Book Review: Why do some Asian countries embrace democracy while others reject it?

From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern AsiaBy Dan Slater and Joseph Wong, Princeton. 348 pp. $35

“From Development to Democracy” by Dan Slater and Joseph Wong.
Photo: handout via The Washington Post Syndicated Service

The states of East Asia, other than North Korea and the Philippines, have experienced extraordinary economic growth since World War II. Japan led the way in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by a range of others, including even Cambodia and Myanmar. Most striking, obviously, has been the economic development of China after Deng Xiaoping opened the country to “socialism Chinese-style” in the late 1970s.

While standard theories of modernization contend that development gives rise to a middle class seeking political freedom and power and ultimately democracy, only three developed Asian countries – Japan, Taiwan and South Korea – have established stable democracies. China, the strongest country in Asia, apparently is determined to avoid democracy, as its recently concluded Communist Party congress indicated by anointing authoritarian Xi Jinping to another five years as the nation’s supreme leader. The leadership’s resistance to democracy has been on full display lately with China’s severe crackdown on protests against strict coronavirus lockdowns; in a rare show of defiance, demonstrators have called for Xi’s resignation and greater freedoms generally.

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In “From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia,” Dan Slater and Joseph Wong seek to explain why democracy emerged in some countries, has been tried in others and is unlikely to take root in China. The authors argue persuasively that some regimes are capable of moving from authoritarian forms of government to democracy. In Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, strong institutions were built to help ensure that neither national stability nor the interests of the political elite would be threatened by free and fair elections. At the apex of their power, leaders in these countries recognized signals of incipient decline and concluded that democratic reforms would allow them to keep, and perhaps even increase, their power.

The United States played an important role in the foundation of the three strongest democracies. After World War II, the Americans occupying Japan did their best to re-create Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in Tokyo, including providing the Japanese with a new constitution that stressed individual rights and democracy – and included the famous Article 9 renouncing the sovereign right to war. American civilians attached to the Supreme Command of Allied Powers carried out land reform; empowered workers and women; broke up the zaibatsu, the powerful industrial-banking combinations that had dominated the Japanese economy; and decentralized political power. They helped resurrect the movement toward democracy that had seemed so promising in Japan in the 1920s but was shattered by the military during the Depression. Regaining independence in 1952, the conservative elite that dominated the country concluded that its interests would be served best by strengthening democratic institutions and practices. Japan’s impressive economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s gave the regime what Slater and Wong call “performance legitimacy” – popularity with the people whose lives were improved by government policies.

The Taiwan case was very different. In 1949, when China fell to the communists under Mao Zedong, the defeated Nationalist, or Kuomintang, government under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, where it ruled as a dictatorship. This relatively small number of displaced mainlanders dominated and repressed the native Taiwanese. With American assistance, Taiwan’s economy did quite well from the 1960s on. But in the 1970s the United States withdrew its recognition of Taipei as the government of China and recognized Beijing. Chiang Ching-kuo, who had succeeded his father as president of the Republic of China, saw signals of potential threats to the government among the restive Taiwanese population. He understood that American support would be more likely to continue if there was political reform – and he was confident that the Kuomintang’s power could be sustained even with free and fair elections. In 1987 he ended martial law and began the process of democratization. In 1996, in the first presidential election on Taiwan, the Kuomintang candidate won easily. In 2000, a candidate of the opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president, and a peaceful exchange of power ensued, ending Kuomintang rule. Taiwan today is a modern, prosperous democracy, unsurpassed in its production of the most advanced microchips.

American efforts to foster democracy in South Korea failed before and after the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. In 1961, the military staged a coup and dominated the country for a quarter of a century. It was also a period of rapid economic growth and industrialization. Dissent was suppressed brutally but continued to mount, and a declaration of martial law in 1980 led to protests demanding political reform. Student protesters were killed and raped by the military in the southern city of Gwangju in May 1980. As many as 100,000 citizens fought back, resulting in the massacre of between 500 and 2,000 people – and demands from the United States for reform. In 1987, Gen. Roh Tae-woo, who was about to become president, concluded that his party was strong enough amid a divided opposition to hold the Republic of Korea’s first free and fair presidential election. Roh won with slightly more than 30 percent of the votes when the opposition predictably split. The political shift in the Republic of Korea was more of a gamble than it was in Japan or Taiwan, but the nation has been a stable democracy ever since.

In all three regimes, conservative authoritarian elites were confident that democratic reforms were in their interest. They believed – correctly – that the economic performance under their rule and the bureaucratic institutions they had built gave them sufficient popular support to remain in power and the instruments to maintain stability.

The authors analyze three other “clusters”: developmental militarism (Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar), developmental Britannia (Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong) and developmental socialism (Cambodia, China, Vietnam). The three militarist states tried democracy when opposition to military rule threatened their interests, but Thailand and Myanmar reversed course, lacking confidence in their ability to maintain stability and dominate the opposition. Only Indonesia, where opposition is fragmented, has succeeded in maintaining democracy. Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong benefited from British-imposed legal systems. But only Singapore’s leadership is strong enough for democratic reform – though that is not yet its choice.

What’s clear is that economic development is not sufficient – leaders must choose democracy. Hong Kong, despite its extraordinary economic success, never had a chance. When the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, its residents suffered first a gradual and in recent years a rapid and conclusive loss of freedom.

Of most interest are the three “developmental socialist” states. Cambodia had a brief moment of democracy but it was suppressed by the current dictatorship, which is far too insecure to tolerate an organized opposition. Vietnam, which leans increasingly toward the United States to defend it from Chinese pressures, holds out a distant prospect of moving toward democracy. Slater and Wong suggest a long-shot possibility that a strong government in Hanoi might choose democratic reform to cement its ties to Washington.

And then, of course, there’s China. The authors argue convincingly that the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the crushing of the movement for democracy, was undertaken at Deng Xiaoping’s urging because he recognized the unpopularity and weakness of the Chinese Communist Party. China’s leadership was divided, but those who prevailed feared openness and perceived Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika – economic and political reforms – as the cause of the demise of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet Union. A period of some reforms in China ultimately ended with the rise to power of Xi Jinping. The Chinese Communist Party is certainly strong enough today to dominate in any free and fair election. Xi, however, seems obsessed with threats to stability and to the party. He perceives American democracy as the obstacle to China’s dominance of East Asia and Chinese influence elsewhere in the world. Democracy is the enemy. As long as he remains in power, there’s little chance China will choose democratic reform.

– – –Warren I. Cohen, a historian of American foreign relations, is distinguished university professor, emeritus, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A new edition of his book “East Asia at the Center” will appear in 2023.

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