In many ways, the larger history of the 20th century could be seen as the struggle between forms of government, with liberal democracies on one side and authoritarian regimes on the other. The battles between these two sides were not always, or even often, fought in a military fashion (though a discussion about the proxy wars or the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would certainly demonstrate that militarism was a significant component of these battles); the real confrontations were largely political, ideological, and economic in nature. The Cold War was eventually won by the U.S. primarily because the engine of capitalism outran the engine of the centralized, planned economic system of the Soviet Union. But just as the Soviet Union was entering the period of decline that would precipitate its ultimate collapse, the similarly-structured government of China was embracing economic reforms that have brought significant changes and benefits to that nation. These reforms were not matched by political reform, however, and the authoritarian and centralized government of China remains largely as it was before the implementation of reforms. This paper will examine the nature of authoritarian regimes in the region of East Asia, and will discuss some of the factors that have allowed such regimes to remain extant for so long.
In his essay “The Patterns of History,” author Francis Fukuyama asserts that in order to understand the nature of both authoritarian governments and democratic governments in the nations of East Asia, it is first necessary to look to and attempt to understand the political history of China and the effect that China has had on other nations in the region. As Fukuyama1 (2012) describes it, there are several core states in East Asia; these are China, Japan, and Korea. While these states have each followed their own individual historical paths and have each developed their own unique systems of government, cultural structures, and social systems, Fukuyama asserts that at their core, the influence of China on these other states ultimately means that they are at least as similar as they are different. According to Fukuyama2 the democracies and nondemocracies in East Asia are in many ways more alike than are any two democracies in the Western world. At the core of Fukuyama’s argument is the notion that these underpinning similarities are what have allowed the nations to survive and thrive, and that these core similarities serve to bolster both the democratic system found in, say, Japan, just s much as the bolster the authoritarian and centralized government in China.
While such an assertion may seem at first glance to be counterintuitive, Fukuyama supports his thesis by exploring both the fundamental nature of liberal democracy and the historical development of China that eventually birthed its contemporary system of government. By noting the overarching influence that Chinese culture had on the entire region over centuries of development, Fukuyama is in effect arguing that both the authoritarian and democratic systems of government that have been established in various East Asian states have, in essence, been stretched to fit the framework previously established by these centuries of tradition and cultural development. In other words, both the authoritarian and the democratic governments found in East Asia are, in many ways, unique to the region and different from authoritarian and democratic governments that have developed in other parts of the world.
To bolster his case, Fukuyama begins with a discussion about the general nature of liberal democracy, noting that it has three core components: the state itself; the rule of law (which is as much a set of social structures as it is a set of legal proscriptions); and the mechanisms of accountability that give the rule of law and the power of the state their respective powers3. According to Fukuyama, the rule of law and the mechanisms of accountability serve to constrain state power; ideally, such constraints should serve to create an effective balance of power between and among these different components. A too-powerful state, in this model, is no worse (or at least not much worse) than a too-weak state. This model of liberal democracy is, of course, shunted aside in those states that function under authoritarian governments; beyond this, however, Fukuyama argues that fundamental historical and cultural differences between nations such as China and other East Asian nations and those in the other parts of the world serve to support significant differences in the ways that both democracies and authoritarian governments have manifested in East Asia.
It is here that the core of Fukuyama’s assertions about the influence of China comes into play. As he describes it, China never developed the same propensity for the rule of law that developed in the Western world4. There was no independent rule of law that developed apart from the exertions of imperial power; historically speaking, China’s legal codes were little more than “administrative enactments of the emperor”5. Concurrent with this imperial control, however, China did develop a system of bureaucratic, centralized government centuries before such systems arose in other parts of the world. Further, China’s influence on Japan, Korea, and other parts of East Asia was such that similarly-centralized systems developed in those nations as well. As such, the manner in which democracy grew and developed in the West simply could not have happened in East Asia, as the historical, cultural, social, and political frameworks that supported its growth were never present in East Asia. In essence, Fukuyama posits that authoritarian governments are as natural and unsurprising in East Asia as are democracies in the West; in that context, then, it is the manifestations of democratic governments in East Asia that are somewhat unusual.
