Democracy with Autocrats: East Asia’s Past, China’s Future?

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Democracy is not only Western; it is oriental too. At a time when democracies around the world, including the United States, are in danger, three Asian democracies stand out for their quality and stability: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. How was this “eastern democracy” born? And could China ever follow a similar path?

Answering this question requires us to take East Asian democracies seriously, both on their own terms and for the lessons they can present. For too long, analysts have dismissed these East Asian democracies as mere reflections of American power: postwar Japan became a democracy because America made it so; Taiwan became a democracy so that America would not abandon it; South Korea became a democracy because it could not risk losing US support after firing on protesters on the eve of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

In reality, the three democracies emerged from a common internal logic – a logic that could possibly apply to China and its ruling party, the Communist Party of China (CCP). Ruling elites in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have not abandoned authoritarianism and acclimatized to democracy because they were overthrown by opponents or coerced by Americans. They did it because they decided they could continue to thrive even after democratization. And history has proven them right.

Could democracy also be springing up in China simply because the CCP sees it as a way to rejuvenate and expand its legitimacy? The possibility is not as fanciful as one might assume, and it has clear historical parallels in China’s immediate neighbors. Consider this scenario: If the CCP held free and fair elections in the very near future, i.e., to start China’s democratization process, would there be a chance that the incumbent party would lose those elections? After all, the CCP is a ruling party that has orchestrated one of the most remarkable economic transformations in history, elevating what was a cut off hermit country into a global superpower. Today’s CCP not only takes credit for uniting what was once a fractured China during the first half of the 20th century, but also claims to have maintained a unified China through multiple transformations. political and economic since. More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party is stronger and more popular today than it has ever been. Would the CCP lose if it led the democratization of China? Conceding democracy is not the same as conceding defeat, so it’s unlikely.

In the late 1980s, when the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan lifted martial law and gradually introduced free and fair elections, the regime in place was not about to collapse. The increasingly vocal opposition remains electorally weak. The KMT, much like the Chinese CCP today, governed Taiwan’s booming economy at the time, which meant that Taiwan’s democratic transition happened during the “good times.” In almost every way, Taiwan’s democratic transition – what we consider the exemplary case of “democracy by force” – was the opposite of what was happening in the Philippines, a story of “democracy by weakness”. “. While the disgraced and illegitimate strongman Ferdinand Marcos left behind an unstable and ultimately flawed democracy in the wake of the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the KMT led its popularity to victory in the founding democratic parliamentary and presidential elections. from Taiwan.

It’s not only possible that an autocratic regime is democratized by force; sometimes it’s in the diet best interests to do so if he seeks to stay in power. Paradoxically, it is precisely strong regimes that have the political strength to maintain their authoritarian hold and to democratize with the certainty that they will always legitimately gain political power. This counterintuitive argument challenges the conventional view that democracies are most likely to emerge from the ashes of weak or even collapsed autocratic regimes. While the path of democracy by force is not ubiquitous in East Asia, it is not uncommon (let alone impossible). For this reason, it is imperative to understand why and how regimes choose this trajectory. It is a paradox that deserves to be explained.

Developmental states in Northeast Asia, for example, successfully transitioned to democracy from a position of party and state strength. Some regimes try to democratize by force but quickly come up against intractable sources of weakness, leaving them vulnerable to democratic reversals. Other development regimes completely miss their chance, wait too long and become what we call “embittered autocrats”, clinging to their waning power base with little hope of regaining the strength to navigate a democratic transition. Other regimes simply resist democracy for historical and ideological reasons. These cases are instructive, not only for uncovering democratic possibilities in what was once considered barren ground, but also for revealing the brutal lessons learned when regimes fail or refuse to democratize by force, ultimately finding themselves barely seized. by power, if not arrived. and dishonored, leaving their country politically and economically unstable.

Returning to the case of contemporary China, the theory of democracy by force implies that the current CCP regime is in the best position. at present concede democracy, if what he seeks is to continue to rule China as a legitimate ruling party. Often, Chinese leaders will point to the collapse of the Soviet Union as proof that democratizing too soon can lead to the demise of a ruling party and the country. That would be the wrong lesson, because the former Soviet Union hasn’t democratized too much soonbut rather the Communist Party there also succumbed to democratic pressures latewhen it was already a worn and weakened regime.

History teaches us that in political matters, nothing is eternal, even the most formidable of regimes. It makes sense that such diets democratize before they pass their inevitable expiry date. Simply put, waiting too long can spell disaster for the CCP, as it has for other autocratic regimes that gave up power when they grew weak rather than concede democracy when they were weak. strong.


Dan Slater is the Weiser Professor of Emerging Democracies in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. His books include Command Power: Controversial Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia. Joseph Wang is Roz and Ralph Halbert Chair of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His books include Healthy Democracies: Welfare Politics in Taiwan and South Korea.

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