Authoritarianism: East Asia

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Authoritarianism: East Asia

Grand claims have been made about the superiority and inevitability of liberal democracy. Do they hold true for East Asian countries? According to typologies in political science, most East Asian countries are considered authoritarian. Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea are considered democracies; Indonesia is considered ambiguous while all other East Asian governments (Brunei, Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam) are seen as authoritarian. While this way of organizing and talking about the world is dominant in political, academic, and even popular discourses, its persuasiveness is often compromised upon closer scrutiny.

First, this classification system is confusing because its analytical categories are heavily infused with normative overtones; not only do governments involve scholars in their international programs (e.g., Alliance For Progress), students of politics are also often politically invested and concerned with social change. This conflation of the scientific and the ideological has been criticized by Jeanne Kirkpatrick. She observed that regimes were not classified only by their political form (e.g., regular elections, civil and political liberties) but by their ideologies and economic organization. Totalitarian regimes were exclusively communist regimes with command economies while authoritarian regimes were typically market-driven and seen as more benign despite being equally repressive.

Second, mediating the dichotomous categories of democratic/authoritarian are various theories of democratization whose predictions about East Asian regimes are, at best, as often inaccurate as they are accurate. Democratization and its absence were explained by a variety of factors tied to modernization, such as, in order of theoretical importance, socioeconomic development (measured by the Human Development Index), the rate of population

Southeast Asian countriesFreedom House rating (2000)Average annual GDP per capital (19752000)
Un-free countries(Rating 5.57)
Partly free countries(Rating 35.5)
Free countries(Rating 12.5)

growth, and the vigor of civil society. Conversely, it was believed that with economic and social development, or modernization, authoritarian regimes would transition to democracy. The strongest formulation of this modernization theory is perhaps Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis, in which he predicted the triumph of liberal democracy over all other political forms in late capitalism through increasing institutional and ideological convergence globally.

Among East Asian countries, evidence against the thesis outweighs evidence for it. In Northeast Asia, economic development in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea appeared to have triggered a transition to democracy while its absence in Mongolia and North Korea correctly predicts nondemocratization. With the exception of China, which remains staunchly nondemocratic despite impressive economic growth (8.1 percent average annual GDP per capita from 1975 to 2000), the thesis appears to hold true.

In Southeast Asia, there are ample instances where economic growth induces the reverse. As a region, despite the fact that Southeast Asia has a higher average income than South Asia (considered "partly free"), it is rated as the least free region in Asia by Freedom House and remains the only region in the world that has not established a regional system of human rights.

Among the five Southeast Asian countries rated as "unfree," only three support the thesis that economic stagnation inhibits democratization. In prosperous Brunei and in Vietnam (which has the second highest average annual GDP among the ten countries), there appears to be no correlation between economic development and democracy.

The most significant counterevidence to the theory comes from the "free" and "partly free" countries, with Singapore and the Philippines being especially significant counterevidence to the thesis. Singapore was able to forestall democratization despite impressive economic development (considering the devastation of the recent Asian economic crisis that significantly lowered these figures). Singapore's average annual GDP per capita from 1965 to 1990 was a stunning 6.5 percent. In the case of the Philippines, the absence of economic development did not appear to handicap political development; it is the most free despite being worst off economically.

Empirically, the reality of political regimes in East Asia offers mixed evidence to the thesis that economic growth would trigger democratization. In trying to understand why and how they are perpetuated, we obviously need more than modernization theory. Modernization theorists themselves are cognizant of the problems and have attempted to repair the theory without relinquishing the essential paradigm, its dichotomies, or categories.

Revised Modernization Theories

Concerned with the persistence of authoritarianism despite strong and sustained economic growth in East Asia, revised modernization theorists began to argue that authoritarianism was necessary for late-industrializing countries to kick-start their economies, but continue to subscribe to the transition paradigm by pointing out that after the initial phase of growth, contradictions between authoritarianism and capitalism would trigger what is seen as the natural evolution to democracy. In this sense, revised modernization theorists merely redefine authoritarianism as a necessary evil and as a steppingstone; they do not deviate significantly from the modernist view of authoritarianism as transitory and democracy as the end point.

Another revisionist group criticized the economic determinism of modernization theorists but continues to frame the question of authoritarianism within the transition paradigm. For instance, O'Donnell, Schmitter, and Whitehead turned to more voluntaristic explanations by focusing on the role of civil society in triggering a transition to democracy. Theorizing about political opposition in East Asia, Rodan criticized these approaches for romanticizing civil society as "the locus of free-minded and mutually cooperative groups and individuals beyond the state's purvey" (p. 3). Because civil societies cannot exist as alternatives to states but only in relation to them, the notion of civil society not only presupposes the state, but its autonomy crucially depends on and can only be guaranteed by the state. In East Asia, the relationship between civil society (if it exists) and the state is often one of co-option. Depending on how scholars perceive the state, studies of East Asian societies often refer to this political arrangement as paternalistic or guardian states if authority is perceived to be benevolent, or clientalist or nepotist states if authority is deemed corrupt.

A third attempt at revising modernization theory clusters around the concept of "modern authoritarianism." Within modernization theory, authoritarianism had been understood as a premodern phase, and it was believed that with modernization, societies develop into either totalitarian or democratic polities. Rejecting this typology, Linz elaborated on regimes that were authoritarian and modern and proposed a definition of authoritarianism that has become classic:

Authoritarian regimes are political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism; without elaborate and guiding ideology (but with distinctive mentalities); without intensive nor extensive political mobilization (except some points in their developments); and in which a leader (or occasionally a small group) exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones. (p. 255)

The applicability of this theory to East Asia should be obvious, even if actual empirical studies were few and far between. While much of theorization on authoritarianism focused on Spain and Latin American countries, it should be recalled that among developing countries, few regions were modernizing (and leaving feudalism behind) as quickly as East Asia.