To further elucidate and support his position, Fukuyama notes that the democratic system in, for example, Japan, is fundamentally different than democratic systems in the West. To some extent, the structure of liberal democracy was grafted onto Japan in the post-World War II era, with the U.S. military tending its growth as it took root in the middle of the 20th century6. Though the political system in Japan is now firmly in place, it still bears the marks of the centralized authoritarianism that existed in earlier times. Fukuyama7 evinces these differences by claiming that the nature of political opposition, and the mechanisms of accountability that function in Western democracies are notably absent in Japan. He points to the example of the major nuclear power-plant emergency that occurred in Japan several years ago, and notes that this event did not trigger any notable political repercussions; Japan may function under a democratic system, but there remains a skeletal authoritarianism that shapes the form and function of this democracy in very different ways from democracies in other parts of the world.
The significance and implications of the conditions and circumstances discussed by Fukuyama cannot be overestimated. In the book “Trapped Transitions,” author Minxin Pei focuses on the recent history of China, and notes that the economic reforms that have taken place in that nation over the last several decades have not spurred a concomitant political liberalization; this fact runs counter to many of the expectations and predictions of political theorists, and serves to highlight Fukuyama’s argument that any understanding of the political reality of East Asia must begin with the acknowledgement that there are fundamental differences between East Asia and other parts of the world, particularly in the West.
Pei is quick to note that the market reforms in China, uncoupled as they are from similar political reforms, have significant negative consequences. Beginning in the late 1970s China enacted a series of market-based reforms that have spurred a monumental and historically-unprecedented amount of economic growth in that nation. At the same time, however, the Chinese government made few efforts to adapt to these economic changes with similar political changes. As the economy in China has become more decentralized, many political theorists would expect to see similar decentralization of government; in the absence of such political decentralization, Pei8 argues, the resulting tensions between the economic and political frameworks in China have led to a wide range of problems. Among the most significant of these is the rampant corruption that Pei claims is infecting the Chinese government at all levels, as the government seeks to keep its grip on power while seeking to also benefit from economic reform. Pei’s arguments, while examining China through a different lens, serve to bolster the arguments made by Fukuyama: in the absence of the rule of law and the mechanisms of accountability present in other nations with market-based economies –where a move towards liberal democratization naturally flows from such economic systems- there are no mechanisms that would serve to naturally move China towards a more politically-open system.
China is not the only authoritarian state in East Asia to embrace the notion of economic reform and market-based systems. Singapore is a prime example of just such an authoritarian state that has fomented economic growth. Although it may be a bit of an oversimplification, it can be argued that while China’s economic growth happened despite the existence of its centralized, authoritarian government, Singapore’s growth happened largely because of its authoritarian government. The nation of Singapore has been a one-party state since the 1960s; although it has some of the trappings of democracy, there is no real political opposition in that nation. The government has, however, purposefully embraced the notion that a strong, authoritarian government can enact the necessary frameworks to allow economic growth to flourish9, and there is no question that economic conditions in Singapore have improved significantly in recent decades, while the sort of corruption and political decay seen in the Chinese government has not been mirrored in Singapore (at least not to the same extent as it has in China). This set of circumstances in Singapore would seem to fly in the face of political theorists who claim that political liberalization and market-based economic development are inherently linked; as such, any effort to understand the conditions in Singapore must to some extent account for the discrepancies between the prevailing political theories and the reality of Singapore’s political and economic systems.
At the other end of the economic spectrum from Singapore is the nation of North Korea. North Korea has maintained an authoritarian regime for decades, despite having undergone –and still undergoing- many of the economic conditions that political theorists would typically point to as markers for the potential development of democratization10. While the governments of China and Singapore have both managed to embrace market-based economic reforms without dismantling their authoritarian governmental systems, North Korea has not made similar economic changes. In short, many political theorists would posit that the economic conditions in North Korea being as bad as they are would lead to political collapse akin to what occurred in the Soviet Union in the 1990s11. Yet despite its ravaged economy, the North Korean government has managed to maintain a firm grip on power. If it could be argued that the decisions by China and Singapore to embrace market-based economic systems has, to some extent, served to support the continued existence of their respective authoritarian governments, what can then explain how North Korea’s lack of economic growth did not serve to undermine its government?
Author Yun-Jo Cho examines the nature of the North Korean system in an effort to find an answer to the question of how its government has managed to withstand the potential pressures of democratization. Cho12 notes that the North Korean system has long been based on a “personalized” authoritarianism wherein the leader of that nation has been accorded near-deification. This system also relies heavily on personal patronage; in short, its very nature serves to undermine the possibility of any significant political opposition13. Even as economic conditions worsen, the system of patronage serves to make those that rely on the leader –and who assist the leader with his exertion of power and state control- increasingly beholden on such patronage.
