- Confucianism and Democracy
The caning for vandalism last year of American high-school student Michael Fay by the Singaporean authorities underscored the challenge now being put forth by Asian societies to the United States and other Western democracies. The issue was not simply whether Singapore, as a sovereign state, had the right to subject an American expatriate to its laws and legal procedures, but a much more fundamental one. In effect, the Singaporeans used the case of Michael Fay to argue in favor of their brand of authoritarianism, charging that American democracy, with its rampant social problems and general disorder, could not be regarded as a model for an Asian society. This claim forms part of a larger argument that Singaporeans, beginning with former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, have been making for some time now to the effect that Western-style democracy is incompatible with Confucianism, and that the latter constitutes a much more coherent ideological basis for a well-ordered Asian society than Western notions of individual liberty. 1 While Singaporeans have been the most outspoken proponents of this view, many people in other Asian societies, from Thailand to Japan, have come to share their beliefs. The standing of the United States in Asia has already been affected: on the issue of using trade policy to pressure China into bettering its human rights record, Washington had few allies in the region, and it was forced to back down on its threat of withdrawing China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) status.
Are Confucianism and Western-style democracy fundamentally [End Page 20] incompatible? Will Asia formulate a new kind of political-economic order that is different in principle from Western capitalist democracy? The fact is that there are fewer points of incompatibility between Confucianism and democracy than many people in both Asia and the West believe. The essence of postwar “modernization theory” is correct: Economic development tends to be followed by political liberalization. 2 If the rapid economic development that Asia has experienced in recent years is sustained, the region’s democratization will continue as well. In the end, however, the contours of Asian democracy may be very different from those of contemporary American democracy, which has experienced serious problems of its own in reconciling individual rights with the interests of the larger community.
Modernization Theory Confirmed
Although it is no longer considered “politically correct” to advocate modernization theory, it has actually stood the test of time relatively well. In a seminal article published in 1959, Seymour Martin Lipset noted the empirical correlation between a high level of economic development and stable democracy. 3 Although the thesis that economic development gives rise to political liberalization has been debated endlessly since then, it was strengthened considerably with the democratic transitions that began in the mid-1970s, and it is more valid today than it was when it was first enunciated. 4
The correlation between development and democracy is nowhere better illustrated than in Asia. The states of the region have established stable democratic institutions roughly in the same order in which they began to develop economically, beginning with Japan and extending now to South Korea (which held its first completely free elections in 1992) and Taiwan (which is scheduled to hold free legislative elections at the end of this year). There have been a number of failed prodemocracy movements in China, Thailand, and Burma, but even these cases reveal a link between development and democracy. In the Chinese and Thai cases, in particular, the leaders of the prodemocracy movements tended to be relatively well educated, “middle-class,” and cosmopolitan citizens—the type of individual that began to emerge during earlier periods of rapid economic growth. The only anomaly in this picture is the Philippines, which, despite having the lowest per-capita income of all the noncommunist states in Southeast Asia, has been a democracy since the election of Corazon Aquino in 1986. Clearly, though, democracy would never have come to the Philippines had it not been for the direct influence of the United States; moreover, democratic practice is not well institutionalized there, and the country retains a semifeudal authority structure in the countryside and features one of Asia...