Asia Program

Events

Cultural Democratization in East Asia

May 13, 2009 // 4:00pm5:15pm

Speaker: Doh C. Shin Wilson Center Fellow; Comments by Eric Bjornlund, principal, Democracy International

Within the scholarly community and policy-making circles, there is growing consensus that popular support for democracy is essential for the transformation of authoritarian political systems into fully-functioning democracies. In an Asia Program event on 13 May, Wilson Center Fellow Doh C. Shin revealed the results of the "Asian Barometer" public opinion survey that he co-founded. The Asian Barometer is designed to elicit responses on democracy in 12 East and Southeast Asian countries. How well do their mass publics in the countries surveyed understand democracy? How deep, broad, and unconditional is the commitment of those publics to democracy? Does Confucianism deter their commitment to the democratic idea? In contrast to western scholars, who are, in general, positive about the progression of nations in the region toward democracy, Shin is "pessimistic," and believes that the results of the Asia Barometer support his view.

Shin drew a number of conclusions from the survey data, the first that "a substantial minority of East Asians is yet to be fully informed about the meaning of democracy and its key elements." When asked to define democracy, a plurality (38.7 percent) of those surveyed across the region could only come up with narrow definitions of the concept. While there were outliers—South Koreans were able to give broad definitions of the term—many respondents in Malaysia (41.5 percent) and a majority in the Philippines (56.8 percent), to give two examples of supposedly democratic nations, were unable or unwilling to define "democracy" broadly.

A separate, but related conclusion was that "a majority of East Asians, unlike their peers in the west, do not understand democracy in terms of freedom and liberty." In fact, political freedom ranked very low among those polled, at 16 percent, along with economic equality, as an indicator of a democratic society. The presence of elections (32 percent) and economic security (28 percent) were far more likely to be associated with democracy in the eyes of survey respondents. The western emphasis on natural rights as inherent to democratic systems seems to be little appreciated in East Asia, where the focus is more on the trappings of democracy, rather than democratic process.

Indeed, Shin believes that most "East Asians favor democracy as a regime but prefer the non-liberal method of governance." That is, elections should occur, but excessive liberalism should not interfere with efficient government. This may be due to deep cultural patterns attributable to Confucianism: many East Asians indicate a commitment to the Confucian values of paternalism, hierarchy and respect for leaders who are, or at least appear, morally upright. Whatever the cause, a pooled average across all nations surveyed shows that 46.4 percent of respondents orient towards authoritarianism over democracy as a political process. However, Japan (17.5 percent orientation towards authoritarianism) and South Korea (25.4 percent), perhaps East Asia's "model" democracies, stand, predictably, as significant outliers.

Shin maintained that his data shows that there is currently "no single nation of authentic democrats who are fully informed about democracy and fully supportive of it" in East Asia. He admitted that his pessimistic viewpoint may partially be the result of his upbringing in South Korea under authoritarian rule, but he cautioned against those optimistic democrats in the west who see citizen support for democracy as spreading throughout the region, and indeed across the globe. In contrast, with their inability to articulate meanings for democracy that would pass muster under a test derived by liberal westerners, Shin believes that "in East Asia today, there is little evidence to support the claim that democracy is emerging as a universal value."

Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020

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