Analysis: Comparing the Nature of Authoritarianism in North Korea and Singapore
Although both North Korea and Singapore are, generally speaking, ruled by authoritarian governments, they have very different political systems. Ortman describes Singapore as a “hybrid regime”13 that has adopted the “formal institutions of democracy”14 while also regularly ignoring or “violating”15 those institutions. Singapore holds elections, for example, and in 2011 the opposition party actually won several seats in the Parliament while the ruling party only garnered 60% of the vote16. The reality is that the opposition only made small gains, while the ruling party continues to control the majority of the political process. It is possible, however, that the manner in which Singapore has embraced some elements of the free market system is having an effect on their political structures, and increasing the possibility that the nation will become increasingly democratic.
North Korea, by contrast, is one of the few nations in the region that continues to cling to what is basically and outdated and outmoded model of communist government. The centralized government controls all aspects of the economic and political structures in that nation, and has not adopted the same sort of free market economic systems that have fundamental changed nations such as China or that has allowed the nation of Singapore to flourish economically. Singapore may still be ruled by a strict, authoritarian government, but the recent wins by the political opposition indicate that there is at least a possibility that the nation will evolve into a more democratic state. No such possibility seems likely for North Korea; very little has changed there in the decades since it became a communist nation. The ruling position in that nation has been handed down from father to son, without even the pretense of a democratic system at work. If there is ever to be a change in the North Korean system, it is much more likely that it will come about as a result of economic and political collapse or revolution that through an evolutionary shift towards democracy or liberalism. While China, and to a lesser extent Sinagpore, have managed to adopt many of the structures and mechanisms of free market economies while still adhering to their existing authoritarian political systems, it is at least possible to imagine that the more open, market-based economies in those nations could, over time, push them towards democratic systems of government.
In reading Cho’s arguments about North Korea, it is easy to hear echoes of the arguments made by Fukuyama about China’s political history. The contemporary system in North Korea mirrors, at least in some ways, the ancient imperial system in China. In these frameworks, there simply is no political, governmental, or legal system that exists –or that even can exist- outside the framework established and imposed by the state leader. In this sense, the contemporary political system in North Korea is rooted in the centuries-old precedents set by China. These precedents, argues Fukuyama, also influenced and continue to influence the political growth and structures seen throughout East Asia; it is here that his claim about the similarities being greater than the differences among democracies and nondemocracies in East Asia can be evidenced. By examining the underlying historical structures of the nations of East Asia, it is possible to understand why many of the contemporary political conditions in the region so thoroughly confound political theorists. Any effort to truly understand the extant political reality of the nations of East Asia must be based not just on an understanding of political theories, but also on an understanding of the unique historical heritage that has allowed its governments to succeed in spite of those theories.
- Francis Fukuyama. “Patterns of History.” Journal of Democracy23, no. 1 (2012): 15.
- Ibid., 14
- Ibid., 15
- Ibid., 15
- Ibid., 15
- Ibid., 16
- Ibid., 17
- Minxin Pei. China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006., 5
- Marco Verweij and Riccardo Pelizzo. “Singapore: Does Authoritarianism Pay?” Journal of Democracy Volume 20, Number 2 April 200920, no. 2 (2009): 18
- Yun-Jo Chun. “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea: Insights from Democratization Theory.” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs5, no. 1 (2005): 90
- Ibid., 91
- Ibid., 92
- Stephen Ortmann. “Singapore: Authoritarian but Newly Competitive.”Journal of Democracy22, no. 4 (2011)., 154.
- Ibid., 154.
- Ibid., 154.
- Ibid., 154.
Cho, Yun-Jo. “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea: Insights from Democratization Theory.” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 5, no. 1 (2005): 90-99.
Fukuyama, Francis. “Patterns of History.” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 1 (2012): 14-26.
Ortmann, Stephen. “Singapore: Authoritarian but Newly Competitive.” Journal of Democracy22, no. 4 (2011): 153-164.
Pei, Minxin. China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Verweij, Marco, and Riccardo Pelizzo. “Singapore: Does Authoritarianism Pay?” Journal of Democracy Volume 20, Number 2 April 2009 20, no. 2 (2009): 18-31.