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The Good Society 11.2 (2002) 38-39

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Empowering Civil Society and Women in East Asia:
A Critical Examination of Democratization


Seung-kyung Kim and Miranda Schreurs

The countries of East Asia have long been characterized as strong states with relatively weak civil societies. Yet, this image is becoming outdated. There are numerous signs emerging from throughout the region that state-society relations are changing. There has been a dramatic growth in civil society groups in China, Japan, and Korea since the beginning of the 1990s. The term "civil society groups" is used very cautiously and loosely here since the organizational form and role played by these groups differs substantially across the three states. In the case of China, for example, it may be more appropriate to speak of "governmental non-governmental organizations or GONGOs" than of the kinds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are popping up all over Japan and in recently democratized Korea. Throughout the region, however, citizen participation in policy making is on the rise.

In the case of Korea the growth of an NGO sector is clearly a result of the country's recent democratization. In Japan the mushrooming of NGOs is an indication that citizens are gaining greater voice in a system long dominated by a strong bureaucracy. In the case of China, the formation of GONGOs suggests a transformation in how communist politics are operating and the gradual acceptance by the state of a place for a certain kind of semi-autonomous societal participation in politics.

Given the very different political systems and modern histories of these three countries, it is striking that in all three there has been a sudden surge in civil society groups in the last decade. A combination of domestic and international forces appears to be changing official and societal attitudes towards citizen involvement in the policy making process. These changing attitudes have been accompanied by important changes to the legal status of non-profit organizations in the region. While many barriers still remain to the establishment of truly vibrant civil societies in China, Japan, and Korea, the developments of the last decade are truly noteworthy.

While women have been an integral part of civil society movements in East Asia, women are not well represented in political positions in East Asia. This is especially true in Korea, which has among the smallest number of women in elected positions of any industrialized democracy. Thus, while the growth of civil society groups in the region suggests a degree of pluralization of the policy process (albeit of a different kind within democratic Japan and Korea than communist China), this has not necessarily meant an end to patriarchal politics in the region. Thus, while there has been a degree of "democratization" in the region, there are still great barriers to women's formal representation in politics and the economic realm.

The articles presented in this and the next edition of The Good Society (volume 11, number 3) explore some of the reasons for the growing space being allocated to civil society groups and their implications for state-society relations in East Asia. They also examine the role of women as important actors in civil society and provide critical analyses of democratization in East Asia (focused on Korea) given the limited number of women who can be found in political and economic positions. The articles are written by sociologists, political scientists, and anthropologists and, thus, represents diverse disciplinary perspectives on questions pertaining to democratization and civil society. [Keep footnote] 1

Many of the articles presented here deal with Korea. Korea is a particularly interesting case for those interested in societies in transition. For most of Korea's high-growth period, the country was under authoritarian rule. Civil society was heavily suppressed by successive authoritarian governments. Politics was [End Page 38] an almost exclusively male bastion. Korea began a process of democratization in 1987 that led to the election of the first non-military president of the country in 1992. In the decade since this time, Korea's civil society has mushroomed and Korea is now widely accepted as a successful case of...


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