April 30, 2010

Democracy is robust in Asia

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 12:04 am
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By David Pilling

Published: April 28 2010 20:07 | Last updated: April 28 2010 20:07

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On the face of it, these are lean times for champions of Asian democracy. Two of the most attractive democratic pin-ups of yore, Thailand and the Philippines, are looking decidedly haggard. Thais no longer trust parliament to sort out their differences and have taken their grievances to the streets. In the Philippines, which goes to the polls next month, political violence scaled new heights with the massacre last November of 57 people. Their offence had been to try to register an opposition candidate. Afghanistan went through the pain of elections last year, though a lot of people wonder why it bothered. And Sri Lanka’s brief flirtation with post-civil war democratic inclusion lasted roughly five minutes: Sarath Fonseka has discovered to his cost that the price of running against the incumbent president is jail.

Conversely, countries that many expected would move towards greater democracy have not obliged. Former US president Bill Clinton proselytised the idea that, in a knowledge economy, only those states that were politically open would prosper. China has proved him spectacularly wrong. Indeed, Beijing is busily creating the biggest middle class in the history of the world, yet the Communist party’s hold on power looks as firm as ever.

To rub it in, economies in countries that do not bother with elections have generally performed better than those that regularly go through the rigmarole of transferring power. Even the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, gunned down in 1983 for his principled opposition to the Marcos dictatorship, said that freedom of speech meant little to those not free from hunger. China’s growth has averaged 10 per cent a year in the past 30 years. The Philippines has not even managed 4 per cent.

A once-rock-solid faith in the so-called Washington Consensus, which predicted the lock-step progress of economic and political liberalism, has been shaken. If anything, the accepted view these days has reversed. Stefan Halper’s Beijing Consensus is merely the latest book to highlight the attractions of “market authoritarianism” – especially to dictators in the developing world (funnily enough).

But if Asian countries are being cited to bolster the argument that democracy has lost its appeal and that the best-performing economies are autocratic, that view is worth challenging. Before we scan the present landscape, it is worth slaying a couple of shibboleths.

First, to talk about “Asian” political systems at all is to concede an important point. That is the view – largely bunkum – that contrasts supposedly “Asian values” of family, hard work and respect for authority with “western” ones. Asia, home to two-thirds of the world’s people, is as much a European fantasy as a real place. (Nor, for that matter, is “the west” the one-dimensional land of individualism and irresponsible capitalism it is often made out to be.) The fact that Asia is so varied renders it hard to talk sensibly in one breath about political systems in, say, Vietnam and Malaysia, let alone Japan and Pakistan. There are more people living under democracy in Asia than in any other continent.

Second, though some authoritarian states, notably China, have managed their economies spectacularly well, others – Burma or North Korea – have made a jackbooted hash of it.

What of the present? It is far from clear that the democratic tide is in retreat. There are three obvious examples of countries that have become more democratic, and no less successful for it. Taiwan, a formerly authoritarian state run by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, has become a near-model democracy. Power has been transferred from Kuomintang nationalists to the opposition and back again. A former president has been impeached without obvious damage to the island’s democratic foundations. Taiwan’s open political system is sweeter still for disproving the myth that Chinese culture is incompatible with democracy.

South Korea, formerly a military dictatorship, has developed a similarly robust democracy. Full of scandal and political revenge to be sure, but no less dynamic or responsive to the people’s will for that. The biggest surprise may be Indonesia which, following the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, was widely predicted to be destined for chaos and Muslim extremism. Neither has happened. Under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army officer elected president in 2004, Indonesia has consolidated a stable democracy that has buttressed a promising economic performance.

Of the bigger economies, India has proved that democracy and fast economic growth are compatible, if not yet that Delhi can match Beijing’s double-digit wizardry. Even Japan, a stable democracy for 60 years, has gone the extra mile by actually voting the opposition into power.

Finally, look at China itself. It is true that, viewed from afar, China’s political system has hardly budged. But no one paying attention could doubt that with the rise of the middle class has come a revolution in access to knowledge and the stirrings of a civil society. With a little technical savvy or a dollar a week for a virtual private network (VPN), anyone in China can breach the Great Firewall and see the same information as freedom-surfers in London or New York. That is not the same thing as democracy. But perhaps Mr Clinton was not so wide of the mark after all.


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