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  • The East Asian ProspectA "Recipe" for Democratic Development
  • Gerald L. Curtis (bio)

There is no single model of democratic development—or of democratic nondevelopment, for that matter—in the East Asian region. Some countries, most notably the Philippines, have a long but troubled historical experience with democracy. Japan underwent an abortive democratic transition in the interwar period and has had a successful history of democracy since the end of the Second World War. Singapore, according to all indicators of economic and social development, should have a democracy but does not. South Korea and Taiwan seem to be moving toward the institutionalization of democratic forms of governance, but it is still too early to say definitively whether democratic consolidation will actually occur or what kind of democracy will evolve in either place.

Despite the diverse historical experiences and current political realities of East Asian countries that have democratized or are democratizing, some common themes weave their way through the political development of all of them. The ways in which these themes have been played out in the East Asian context offer useful insights about the conditions for successful democratic development generally in the contemporary world.

The political history of East Asia over the past half-century or so offers six key lessons that should be heeded by anyone concerned about democratic political development. Some of the lessons to be derived from the East Asian experience are fully consistent with the theoretical [End Page 139] and empirical observations about democratization that are usually mentioned in the general political-science literature on democratic transitions. Others, if not unique to the East Asian region, seem to be more salient there than elsewhere.

The first of these lessons is that in establishing and consolidating democracy, leadership matters a great deal. Historically, it is impressive how important the decisions of individual East Asian political leaders have been in facilitating the transition to democracy.

In postwar Japan, democracy could not have flourished if political leaders had not been committed to adhering to democratic processes. As a consequence of the experience of the military’s takeover of the government in the 1930s, the great majority of politicians after the Second World War, whether conservative or socialist, were determined to prevent a return of militarism and united in the belief that the interests of the nation would be best served by maintaining institutions of democratic governance.

In South Korea, President Roh Tae Woo’s decision to serve only one term and to institute democratic reforms was critical in setting the stage for the democratic transition subsequently pursued by President Kim Young Sam. Similarly, in Taiwan the decision by President Chiang Ching-kuo not to permit a member of his family to succeed him or a military regime to come to power was a crucial factor in the island’s democratic transition.

On the other hand, leaders who have opposed democracy have sometimes been successful in preventing its establishment even when most other conditions were favorable to it. One has only to think of Singapore, where Lee Kuan Yew’s determination to limit public political participation and to retain an authoritarian system has had an extraordinary impact on the country’s political development.

The lesson offered by the East Asian experience about the importance of leadership is not that countries get democracy because leaders favor it. As important as leadership “pacts” may be in the democratization process, they are hardly sufficient for the establishment of democracy. But what is beyond dispute, as the region’s history clearly shows, is that countries do not get democracy unless leaders actively support it.

The second lesson about democratic development offered by East Asian political history is that institutions matter. Creating the institutions of democracy does not in itself ensure the success of the democratization [End Page 140] effort. But once the institutions of democratic government are established, it does not take long for vested interests to emerge that are determined to perpetuate those institutions.

That is one of the key lessons of the U.S. occupation of Japan. Labor unions, agricultural cooperatives, business associations, and other groups that were formed or were given the opportunity to grow powerful during the years when...