Do Asia’s autocrats outperform democrats?


While authoritarian regimes can show brief flashes of brilliance (remember Sputnik), they’ve proven again and again incapable of sustaining the creativity and innovation necessary for long-term economic success, analyst Michael Schuman observes. Yet history in Asia is more complicated than that. The uncomfortable truth is that most of the region’s economic miracles were nurtured by authoritarian regimes — either outright dictatorships (South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia) or regimes with autocratic tendencies (Singapore, Malaysia). That roster, of course, includes China, he writes for Bloomberg:

The problem with autocrats, though, is that they become the sole decision-makers regarding policy of all sorts. So if they listen to the wrong people, things can go badly awry. The professionals in Asia were usually in competition with other factions close to the top leader, often cronies, for control of economic policy. Suharto eventually marginalized the Berkeley men in favour of a coterie of corrupt tycoons and nationalists, led by B.J. Habibie, who filled Suharto’s head with visions of Indonesian grandeur. The country has still not fully recovered.

ASEAN autocrats also use ‘legal reform’ to undermine democracy. Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines show that constitutional reform remains a favorite tool of the region’s power-hungry leaders, observer Mong Palatino writes for The Diplomat.

Imperfect democracy is the least bad option in Indonesia, where rising Islamic extremism and what a National Endowment for Democracy report calls Chinese ‘sharp power’ cloud the pre-election agenda, reports suggest.

Right-wing politics in Indonesia is frequently associated with Islamic populist ideas, says analyst Vedi R. Hadiz of the University of Melbourne’s Asia. Indonesian Islamic populism shares with many of its counterparts a disdain for Leftist challenges to private property and capital accumulation besides political liberalism’s affinity to the secular national state, he writes in “Imagine All the People? Mobilising Islamic Populism for Right-Wing Politics in Indonesia”:

Yet strands of Islamic populism have relegated the project of establishing a state based on sharia to the background and embraced the democratic process. But this has not translated necessarily into social pluralist positions on a range of issues because the reinforcement of cultural idioms associated with Islam is required for the mobilisation of public support in contests over power and resources based on an ummah-based political identity.

The Dynamics of Democracy in Asia: Past, Present, and Future Perspectives

Following the conclusion of World War II, democratic institutions proliferated across Asia, particularly in East Asia. This political trend contributed to economic prosperity, rule of law, and the expansion of human rights in Asia, the Hudson Institute notes. Today, however, the future of democracy in the region is being threatened, particularly in Myanmar, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, other countries, such as mainland China and North Korea, continue to resist the international trend toward increasing democratization, and have instead turned toward more rigid authoritarianism.

On Thursday, March 15, the Hudson Institute will host a series of scholars and expert speakers who will address the past, present, and future of democracy in Asia.

Thursday, March 15, 2018 from 9:30 AM to 2:50 PM RSVP

Print Friendly, PDF & Email