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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Democracy in Asia

by | August 29th, 2011 | 08:53 am

As good democrats—with a small “d”—we are always expressing our hope that North Korea will move in a more liberal or even democratic direction. But an interesting conference I am attending in Taipei, organized by National Taiwan University and the National Endowment of Democracy, is providing ample evidence that Asia is still a surprisingly bad neighborhood when it comes to political development.

If we simply look at regime type, only three countries—Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—can be considered fully consolidated liberal democracies. Indonesia, Mongolia, the Philippines and Thailand are electoral democracies, but the last two have experienced significant backsliding in recent years; detailed research on values also suggests that public support for democratic values in these four countries is shallower. Malaysia and Singapore remain electoral autocracies and three systems—Cambodia, China, and Vietnam—are single-party regimes.

Patterns of support for democratic values in the Asian democracies have come a long way, but are less strong than one might think.  In a fascinating paper, Chong-Min Park (Korea University) and Yu-tzung Chang (National Taiwan University) present some basic descriptive statistics from the Asiabarometer surveys that are now taken in all twelve of the countries just noted; some of that data on Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China is reproduced in the table below.

By large majorities—although by no means unanimously—the Northeast Asian democracies believe that democracy should not be overthrown in favor of a strongman; a majority holds the same view in China. But cognitive dissonance prevails. Only 43 percent of respondents in South Korea and 48 percent in Taiwan believe that democracy is always preferable to any other form of government; support on this question is at similarly low or lower levels in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

As we move from general support for democracy, to its capacity to solve problems, to particular institutions, trust declines sharply. Bare majorities—or less—are satisfied with the way democracy is working in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Trust in parliament and political parties is on the floor in the democracies, but surprisingly robust in autocratic China.

Explanations for these patterns abounded at the conference. T.J. Cheng (College of William and Mary) presented a nice paper suggesting that nostalgia for the high-growth authoritarian era and the economic success of China might play a role. Frank Fukuyama—talking off of his new book on The Origins of Political Order—had some interesting speculations on Sinitic conceptions of political rule. In contrast to the west, China developed an overarching state apparatus prior to the emergence of a concept of transcendental law. According to Fukuyama, this has impeded prospects for democracy; Sinitic conceptions of political rule remain hierarchical.

North Korean news sources delight in providing embarrassing details on the messy nature of democratic rule in the South. The KCNA is right; democracy is a messy system. We should not conclude that democracy in South Korea or Taiwan is at risk. But the data on China is a reminder that autocrats can mobilize surprisingly wide support by providing basic public goods and economic growth. Were the Kim family only to pick up on that small point, we would probably have to call it progress.


Support for Democracy in Northeast Asia

  South Korea Japan Taiwan China
Should not get rid of parliament and elections in favor of strongman 83 79 76 62
Democracy is always preferable to any other form of government. 43 63 48 54
Democracy is capable of solving the problems of society 55 67 54 60
Satisfied with the way democracy works in this country 48 48 56 69
Trust in parliament 7 17 19 83
Trust in political parties 9 16 15 88