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Authoritarianism

East AsiaRevised Modernization Theories, Legitimate(d) Authoritarianism, Bibliography

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 countries Freedom House rating (2000) Average annual GDP per capital (1975–2000)
Un-free countries (Rating 5.5–7)
Myanmar 7.7 1.3%
Vietnam 7.7 4.8%
Laos 7.6 3.2%
Brunei 7.5 unavailable
Cambodia 6.6 1.9%
Partly free countries (Rating 3–5.5)
Malaysia 5.5 4.1%
Singapore 5.5 5.2%
Indonesia 4.4 4.4%
Free countries (Rating 1–2.5)
Philippines 2.3 0.1%
Thailand 2.3 5.5%
SOURCE: freedomhouse.org, nationmaster.com

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.

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