmetcik 2010, p. 6). This is not to assert that capitalism itself leads to democracy since there are numerous examples of capitalist states like China today or Japan, Taiwan and South Korea in the recent past that were never liberal or democratic. Nor does the existence of a large middle class guarantee the consolidation and stability of a democracy, since there are instances of middle classes supporting authoritarian regimes "when they see it as suiting their economic interests," such as the German middle classes turning against the Weimar Republic during the Great depression (Bevir, p. 366).

Education is another major structural factor in sustaining a stable democracy, which has a far better chance of consolidating in societies with effective public education systems like those in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Even so, Communist and fascist states also had systems of mass education and propaganda that were expressly designed to turn the population away from liberal or democratic values.. Karl Popper declared that the vitality of democracy depended "on a culture of learning and an ethic of justice," which Confucianism certainly has in abundance, so much so that even the Chinese government formally declared itself neo-Confucian in 1994 (Schmiegelow, p. 29). In this instance, however, Confucianism is likely to be deployed as a buttress for the authoritarian state, as in often was in imperial times before 1911.

Western scholars gave little thought to transition to democracy before 1970, since most nations were ruled by Communist, fascist or military-authoritarian regimes with state-directed economic policies. Certainly this was the case with every Asian country at the time, with the exception of India and Japan. Dankwart A. Rustow argued that the transition to democracy should be separated from later stages of consolidation and stabilization. He doubted that high literacy levels, economic development or liberal values were essential for the initial transition, but only for "angry and exhausted elites" facing a "stalemate" after prolonged conflicts to decide to opt for democratization (Anderson 1999, p. 3). At certain key junctures in history, elite groups may decide that democratization is in their interest in order to resolve persistent ethnic, religious or economic conflicts. Elites are not always a united or cohesive ruling class, and their unity may break down due to political or economic contradictions, regionalism or rival ethic and religious loyalties. Such a breakdown between Northern and Southern elites occurred in the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65, just to name one important example. Democratization and compromise can resolve intractable differences like these, especially if they provide "material gains through greater stability" (Bevir p. 365). Another feature of elite transitions to democracy is that they often entail demands for "preservation of capitalist institutions through the public suppression of 'extremists'" (Haynes, 2001, p. 150).

Democratic political culture may not yet exist during the initial transition to democracy, but its development over time is essential to the stability and success of a democracy. Among the values associated with it are: respect for diversity, pluralism, tolerance, a civic culture or civil society with space for NGOs, labor unions and popular organizations, the rule of law, and belief in the political process to resolve disputes rather than violence. Statistical studies in the World Values Survey demonstrate a "strong correlation between the values and attitudes of a democratic culture and the number of years a country has experienced democracy" (Bevir, p. 367). Democracy is a relatively recent development in Asia, and most studies of democratization in the region begin in 1945 since outside of Western Europe and North America it hardly existed before that time. For this reason, many of the countries have not yet had sufficient time to develop a truly democratic political culture compared to the older, more established democracies in Western Europe and North America.

In East Asia particularly, Confucian values of order, hierarchy, duty, self-discipline and collectivism remain quite influential on both the elite and popular levels. When the Asia Barometer Surveys of 2006 and 2007 studied public opinion in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and South Korea, they found that the majority of people generally valued free speech and popular participation in government much less than their counterparts in most Western nations. Even in highly developed societies like Japan and Hong Kong, for example, only 9-10% placed a high value of freedom of speech, while just 3-4% did in the other countries. In Singapore, 71% of those surveyed placed high value on maintaining order, as did 58% in China and 47% in South Korea, while only about 35% in Japan and Hong Kong valued popular participation in government. In other Asian nations, those surveyed valued this much less than people in most Western nations (Broadbent and Brockman 2009, p. 21).

East Asia: The Confucian Core Countries

Confucianism and Buddhism had a far different impact on politics and the state in Asia than Christianity did in the West. Confucianism emphasized rule by an enlightened elite of scholar-bureaucrats in a hierarchical and authoritarian society, while Buddhism was generally quietist and otherworldly. None of the Asian countries had a tradition of voting, parliamentary rule, or individual rights, and indeed in Confucian philosophy, individualism is seen as selfishness and egotism. For Confucianism, the good of the family, group, society and nation takes precedence over the personal desires of the individual, who is expected to fulfill certain duties and obligations faithfully rather than act merely out of rational, calculated self-interest. On the other hand, in China, Korea and Vietnam, Confucians and Buddhists also recognized the right of the people collectively to revolt against a corrupt or tyrannical government, but this was not the case in Japan. In that country, both Buddhism and Confucianism were stripped of all their "original populist and humanist qualities" and became a prop for the state. Shinto animism was used in the same way, with all "loyalty, unending and self-sacrificing, due to the feudal lord" -- to the shoguns and later the emperor (Broadbent and Brockman, p. 18).

Japan is unique in that the U.S. imposed democracy there after 1945, as it did in West Germany. Thus it "presents few opportunities to study the complex process of interaction between external and internal factors" in the transition to democratization, or the conservative backlash against it once the Cold War was underway in Asia (Shelley, p.…[continue]

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