by John West, Asian Century Institute
Democracy has very shallow roots and many enemies in Asia — and not only in China.
– John West
Once Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei said:
“The Communist Party are the lawmakers, but they do not follow the law, nor respect the constitution. The problem is that the Party does not trust people, and is afraid of their power … The Party wants to take control of everything, even in areas it is incapable of dealing with.”
Indeed, democracy has very shallow roots and many enemies in Asia, and not only in China. And as democracy struggles to take hold in Asia, it is compromising the lives and freedom of Asia’s citizens, and imposing great costs on the economy as well.
After decades of rapid economic development, we should expect to see many flourishing democracies in Asia. Industrialization, the main feature of Asia’s development, typically leads to “modernization”, an array of social changes including occupational specialization, urbanization, rising educational levels, rising life expectancy, and an emerging middle class. And as political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset and Samuel Huntington argued, these factors usually foster the development of democratic societies.
The rapid economic development and the subsequent democratization of Korea and Taiwan are widely viewed as confirmation of the analysis of such modernization theorists.
But democracy is struggling to take root in many Asian countries where the preconditions should be ripe for democracy. Traditional elites are engaged in a strong rearguard action in their defense of authoritarian or single party regimes. And while some other countries enjoy “electoral democracy”, they remain fragile democracies due to weak institutions and rule of law.
The shallow roots of Asian democracy are evident from the Democracy Index 2014 of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). This Index recognizes that there is more to democracy than holding elections (“electoral democracy”). It also takes into account civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture, and covers 167 jurisdictions, meaning virtually all the world’s population.
Only two Asian countries are judged to be “full democracies” by the EIU, namely, Japan and Korea which are ranked 20th and 21st respectively. These two countries are put near the bottom of the list of 24 full democracies due to their relatively low scores for political participation and political culture. In fact, both are oligarchic democracies, where politics are dominated by very close links between big business, the administration and politics.
Despite its democratic processes, Japan is notable for being a virtual one-party state, with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) being in power for much of the past 60 years. This may be due to the fact that the Japanese people never fought or struggled for democracy. Democracy, which had hardly ever existed before in the land of the rising sun, was imposed on Japan after World War 2 by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers.
Even today, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP government faces a very weak opposition. The main political competition in Japan occurs between the factions inside the LDP (much like the situation within the Chinese Communist Party).
Another factor shaping Japan’s political culture is the phenomenon of “friendly authoritarianism”, a term used by the sociologist Sugimoto Yoshio to refer to the system of state and mutual surveillance he sees as endemic to almost all levels of Japanese society. Indeed, Japanese society has various forms of regimentation that are designed to standardize the thought patterns and attitudes of the Japanese and make them toe the line in everyday life.
Japan’s experience is in sharp contrast to Korea where a decades-long struggle for democracy took place. Leading opposition figure, KIM Dae-jung, who ultimately became President, survived years in jail and several assassination attempts, and is often referred to as “Asia’s Mandela”. Today, Korea seems a more robust democracy, with several parties competing for power. Civil society organizations are also active, notably for human rights and social welfare issues, as are the country’s independent labor unions.
There are a whole swag of Asian countries classified as “fragile democracies” by the EIU, such as India (27th), Taiwan (35th), Indonesia (49th), the Philippines (53rd), Mongolia (61st), Malaysia (61st), and Hong Kong (66th). Singapore sits at the bottom of the group of fragile democracies at 75th, together with the curious case of Papua New Guinea.
Asia’s fragile democracies really are a mixed bag. Taiwan is a country that arguably deserves to be classified as a full democracy, and is indeed ranked as a “free country” in a rival index by Freedom House. The main threats to Taiwan’s democracy come from its mainland big brother, which frequently harasses Taiwan due to its fears of a possible move towards independence.
