Challenges To Asian Democratization

A Literature Review
By: Jacob Taylor
on for POLS201

Starting after the cold war with the end of bipolar world power structures, Asian states began embarking on the task of democratization. In Asia this presents a set of complex challenges for the cultures, for regional security, for foreign and domestic nongovernmental organizations (in support of democratization and democratic political institutions), and so on. Democratization in Asia is important to everyone on earth, not least because it will affect billions, but because these will be the people we in the west will be directly interacting with in the coming years. The mechanics of democratization in Asia will be a great case study for scholars and public policy makers, and for citizens of the world it will be a chance to see how communitarian cultures undertake their own redefinition of citizenship. So, with such massive scale change, one must ask what the challenges have been so far. There are some major themes present in all the papers reviewed, chiefly that democratization is dependent on a culture's conception of democracy, which is predicated on attempting to create a modern civil society, and a definition or redefinition of citizenship, and that democratization as a process may be destabilizing to the internal and external security of states in the region if not handled well.

In The Prospects For Democratization in Southeast Asia: Local Perspectives and International Roles by Bruce M. Koppel, vice president of research at the East-West Center, Koppel conducts a survey of a "series of commissioned research papers, which explored processes of political evolution in Southeast Asia" (2). He found: that there was limited tolerance for democratic growth in the region, owing to the entrenched economic and political inequality (4); that "political power is frequently mobilized and exercised to ensure that the advantages which accrue to concentrations of economic power are maintained" (8); that power structures in Asian nations are highly hierarchical and as such there are certain issues which are only dealt with by certain levels of that hierarchy, necessitating scoping evaluations of democratization within each level of the hierarchy as well as the hierarchy as a whole (9); that a culturally relevant definition of citizenship was a prerequisite to democratization (14); that western (minimalist and maximalist) definitions of democracy were not sufficient to accurately characterize and checkpoint democratization progress in Asian countries (15); that assessing democratization is hard because it is a two step process of democratizing institutions and also evolving a sufficient political culture over time, ending with a consolidated democracy (15); that the transition to democracy creates both internal and external security problems in the region (16); and that these issues necessitate a home-grown approach to democracy, one that fits the socio-political, cultural, and historical contexts of the nation attempting the transition (17).

Koppel concludes by identifying and evaluating the two major perspectives for judging the quality of a democratic society. He also suggests that the desire for democratization across Asia is widespread, and that there are dire dangers present in the liberal (western) approach to democratization which would attempt to transition a culture based on homogeneity and communitarian values to an individualistic rights-based democracy. Perhaps the most important contribution and argument Koppel makes is that southeast Asian nations must find their own definition of democracy, due to the underpinnings of western definitions of democracy not applying to their collectivist societies. I agree with this assessment, and all of his examples support this view. Barring omissions from the studies Koppel reviewed, his research methods seem quite sound, and he does a good job of covering all sides equitably. However, several other studies were performed and he did not evaluate the efficacy of their work directly, so nothing can be said about how strong the individual studies were. His conclusion regarding Asian nations needing to find their own definition of democracy was echoed by most of the other authors, as was his finding that western definitions of democracy (minimalist and maximalist) were insufficient and inappropriate for Asian nations.

Koppel noted that there would be risks going forward if Asian nations used the rhetoric of unity to push democratic institutions (31), and that is exactly what Hughes is evaluating. Hughes, author of Introduction: Democratization and Communication in the Asia-Pacific Region, evaluates the conversation a society has with itself and with the state over concepts of nationhood and "Asian-ness" by looking at case studies of both the messages and the channels of communication used to have this dialogue (9). Specific attention is paid to how the "identity of '[citizens]' for the people and the identity of 'democracy' for the state" (9) is constructed. Hughes also evaluates problems with the two broadest types of democracy, procedural and deliberative, within the context of Asian societies. The main findings are: that like Koppel, Hughes finds western definitions of democratic institutions and processes are problematic when implemented in non-western societies due to, generally, cultural issues (10); that like Koppel, western models of procedural (institutional/consolidated) democracy are inadequate frameworks for analysis or transition (11) due to being woefully inadequate at dealing with systems that are themselves in flux and whose values are changing as these potentially democratic institutions are being created (12); that mass media creates reality, which can be used for both conversations on identity and citizenship as well as reinforcement of inequalities within society (14); and that a deliberative democracy would work best (citizens engaging in public sphere debate about "formation and reformation of democratic institutions; participation and influence over policy formation; and the transformation of private interests into an interest in the common good" (13)) (15). Hughes concludes: that the main issue right now for Asian nations is the inequality of distribution and access to the national discussion, which is to say new media (21); and that there are issues with even the concept of a state-run national discussion about citizen identity and democratic ideals (owing to this bolstering the strength and perceived importance of the state) (22); that these discussions are happening and identities are being created with or without state involvement (22). Some of the findings are the same as Koppel, others are logical next steps. The arguments presented are strong, well supported with examples, and by many authors.

Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and author of Revolutionary Change in Central Asia analyses nations in Central Asia and approaches three possible outcomes for countries there, that of "democratic revolution, Islamic revolution, [or] continued post-Soviet authoritarianism" (157), following the Tulip Revolution in 2005 which saw the authoritarian leader of Kyrgyzstan overthrown. Katz attempts to evaluate the effect of a democratic revolution on the region, as well as a theoretical Islamic one (158). Katz's findings about democratic outcomes were: that other former bloc countries which democratized had strong democratic movements, a galvanizing event which resulted in angry popular protest of the government, and an unwillingness or inability on the part of the regime to put down the protests (160); that governments in the region are working to stifle or mitigate all democratic movements (160); but that the key for this region is a regime's inability or unwillingness to put down a democratic revolution (162). Katz concludes that due to Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution, some of the countries in the region have invigorated hope for a democratic government (168). However, this is balanced against a possible Islamic revolution too. Katz arguments are thorough, but his sources are chiefly his own papers and non-peer-reviewed articles. The optimistic view for democratization in his conclusion does not seem to be echoed throughout the rest of the paper. Also, because this is purely theoretical, none of the outcomes can be yet verified (without a later paper covering precisely this area). Katz is rather unconnected to other articles, owing to his very specific coverage of former soviet bloc countries, but with the caveats stated he makes one substantial contribution: that authoritarian regimes which are weak and have strong democratic movements are likely to fall.

In Public Support for Democratic Governance in Southeast Asia by Matthew Carlson and Mark Turner, they review "2006 and 2007 public opinion data from the Asia Barometer Survey of six Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore) to examine popular perceptions of democracy and democratic principles and practices" (219), evaluating several subsets of the question: "does the public support democracy and democratic institutions". They go about this by reviewing previous research, developing a framework for analysis (including a discussion of measurement issues), and then looking at several questions individually based on the data collected. Their findings are: that consolidating democracy (thus in the western definition) has been difficult, with only Indonesia being recognized as succeeding (219); that the western view of consolidation is that it will only succeed if there is mass support for democratic "rules of the game" and other related civic duties (for example, voting) (220); that citizen support for democratic values and support for democratic government are not the same thing, as long term experience with authoritarian regimes can poison views of government even when values are aligned with democracy (222); that all countries excepting the Philippines supported democratic institutions in over 90% of the respondents (226); that due to the regions recent experience with both military and single-ruler authoritarian governments, many countries are likely to be biased somewhat in that direction (and indeed the survey confirmed this) (227); that respondents are generally trusting of the central government, parliament, the legal system, and the police to work in the best interests of society (229-230); that no less than 88 percent of respondents were generally happy with their right to vote (230); that generally southeast Asians are dissatisfied with their right to criticize the government or gather and demonstrate (231); that many countries (excepting Singapore) perceive critical problems with corruption, uncaring elected officials, and lack of citizen influence on government policy (232); and that southeast Asian publics are critical of the job their governments are doing in relation to supporting the economy, reducing corruption, supporting human rights, and providing public services (233).

They concluded that: "many respondents may have embraced democracy but did not reject rule by the military, rule by strong leaders or rule by experts"(236); "democratic consolidation in Southeast Asia will require a greater proportion of respondents to embrace democracy as the 'only game in town' if it is to succeed" (236); that citizens are generally happy with voting, but that happiness does not extend to other "liberal democratic principles and practices"(236); and that there were "relatively high levels of trust in government institutions and high levels of satisfaction with civil liberties with much lower levels when the measures dealt with accountability and responsiveness or the central government" (237). The study was strong due to being backed by data and (in my non-expert opinion) reasonable questions, but there were weaknesses including biased answers in the survey (very good, fairly good, bad, don't know, and no answer (the latter two were not included in this paper's reported results))(226), and continued parroting that democracy needs to be "the only game in town" to succeed. There was no real evidence to support this claim, other than the same flawed arguments Koppel countered regarding minimalist/western/consolidated definitions of democracy (236).

