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  • Hong Kong, Singapore, and “Asian Values”Why Asia Needs Democracy
  • Margaret Ng (bio)

Why do people want democracy? Is it because it is somehow desirable in itself? Or is it because it is believed to be the bearer of good things, such as wealth and modernization?

The predominant argument put forth in the past decade has been that democracy is attractive because it brings good things. Specifically, democracy is equated with economic growth. It is often argued that democracy is necessary or at least highly conducive to development. This link between democracy and development has been explained in various ways. Some have argued that democracy sanctions and encourages freedom of thought, thus giving rise to ideas useful in the economic realm. Others have emphasized the rule of law—which is safeguarded by democracy—as a prerequisite for free enterprise. Still others have argued that democracy makes possible the free market, and that the free market is the economic system most favorable to growth and prosperity. These arguments all have a common structure: they identify some factor as an essential condition for economic growth, and then state that democracy provides that essential condition.

The weaknesses of this form of argument are by now well known. Not only is it impossible to pinpoint any single factor or small set of factors as necessary and sufficient for economic development, it is equally difficult to say that democracy alone can produce such results. Moreover, on this utilitarian view, when the “good things” do not seem to materialize after democracy has been adopted, or when democracy seems to produce problems of its own, the value of democracy is bound to be called into question. This is particularly true when democracy is [End Page 10] crudely equated with the political system of the United States, one of its major exponents. Just as American wealth makes democracy attractive, so do American problems—both social and economic—make democracy dubious. Moreover, if democratization means copying the American system, the process is inherently offensive to non-Americans, who have their own national dignity and pride. Then, too, as nondemocratic countries like China chalk up economic gains while the U.S. economy gets into trouble of one kind or another, democracy’s appeal wanes in the eyes of its former aspirants.

Thus if the “need” for democracy is equated with the need for economic progress, the case for Asia’s “need” for democracy is extremely tenuous. The need for democracy, however, has not always been asserted on entirely materialistic or even utilitarian grounds. Advocates of democracy in early-twentieth-century China believed that democracy was necessary for the good of China’s future: only democracy, inasmuch as it gives power to the masses, could provide an effective check on corruption, and only democracy could allow the unrestrained advancement of science and thus the maximum progress of modernization. The “good” perceived by these advocates of democracy was not primarily a material good. It was first and foremost moral and intellectual: democracy was desired because it was believed to be an integral part of the “good society.” Without it, it was thought, the good society could not come about or persist.

Liberal democracy has its origins in a concept of the individual and his or her relationship with other human beings and with the state. If the individual is viewed as having inborn and inalienable rights, a government that restricts any of these rights can be justified only on the basis of consent. From here it is but a short step to democracy as the only legitimate—and in fact the only safe—form of government. Democracy was supposed to bring about not a shopper’s paradise, but a rational and reasonably orderly society in which individuals may pursue their own goals.

In more recent times, democracy has come to embody the individual’s right to participate in government and thus to influence the process by which his or her own life is determined. This can be seen as a shift in emphasis from the “negative” to the “positive” aspect of democracy—that is, from democracy as the prevention of tyranny and corruption to democracy as the facilitation of popular participation. In...

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