Singapore and Hong Kong are very “clean” countries on the basis of Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index, coming in 7th and 17th respectively out of the 175 countries covered. They have strong rule of law, scoring very well on on the World Justice Project’s index at 9th and 17th respectively out of the 102 countries surveyed. Singapore and Hong Kong also have high quality economic governance, on the basis of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, where they are ranked 2nd and 7th respectively, out of the 144 countries in the index.
In short, both Singapore and Hong Kong are great places in which to do business. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also have some of the highest levels of income inequality in the advanced world.
But neither Singapore nor Hong Kong have good credentials when it comes to electoral democracy. While Singapore holds elections, it has never seen a change of government. Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power without interruption for the whole 50 years of the nation’s independence.
In the wake of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, the world has been rejoicing his brilliance and the great success of the Singapore model. But the PAP has always employed sinister methods for hanging onto power. As Freedom House has noted:
“Opposition campaigns have typically been hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media and the courts”.
Indeed, freedom of the press is greatly compromised, with Singapore being ranked 153rd in the world, squeezed between the sordid cases of Russia and Libya. All domestic newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by companies linked to the government.
Nevertheless, the PAP is slowly losing its grip on power. Its share of the popular vote in the 2011 election slipped to around 60% from 67%, and a candidate from the opposition Workers’ Party defeated the PAP candidate by 62% to 38% in a May 2012 by-election. And Singapore’s usually well behaved citizens have taken to the streets on several occasions in recent years to protest against their ruling elites, notably on the touchy subject of immigration.
Electoral democracy is virtually non-existent in Hong Kong, with the territory’s citizens having limited voting rights for members of the Legislative Council. Since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” regime, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, has always been nominated by Beijing.
As from 2017, Hong Kong citizens should have the right to actually elect their new Chief Executive. But passage to this new system is caught in a standoff between Beijing which would like to select the candidates, and Hong Kong’s democracy movement which would like its citizens to choose the eligible candidates. The passage to this new system failed to be approved by the Legislative Council, leaving us with the status quo at the moment.
The Umbrella Movement which protested against Beijing’s proposal was a big shock for Hong Kong’s leadership and also Beijing. Hong Kong’s youth were not frightened to express their displeasure, and more fundamentally their displeasure with the way that Hong Kong is governed. The supposed superiority of Chinese authoritarian rule was exposed as a myth.
Malaysia is another pro-business country, but is much less clean than Singapore and Hong Kong. It ranks only 50th on the Corruption Perceptions Index, 39th for the Rule of Law Index, and 24th on the Global Competitiveness Index. And like Singapore, Malaysia has never been a change of government, despite regular elections. But in recent years, Malaysia’s ruling party, the Barisan Nasional, has been involved in a dirty and violent struggle to hang on to power.
The Malaysian opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, came close to achieving a majority in in parliament in 2008, and won several state elections. And Anwar’s opposition coalition then won a majority of the popular vote in 2013, while the BN held onto power through “intimidation, electoral fraud and gerrymandering”, according to Joshua Kurlantzick.
The Malaysian government has since been implementing a raft of measures to suppress and intimidate opposition voices. This includes prosecuting once again Anwar on trumped up charges of sodomy. At the time of writing, the BN is in the midst of an internal power struggle, as former Prime Minister Mahathir seeks to undermine current Prime Minister Najib because of alleged corruption.
Countries like India, Indonesia and the Philippines have much more democratic electoral systems than do Singapore and Hong Kong. But their democracies are deeply flawed in many other ways. Elections in the Philippines are typically marred by fraud, intimidation, and political violence, even if things have improved.
Corruption is endemic in all three countries, with India and the Philippines ranked 85th in the Corruption Perceptions Index, and Indonesia at 107th. Rule of law is weak, with the Philippines ranked 51st, Indonesia 52nd, and India 59th by the World Justice Project. And all three countries rank poorly in terms of freedom of the press, at 136th, 138th, and 141st respectively, with the Philippines being one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.
