Why East Asia—Including China—Will Turn Democratic Within a Generation

Why a wave of democratization will likely turn most or all of the region within a generation

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A Beijing woman casts a ballot as part of China's short-lived experiment with controlled voting / AP

If there is going to be a big new lift to global democratic prospects in this decade, the region from which it will emanate is most likely to be East Asia.

With the eruption of mass movements for democratic change throughout the Arab world in 2011, hopeful analysts of global democratic prospects have focused attention on the Middle East. Three Arab autocracies (Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya) have fallen in the past year. At least two more (Yemen and Syria) also seem destined for demise soon, and pressures for real democratic change figure to mount in Morocco, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps Kuwait, and to persist in Bahrain. Yet among these and other countries in the Middle East (including Iraq and Iran), only Tunisia has a good chance of becoming a democracy in the relatively near future. Aspirations for more democratic and account- able government run deep throughout the Middle East, and for years to come the region will be a lively and contested terrain of possibilities for regime evolution. But if a new regional wave of transitions to democracy unfolds in the next five to ten years, it is more likely to come from East Asia--a region that has been strangely neglected in recent thinking about the near-term prospects for expansion of democracy. And East Asia is also better positioned to increase the number of liberal and sustainable democracies.

Unlike the Arab world, East Asia already has a critical mass of democracies. Forty percent of East Asian states (seven of the seventeen) are democracies, a proportion slightly higher than in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, though dramatically lower than in Latin America or Central and Eastern Europe, where most states are democracies. As a result of the third wave of global democratization, East Asia has gone from being the cradle and locus of "developmental authoritarianism," with Japan as its lone democracy--and a longstanding one-party-dominant system at that--to at least a mixed and progressing set of systems. Today, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are all consolidated liberal democracies. East Timor, Indonesia, Mongolia, and the Philippines are at least electoral democracies with some resilience.

Moreover, as I will explain, there are now significant prospects for democratic change in a number of the region's remaining authoritarian regimes. Thailand is progressing back toward democracy; Malaysia and Singapore show signs of entering a period of democratic transition; Burma, to the surprise of many, is liberalizing politically for the first time in twenty years; and China faces a looming crisis of authoritarianism that will generate a new opportunity for democratic transition in the next two decades and possibly much sooner. Moreover, all this has been happening during a five-year period when democracy has been in recession globally.

There are three democracies in East Asia today that rank among the stable liberal democracies of the industrialized world: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. They are not without stiff economic and political challenges and large numbers of disenchanted citizens who in surveys express only tepid support for democracy. Yet in each of these countries, overwhelming majorities of citizens reject authoritarian regime options while voicing reasonably robust support for broadly liberal values such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, and judicial independence. Comparative data on rights, civil liberties, and the quality of governance confirm that these are liberal democracies. They could become better, more liberal ones, however, by deepening the rule of law and civil liberties and improving mechanisms of accountability and transparency to control corruption and political favoritism.

East Asia's merely electoral democracies have further to go toward deepening and consolidating democracy, of course. Mongolia scores relatively well in Freedom House ratings of political rights and civil liberties, but in this phenomenally mineral-rich country the judiciary remains underdeveloped, the rule of law is weak, and corruption remains a grave problem widely recognized by the public. Indonesia's democratic performance over the past decade has been much better than what many experts on that country might have expected. The Philip- pines has returned to democracy with the 2010 election, in which Benigno Aquino III won the presidency. Yet semi-feudal elites retain a strong hold on the politics of many Philippine provinces and constituencies, and their presence in the country's Congress has so far largely blocked basic reform. In the World Bank's annual governance ratings, Indonesia and the Philippines rank in the bottom quartile of all countries in corruption control and not much better (the bottom third) in rule of law. In 2010, among big (mainly G-20) emerging-market democracies such as Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey, only Bangladesh did worse on these two governance indicators.

In each of these three electoral democracies--Mongolia, Indonesia, and the Philippines--at least three-quarters of citizens agree that "Democracy may have its problems, but it is still the best form of government." In each, likewise, only about half the public is satisfied with the way democracy is working, but majorities believe that democracy remains capable of solving the country's problems. One possible reason for this faith in democracy is suggested by the wide majorities in each country (up to 76 percent in Mongolia and 80 percent in the Philippines) who say that they believe the people retain the power to change the government through elections. (Data is from Round III of the Asian Barometer.)

Prospects for Further Democratization

It is by now widely appreciated that Singapore is by any standard a massive anomaly. As we see in the Table on page 8, Singapore is far richer today than any major third-wave countries were when they made their transitions to democracy (this includes Spain and Greece, which do not appear in the Table). Singapore is the most economically developed non-democracy in the history of the world. But Singapore is changing, and this change will probably accelerate when the founding generation of leaders, particularly Lee Kuan Yew (who turned 88 last September), passes from the scene. In the May 2011 parliamentary elections, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) recorded its weakest electoral performance since independence in 1965, winning "only"

60 percent of the vote. Although the PAP still won (yet again) well over 90 percent of parliamentary seats thanks to a highly rigged electoral system, the opposition Workers' Party broke through for the first time to win a five-seat group constituency, and a total of six seats overall--a record for the Singaporean opposition. While a post-election survey failed to reveal a general increase in support for greater political pluralism since the last elections (in 2006), the expressed preference for a more competitive political system did increase dramatically in the youngest age cohort (those from 21 to 29), shooting up from 30 to 44 percent.

If Singapore remains in the grip of a half-century-long single-party hegemony, that hegemony now seems to be entering a more vulnerable phase, as opposition parties find new energy and backing, as young people flock to social media to express themselves more openly, as independent media crop up online to provide a fuller range of news and opinions, and as the ruling party feels compelled to ease censorship and other controls. Singapore, in other words, has already joined the ranks of the world's "competitive authoritarian" regimes--the class of autocracies among which democratic transitions are most likely to happen.

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Singapore's exceptionalism is widely known. Less well known is that Malaysia now also has a higher per capita income than most third-wave countries did when they made their transitions to democracy. In fact, among the prominent cases in the Table, only Taiwan had a higher per capita income than Malaysia when it completed its democratic transition. Moreover, Malaysia's score on the UNDP's Human Development Index--which, in measuring not only per capita income but also levels of health and education, is arguably a truer measure of development--is now significantly higher than the levels in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and even Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine when they made their respective transitions to democracy. From the standpoint of modernization theory, then, Malaysia is also ripe for a democratic transition.

Presented by

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. More

Diamond is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and serves as senior consultant (and previously was codirector) at the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy. At Stanford, he also directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

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