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  • The East Asian ProspectTale of Three Systems
  • Robert A. Scalapino (bio)

One of the interesting phenomena of the twentieth century is that virtually all political leaders have wanted to lay claim to the term “democracy.” Hence we have had “people’s democracy,” “guided democracy,” “Asian democracy,” and what I regard as true democracy.

Let me succinctly identify democracy’s essential elements: first, genuine, regularized political choice for the citizenry; second, the requisite freedoms to make that choice meaningful; and third, the primacy of law. A truly democratic system must contain these three elements. Obviously, there are no perfect political systems. Even the sturdiest of democracies will have shortcomings. In general terms, however, to warrant the designation “democracy,” a political system must be based upon, and must approximate in practice, these three principles.

Democracy also rests upon two fundamental premises: the belief that all individuals are fallible, and the corresponding thesis—so succinctly stated by Lord Acton—that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus limitations on power through a system of checks and balances are essential.

In post-1945 Asia, the initial thrust toward democracy was due almost entirely to the tutelage of Great Britain and the United States. Through lengthy colonial rule and short postwar occupation, these two nations influenced the thinking of Asia’s elites with respect to political institutions and values. The power of the indigenous culture was by no means [End Page 150] eliminated, but a large portion of those who initally assumed key political roles accepted the core elements of the democratic system. Moreover, tutelage continued in the postindependence era. Successive generations of young intellectuals have been trained either abroad or in indigenous institutions heavily influenced by foreign values and educational methods.

India is a prime example. No one could argue that India was prepared for democracy in socioeconomic terms in the late 1940s when independence was achieved; this is true even today. Yet the Indian political elite across a wide political spectrum—including the Communists—accepted parliamentarism. The effects of Western tutelage were felt from Sri Lanka to Japan, albeit under decidedly different circumstances in each case.

At the same time, many failures followed the initial thrust toward democracy. The reasons varied. Where socioeconomic conditions were strongly unfavorable to the democratic system, state collapse or military coups frequently ensued. Political institutions were generally weak, with dependence on personalities high. If a given leader or group decided that democracy was not appropriate—that it interfered with stability or development—they could often topple the existing structure with minimal difficulty.

One generalization relating to politics—Western and Asian—warrants careful attention. Modern Western politics has been based upon legalism. Asian politics has been based upon reciprocity. The difference is huge, and the task of transforming the Asian system to legalism is exceedingly difficult.

A second fact warrants consideration. Asian civilizations stretch back millennia; by comparison, a society such as the United States is very young. But U.S. political institutions are old compared with those of contemporary Asia, and relatively well seasoned. Given the nature of the transition under way in Asia, it is not surprising that today much of the region is characterized by economic dynamism and political fragility. Political institutions remain experimental; personalities are uniformly important in the political sphere.

Islamic societies lay further outside the Western orbit. When they encountered additional security threats and socioeconomic problems of major dimensions, as did Pakistan and Bangladesh, it was not difficult for them to abandon democracy. Ethnic cleavages also argued for a strong authority structure. For societies such as the Philippines and South Korea, moreover, democracy seemed to falter at stimulating the type of growth so strongly desired. Thus during the 1960s and 1970s we witnessed a general trend toward heightened authoritarianism in Asia. Now that trend is reversed. Political openness is spreading throughout the region. Even in the Leninist societies of Asia, where a hard authoritarianism was instituted, pressures to loosen rigid controls are on [End Page 151] the rise. And many states that abandoned democracy earlier—the Philippines, South Korea, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, for example—have returned to it.

Why has the shift occurred? Clearly, more factors than tutelage are involved. First...

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pp. 150-155
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