In Crises of Modernity: The Problems of Democratization and Peace in South Asia by H.M. Sanjeev Kumar and Preeti Sharma, researchers at Indian universities, the authors cover examples of the destabilizing effects of democratization without modernization, and posit that if the nations can all democratize and modernize in lock-step fashion, that the region will have vastly decreased internal and external security (stability) problems. They find: that unlike other authors, Kumar and Sharma find the western model of evolving democracy simultaneously with industrialization (modernization) compelling and applicable (276); that this co-evolution, however, has been ill-conceived in that only the facade of democracy (procedural, and not substantive) has been implemented (276); and that this failure has mostly benefited the elites (276); but that like other authors, ideas associated with democracy (and modernization in their specific view) must be rethought and reapplied to the culture in question if democratization is to succeed (277).

They conclude: that these formerly (or perhaps still) authoritarian social structures are getting in the way of democratization (283); that the region would be having less issues and not dragging this process out so long if every state was in the same stage of democratization (283); that "Prioritization of parochial loyalties such as caste, religion or language over that of the nation-State, has produced catastrophic consequences" (283); and that not blowing away these old social hierarchies are one of the major contributors to slowed democratization(283). The arguments are logically laid out and the examples are broad and poignant, but the article is purely theoretical and the argument is based on what is to the authors apparent, that "the process of democratization is inextricably linked with the process of modernization and an inter-locking balance between the two is an imperative for the stability of the region" (275) for which no significant justification is given. Once again, however, they find that like Koppel, and Carlson and Turner, Asian nations should define democracy for themselves.

Democratization and Stability in East Asia, by Jennifer Lind, a researcher at Dartmouth College, evaluates competing theories about Chinese democratization and Korean unification. The two theories evaluated are what the author terms "democratization and war" and "economic interdependence theory" (409) using historical examples as well as qualitative data. Democratization and war theory suggests that democratic transitions will be destabilizing for the region, while economic interdependence theory suggests that the economies will not war with each other because the their economies are inextricably linked. Lind finds: that the destabilizing processes prescribed by the "democratization and war" view were not present (410); that domestic institutions were able to manage the transition (410); that the stabilizing processes which economic interdependence theory suggests were present in every case (410); and that in the cases of China and Korea, a narrowed definition of democratization and war, and economic interdependence theory, do not forecast nationalistic fervor leading to war in the region (destabilization) (410).

Lind concludes: that "China and Korea are unlikely to pursue nationalistic, belligerent foreign policies during their future political transitions" (427); that "consistent with the more recent and narrower version of this theory within this school [that of democratization and war], domestic institutions were robust enough to manage the demands of transition without unleashing nationalistic, belligerent foreign policies" (427); and that political actor behavior was constrained in all historical cases by complex interdependence of economies (427). Lind's arguments are strong, well documented, and accompanied by a plurality of examples. The arguments and conclusions presented here are directly in conflict with Koppel's findings that democratization will be destabilizing, and Lind's approach is more thorough on this point.

In conclusion, Asia's democratic transitions will be stable ones if and only if they work to define democracy and citizenship for themselves, and work to have faith in their systems of government (or work to build systems in which they can have faith). The key here is developing a culturally literate conception of democracy. If democracy is to survive, it seems that it must make sense to the culture implementing it. There also is much evidence in this research to support the claim that liberal western democracy cannot be directly imported into Asia, and suggestive evidence that perhaps modernization will be important (most probably Internet access to facilitate the culture-wide discussions about citizenship). Moving forward, it would be beneficial to do more surveys of democratic ideals and also support for government structures (Carlson and Turner), as well as theoretical framework construction in the same vein as Lind. We in the West must watch for the definitions of citizenship that appear, and use those to checkpoint progress, judge democratic institutions, and assess uptake of "Asian" democratic ideals. As always, more studies must be done, and you can never have too much data.

Works Cited

Carlson, Matthew, and Mark Turner. "Public Support For Democratic Governance In Southeast Asia." Asian Journal Of Political Science 16.3 (2008): 219-239. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Apr. 2013.

Hughes, Caroline. "Introduction: Democratization And Communication In The Asia-Pacific Region." Pacific Affairs 78.1 (2005): 9-22. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2013

Katz, Mark N. "Revolutionary Change In Central Asia." World Affairs 168.4 (2006): 157-171. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.

Koppel, Bruce M. "The Prospects For Democratization In Southeast Asia: Local Perspectives And International Roles." Journal Of Northeast Asian Studies 12.3 (1993): 3. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.

Lind, Jennifer. "Democratization And Stability In East Asia." International Studies Quarterly 55.2 (2011): 409-436. Academic Search Premier. Web

Sanjeev Kumar, H. M., and Preeti Sharma. "Crises Of Modernity: The Problems Of Democratization And Peace In South Asia." International Journal Of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 5.5 (2010): 275-285. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2013