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  • Democratizing Dragons:South Korea & Taiwan
  • Robert A. Scalapino (bio)

On 18 December 1992, voters in the Republic of Korea (ROK) went to the polls to elect a new president. With 77 percent of those eligible casting ballots, Kim Young Sam of the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) was the victor, receiving 42 percent of the total vote. Veteran oppositionist Kim Dae Jung of Korea's second party, the Democratic Party (DP), got 34 percent, while maverick politician Chung Ju Yung, the billionaire head of the Hyundai conglomerate and leader of the newly created Unification National Party (UNP), obtained 16 percent. All candidates were civilians, and the election was widely judged to have been the most free and fair in Korea's history. Both defeated candidates accepted the voters' verdict with grace, and when he was inaugurated on 25 February 1993 as the republic's fourteenth president, Kim Young Sam could accurately claim that a new political era had been launched.1

One day after the elections in South Korea, on December 19, elections for the National Assembly of the Republic of China (ROC) drew a turnout of 72 percent. Candidates of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party obtained 53 percent of the vote and 96 of the 161 seats contested, a substantial majority but far below its achievement in the National Assembly races of the previous year. Correspondingly, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 50 seats and advanced to a 31-percent share of the vote, a more than one-third increase over its 1991 showing. Independent candidates, meanwhile, received 5 percent of the vote and seven seats. Several seats were disputed.2

As in the case of the Korean elections, the Taiwan contest was a major step forward in this society of 20 million. Symbolic of that fact, [End Page 70] one of the candidates elected, Shih Ming-teh, had spent 25 years in prison for advocating Taiwanese independence and other "subversive" activities, and had been released only two years earlier.

Recent political developments in these two societies should cause us to reflect upon democracy in Asia—its successes and challenges as the twentieth century nears its end. First, let me set forth the most essential components of a democratic order, which are: genuine political choice for the citizenry; the requisite freedoms to make that choice meaningful; and a rule of law.

The type of political culture traditionally found throughout Asia generally promoted a different set of values. The premium was upon unity, with consensus the primary goal in decision making. Majoritarianism was a foreign concept: why should 51 percent of the people—or the policy makers—be given blanket authority to make decisions for the other 49 percent?

Freedom, moreover, ranked lower than order in the scale of values, and in any case, individual rights connoted selfishness. The group—be it the family, the community, or some larger political entity—had priority, and indeed, the individual could not be considered apart from the collective whole; he was never to be seen as an entity entitled to independent rights.

Further, the rule of law was usually considered less desirable than the rule of wise men. Law was a sanction, or alternatively, a goal toward which one might aim, but not a set of codes to be minutely interpreted and rigorously enforced. The borders that limited the power of rulers were the unwritten ethical practices sanctified by custom. The good ruler should be wise, beneficent, and always mindful of the welfare of his subjects—a father writ large. If he ceased to fit these prescriptions, in the words of ancient Chinese sages, he ceased to be a ruler and became a tyrant, deserving as such to be overthrown (a convenient doctrine for those who did the overthrowing).

Thus to make the transition to democracy has never been easy in Asia, even when homage has been paid to the traditional culture by making various adaptations. Generally, democracy has been the product of two conditions, which sometimes act separately but are more frequently found in some combination. In certain cases, the dominant factor was the creation or transformation of an elite through extensive education, often sponsored by a colonial regime. Almost without exception...