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Asia at the crossroads

Aside from China, nearly all the states in Asia make use of the trappings of democracy, such as elections, parliaments, and the separation of powers. A new report examines the future of democracy in Asia in the next 15 years.

Justine Doody
2 February 2015
Asia.

Asia. B1mbo/Wikicommons. Some right reserved.Asia has made significant progress towards democratization in recent decades. Despite being tested from outside and from within, states such as Taiwan and Indonesia have managed to continue their progress in consolidating democracy. Authoritarian regimes too have at least had to pay lip service to the idea of democratic participation in order to sustain their hold on power in a changing world.

New social dynamics and increased demands for representation have forced reform within societies such as Malaysia, Burma, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

But Asia still has more authoritarian states than democratic ones, and not all of its democracies are living up to their promise of public participation in political life. How well will Asia’s would-be reformers meet the challenges to the progress of democratization in the coming decade and a half?

The multi-stakeholder Next Generation Democracy project, initiated recently by the Club de Madrid, aims to track the state of democracy in the world today and to make projections for democratization processes over the next 15 years.

The project’s Asia report by Aurel Croissant, Asia coordinator of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), finds that perhaps the key challenge for democracy in Asia in the coming years is the fact that authoritarian regimes in the region have proved extremely economically successful. Singapore and Vietnam are two examples, but the greatest authoritarian economic success story is, of course, the world’s largest economy as of 2015, China.

China’s success, China’s decline?

China’s economic rise has powered Asian growth for years, and its success has contributed to the appeal of its model and lessened the appetite for change within its own borders. Modernization theory suggests that economic development leads to democracy, but this has so far not proven the case in China, even as around a quarter of the Chinese population takes its place in the middle class.

Researchers such as Jie Chen explain that this new middle class is dependent on the regime for its prosperity and fears any reform that could destabilize the government and thus jeopardize its economic prospects. Chen believes that a decline in China’s economy could weaken this symbiosis, by undermining the government’s undertaking to live up to its side of the tacit bargain with the middle class.

Such a decline could be in the offing before 2030. China’s growth will slow in 2015, but long-range predictions for the Asian giant’s economy differ widely. Some have suggested that GDP growth could fall to 4 percent per year by 2020, others see it at 6 percent, and others still believe that China can register 7 to 8 percent growth. On the ground, the gap will make a real difference. Higher growth would enable China to continue to reform and to provide public goods, whereas by some predictions, growth even at 5 percent would cause unemployment and underemployment on a grand scale. If this happens, change might come in China more quickly than its current rulers would prefer.

The majority of countries in Asia lack free and fair elections

Aside from China, nearly all the states in Asia make use of the trappings of democracy, such as elections, parliaments, and the separation of powers. In the region’s democracies, these institutions are functional to varying degrees. And although in many countries the institutions are without authority, their very existence provides something to build on and also evidences the degree to which even authoritarian regimes feel the need to legitimize their rule by giving the illusion of popular representation. Even so, according to the Bertelsmann report, more than half of the countries in Asia have yet to introduce free and fair elections.

Greater availability of information about local and international affairs is one of the driving forces behind the need to respect or give the appearance of respecting public opinion. The spread of information through new technologies has enabled public participation in political life on a wider scale than ever before. In most of Asia’s societies, these new platforms and social media tools are available to large parts of the population, which has broadened public discourse in democracies and given new tools to reformers and activists in authoritarian regimes.

Social media and the internet have had an impact on the political sphere in the region. In Malaysia, where political participation is still restricted and the government controls most of the traditional media, the 2013 parliamentary elections were hard fought on the internet, probably contributing to the opposition’s strong showing in the final result, even though the ruling party managed to retain its hold on power.

India’s anti-corruption movement led by activist Anna Hazare captured world headlines in 2011, and its success was largely down to the mobilization of youth through social media. Even in China, so-called human flesh searches have contributed to outing corrupt officials and enabling citizens to monitor their leaders’ actions.  

Internet control is a major threat to democratic reform in Asia

But technology is neutral and others than activists for democracy can make use of it to serve their own ends. Fears have been raised about the use of social media by militant Islamist groups in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, for radicalization and recruitment.

Perhaps the main threat to the reformers, though, is the increasing control of the internet by governments and regimes that seek to limit the reach of dissenting voices. Singapore requires news websites to apply for licenses that are subject to annual renewal, and its Media Development Authority can force websites to remove any content that it considers outside “the public interest, public order or national harmony”.

Vietnam introduced legislation in 2013 that made it illegal to disseminate content that opposes the state. And in China, widely considered to have the largest apparatus in the world for controlling the internet, the “Cleaning the Web 2014” campaign took aim at China’s massively popular Weibo social media platform, under the pretext of combating “online rumors” and “internet pornography”.

Canny users frequently manage to find ways round government control, but by itself, technology will not bring about democratization. However, technology can help and is helping to increase popular participation in the public sphere – one of the prerequisites for democracy, and an encouraging sign for the development of democracy in Asia. 

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