The EIU places the following countries in their third category of “hybrid regimes” — Bangladesh (85th), Sri Lanka (87th), Thailand (93rd), Cambodia (103rd), Nepal (105th), and Pakistan (108th). Thailand slipped from the fragile democracy to the hybrid regime group following a coup d’état in 2014, by which the military ousted the elected government, suspended the constitution, and implemented martial law restrictions that drastically rolled back political rights and civil liberties. Politics in Cambodia (and Laos) are being increasingly captured by China, which is both country’s largest aid donor and investor.
The following countries are classified as “authoritarian regimes” — Vietnam (130th), Myanmar (141st), China (144th), Laos (157th), and North Korea (167th). Myanmar raised so many hopes for democracy and political reform, as it distanced itself from China and opened up to cooperation with the West. However, it has since slid backwards as the military is again strengthening its iron grip on power. Journalists and demonstrators now face greater restrictions, and the Rohingya minority continue to suffer from violence and official discrimination.
And as China’s economy and society modernize, the response of the Communist Party under its “new emperor”, President Xi Jinping, has been to ramp up repressions and controls on political freedom and civil liberties. The main targets have been Xi’s political rivals, as he consolidates power, and any perceived opponents of the regime, like social media, NGOs, labour leaders, ethnic minorities, academics, dissidents, churches, multinational companies, foreign journalists, to mention just a few.
At the time of writing, China’s policy of “battening down the hatches against democracy” intensified as President Xi Jinping signed a new national security law which would establish “mechanisms to censor items that have or may have an impact on national security, including foreign investment, particular materials and key technologies”.
Zheng Shuna, a National People’s Congress official, told reporters:
“Internet space within the territories of the People’s Republic of China is subject to the country’s sovereignty.”
A number of trends stand out when surveying the state of democracy in Asia:
- Overall, democracy is in bad shape in Asia, with more countries regressing (Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar) than progressing.
- Despite its amazing economic development and social modernization, the prospects for democracy in China now seem more distant than ever, under the tough regime of President Xi Jinping. But the nervousness and paranoid behavior of the Communist Party suggest that the regime is more fragile than it appears.
- China’s interfering hand is adversely affecting politics in Taiwan, and Hong Kong (as well as Cambodia and Laos). Vulnerability to bullying and political capture is one of the big downsides of close economic integration with Asia’s new powerhouse. Against that, the heavy hand of China has been hit with a political backlash in Myanmar (and Sri Lanka).
- Asia’s middle classes have not always been supporters of democracy, as they have participated in protests, often violent, to oust leaders who have been democratically elected with support from the support of the poor. The overthrow of Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin is a case in point. In China, some of the middle class are also supporters of the Communist Party, as they are great beneficiaries of the prosperity and security from its system. They don’t necessarily wish to open up opportunity to the country’s poorer people, who they often perceive to be country bumpkins.
- The case of Malaysia, and its repeated prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and to a lesser extent Singapore, highlight the reality that desperate elites will go to great lengths to hang on to power. The transition from industrialization to modernization and then to democracy is a very precarious and tortured one.
Asia’s democratic journey is in the hands of its citizens. Only they are capable of leading the struggle for freedom, rule of law, democracy and good governance. While external powers can play a supporting role, each society must establish its own state and government.
Asia’s youth elite will likely play the leading role in the region’s democratic future. They are, more often than not, educated overseas, international in outlook, tech-savvy and increasingly self confident. And as I have seen through teaching many Asian students, they are all too aware of the moral bankruptcy of their own leaders.
- How Development Leads to Democracy: What We Know About Modernization. By Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2009.
- Democracy Index 2014. Economist Intelligence Unit.
- Freedom in the World 2015. Freedom House.
- Southeast Asia’s Regression From Democracy and Its Implications, by Joshua Kurlantzick. A Council on Foreign Relations Working Paper.
- An artist’s duty: an interview with Ai Weiwei. AI WEIWEI and EN LIANG KHONG. Open Democracy, 6 January 2014.