As with other revisionist attempts, this theory continues to operate within the modernization paradigm. First, it continues to subscribe to the authoritarian-democratic dichotomy; liberal democracy remains the point of reference while authoritarianism appears to be a residual category into which all nondemocratic countries are shoveled. Because authoritarianism is seen as a crisis of governance within a democracy, it continues to be seen as unstable and lacking in legitimacy.

Second, what (revised) modernization cannot afford to acknowledge (without having to undergo a paradigm shift) is that even in the most coercive of states, authoritarian governments have always attempted to justify their policies and to acquire legitimacy for their governance. Especially with the global hegemony of democratic values, authoritarian governments in East Asia are devoting more and more attention to the articulation of national ideologies and are less willing to rely on sporadic justifications or sheer coercion. From Vietnam's exhortation to citizens to become "cultural soldiers" to Indonesia's Pancasila democracy to the variants of Asian Values discourse articulated by Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore, the reality in East Asia challenged the "modern authoritarianism" thesis that regards authoritarianism regimes as ideologically weak, unable to secure consent, and thus illegitimate and unstable.

Legitimate(d) Authoritarianism

While (revised) modernization theorists focused on the transitory nature of authoritarianism, there were other theorists who were interested in the internal logic and staying power of authoritarianism in East Asia. Focused on the question of legitimacy, these approaches typically developed in dialogue with Max Weber's (18641920) theory of the three modes of legitimacy (traditional, charismatic, legal-rational). We will review Karl Wittfogel's (18961988) exploration of bureaucratic centralization (legal-rational legitimacy) and Lucian and Mary Pye's investigation of Asian culture (traditional legitimacy) before considering how recent theoretical developments such as hegemony theory may contribute to the further understanding of authoritarianism in East Asia.

Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism argues that water control and distribution (especially the management of extensive system of canals) spawned hydraulic civilizations with authoritarian centralized empires and sprawling bureaucracies both deeply hostile to change. Critiques of this thesis range from observations that irrigation is often organized locally rather than by centralized bureaucracies to highlights of counterevidence from the West such as the rise and fall of ancient Greece and the chronic backwardness of eastern Europe.

Resonating with other studies of the cultural-psychological studies of authoritarianism (such as studies of fascism in Germany), the Pyes' study of cultural psychology focused on values of frugality, hard work, family values, respect for authority, and Asians' understanding of power. Critiquing the imposition of Western notions of power in understanding Asian societies, they argued that power should not be understood as "participation in the making of significant decisions" or in terms of choice but as status and, indeed, the freedom from having to decide at all. To the Pyes, this Asian sense of power generates authoritarian regimes: "When power implies the security of status, there can be no political process. Contention and strife cease" (p. 22). Insofar as power derives from morality, any challenge to the system or democratic competition is necessarily an affront to the leader and is thus responded to with a heavy hand.

This thesis has been criticized for its culturalism (using culture as an explanation rather than as something to be explained), which in this case generates the tautological thesis that "authoritarian cultures produce authoritarianism." Exactly what is Asian or Confucian culture, and is culture destiny? While the Pyes focused on hierarchical features, others rediscover alternative trajectories to argue that Asian cultures have democratic roots. For instance, William Theodore de Bary and Wei-ming Tu demonstrate the affinities between Confucianism and liberalism while Chu and Winberg Chai argue that current authoritarian regimes distort Confucian values and that if implemented correctly, Confucianism would produce democracy. Furthermore, even if there is agreement on the nature of Asia's values and historical roots, its futurewhat to preserve and what to changeremains something hotly debated by East Asian leaders (e.g., Singapore's Lee Kwan-Yew versus South Korea's Kim Dae-Jung).

Whatever the mode of legitimacylegal-rational, charismatic, or traditionalcontemporary theorists are increasingly acknowledging that authoritarianism can be legitimate(d) and that the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism is more blurred than modernization theories suggest. Given the problems with modernization theories, the question of why authoritarianism in East Asia is sometimes seen as legitimate by its subjects and the question of why it endures despite development need to be broached from the perspective of legitimacy rather than in terms of modernization. Because legitimacy is a subjective concept pegged to the perceptions of the ruled, the question of why authoritarian regimes (especially prosperous ones) endure is necessarily a question of ideology and research in this direction necessitates close examination of cultural and historical conditions within a regime rather than the broad socioeconomic comparisons associated with modernization theory.

One useful perspective comes from cultural studies, especially the concepts of hegemony and popular authoritarianism. Instead of the dichotomy of democratic/authoritarian, Antonio Gramsci (18911937) postulated the categories of consent/coercionthe latter categories do not correspond with the former because they are not mutually exclusive. Following Weber's definition of the state as an organ with a legitimate monopoly over coercion, Gramsci distinguished between this "outer ditch" of coercion and an "inner ditch" of consensus and commonsense. To the extent that there is consensus, it becomes unnecessary to mobilize repressive state apparatuses to discipline society; political alternatives are sufficiently de-legitimized through the molding of commonsense. Since the 1990s, some applications of this theory to Asia have included John Girling's analysis of middle-class hegemony in Thailand, John Hilley's analysis of Mahathirism in Malaysia, and Soek-Fang Sim's analysis of the Asian Values project in Singapore.

The various theories outlined here can combine to offer a sophisticated understanding of authoritarianism in East Asia. Modernization theory, although flawed, offers effective descriptions of the democratization pressures confronted by rapidly developing countries. What it fails to do, and what is advantageous about localized theories, is the focus on how history, geography, culture, and ideology can come together to engender countervailing forces that stabilize the regime and arrest the drift toward democracy.

See also Authority ; Democracy ; Pluralism .


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Soek-Fang Sim