April 2009 Dispatch - Late Democratizers? Authoritarian Developmentalism and Political Change in Pacific Asia

Some theorists of modernization have influentially claimed that successful “late industrialization” led by developmental states creates economies too complex, social structures too differentiated, and (middle-class-dominated) civil societies too politically conscious to sustain nondemocratic rule. Nowhere is this argument—that economic growth drives democratic transitions—more evident than in Northeast and Southeast Asia (hereafter Pacific Asia).

South Korea and Taiwan, having democratized only after substantial industrialization, seem to fit this narrative well. But “late democratizers” have been the exception rather than the rule. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand democratized before high per capita incomes were achieved. Malaysia, and especially Singapore are more wealthy than they are democratic. The communist “converts” to developmentalism, China and Vietnam, are aiming for authoritarian versions of modernity. Table 1* shows that there is no clear pattern in Pacific Asia. Indeed, according to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House (and using the World Bank categories of low, lower middle, upper middle, or high income), poor and rich countries alike in Pacific Asia are rated “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”

What key factors have influenced the different timing of democratization in Pacific Asia? Democratization has occurred early in the developmental process when authoritarian states have failed to create sustainable economic growth, which in turn has led to mounting debt. Many reasons explain this phenomenon, but a primary cause is the so-called failure to “deepen”—that is, certain countries’ inability to become major manufacturers of high-tech and heavy industrial goods. For example, when economic crises rocked the Philippines in the mid-1980s and Indonesia in the late 1990s, both nations lacked the economic maturity and breadth to rebound, prompting abrupt financial collapse. These nations’ political systems were too ossified to channel popular unrest, and mass mobilization resulted. Ideologically, the Marcos and Suharto regimes faced accusations of cronyism, as favored business leaders stepped in to rescue failing conglomerates, sidelining once-influential technocrats in the process. In the end, these countries’ limited economic development actually broke down their authoritarian systems.

 “Late industrializers,” by contrast, do succeed in industrial “deepening.” But they are often less successful in terms of “widening”—the perception that the benefits of development are being fairly shared in society. Statistics show that South Korea and Taiwan are relatively equal societies. Nevertheless, neither of these technocratically oriented authoritarian regimes was able to blunt criticisms that growth was unjustly distributed. South Korean workers and native Taiwanese felt particularly disadvantaged. In Malaysia, too, tensions are now mounting about distribution along ethnic lines. Electoral authoritarianism helped to defuse earlier crises in South Korea and Taiwan, but beginning in the mid-1980s, opposition forces in both nations launched successful challenges through the ballot box to bring about democratization. In Malaysia, the opposition scored major gains in the 2008 elections. Ideologically, all three authoritarian regimes were weakened by activist campaigns for social justice, which mobilized middle class professionals.

One can only speculate about whether Singapore will one day democratize. Its economy has continually deepened, most recently through a major drive to grow a biotech industry. At the same time, it has widened through a series of welfare-related measures focused on housing and pensions. The Singaporean government has also perfected a system of electoral authoritarianism, allowing some competition and participation without threatening the ruling party’s hold on power. Ideologically, the government has long determined the political agenda through its collectivist campaigns (including the once high-profile “Asian values” discourse). However, when Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, eventually passes away, the nation’s technocratic elite may be tempted to democratize. Democratization would give the government greater legitimacy to reform welfare provision, which many believe is currently limiting Singapore’s competitiveness. The main arguments are summarized in table two.*

It is evident that China and Vietnam are trying to imitate the Singaporean model. Though each faces many obstacles, both countries have already made great strides in industrial deepening and widening through an elaborate postcommunist welfare system. Ideologically, these countries will rely not just on growth—which will inevitably slow during the current economic crisis—but also on appeals to a collectivist identity that is simultaneously both nationalist and neo-Confucianist in character. Whether China and Vietnam eventually democratize or remain authoritarian despite modernization is one of the most important political questions in the world today.

* Please contact the Manager of Corporate Relations for a full PDF copy of this dispatch, including tables.