In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Understanding Authoritarian Resilience and Countering Autocracy Promotion in Asia
  • John Lee (bio)

Authoritarianism, Democracy, China, Southeast Asia

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executive summary

This article examines some of the reasons for authoritarian resilience and democratic erosion in Asia and assesses options for countering autocracy promotion to create more realistic conditions for democratization in the future.

main argument

Proponents of modernization theory postulate that rapid economic growth in Asia will lead to the emergence of independent and politically active middle classes agitating for democracy in the region. Although Asia continues to enjoy rapid economic advances, democratization has stalled, and in some instances, has gone backward. The reality is that many regional countries take a deeply embedded instrumentalist or pragmatic view of democracy and remain unconvinced about the inherent virtues of universal suffrage. At a time when democracy is on the defensive, China has emerged as a regional and global leader in promoting the apparent virtues of authoritarian approaches and the supposed weaknesses of democracy. This increases the importance and urgency of countering China’s anti-democratic narrative so as to create more fertile ground for democratization to take root in Asia.

policy implications

  • • Proponents of democracy must abandon the complacent view that democracy will be the inevitable destination for rapidly growing economies in Asia and accept the reality that China is leading an authoritarian offensive in making the case that one-party rule is a better model for many countries in the region.

  • • Democracies need to enter this debate and contest over ideas and adapt their message to the regional audience. If established democracies seek to create more fertile ground for democratization, they need to better counter Chinese narratives.

  • • Rather than simply promoting the virtues of universal suffrage (which might not in and of itself lead to superior results in some countries), democracies need to focus on building practical institutions that increase accountability, transparency, and protections for the rights of individuals and entities in countries undergoing political transitions. [End Page 100]

Almost 50 years ago, Seymour Martin Lipset put forward the argument that citizens who are affluent and educated are more likely to reject the appeal of demagogues and, by extension, dictatorships.1 This was an early expression of what became better known as modernization theory, which focuses on the rise of a middle class and its role in agitating for and entrenching democracy in that respective polity.

When the Tiananmen Square protests (which were in fact countrywide protests occurring simultaneously in hundreds of cities) erupted in China in 1989, followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hopes were high that Samuel Huntington’s “third wave of democratization” could endure and advance in Asia.2 The “third wave” references the democratic transitions that occurred in at least 30 countries from 1974 to 1990. Japan provided the lead, even though the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had been in government since its founding in 1955 and did not lose power until 2009. In South Korea and Taiwan, economic reforms and growing prosperity paved the way for the rise of democracy. Thailand has stumbled in and out of democracy since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Although far from perfect, democratic processes were entrenched in Malaysia and Singapore. In Indonesia, by contrast, the transition to democracy did not begin until after the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Asia appeared to be the ideal region for the key tenets of modernization theory. The so-called East Asian model continues to do its work, and the ingredients are seemingly all there: economic reforms that create an increasingly large and more powerful entrepreneurial and property-owning class, growing prosperity leading to a rising middle class, and the emergence of educated and socially conscious elites with broad knowledge and first-hand experience of the outside world.3

Using the World Bank definition of the middle class as those with per capita incomes in real terms between $10 and $100 per person per day in 2005 purchasing power parity terms, 1.36 billion people, or 46% of the global middle class, lived in Asia in 2015. This is expected to rise to over 2.23...