Monday, October 20, 2014
7

Asia’s Democratic Drama

GENEVA – Asia’s political spectrum ranges from the brutal despotism of North Korea to the enlightened constitutional monarchy of Bhutan (so enlightened that it developed Gross National Happiness as an alternative measure to Gross Domestic Product), with many shades in between. But the old charge that Asia is ill-suited for Western-style democracy is being leveled again. Are the skeptics right?

In South and East Asia, democracies outnumber dictatorships by 17 to six. But democracies are facing turbulent times. Thailand’s political impasse, amid massive anti-democracy demonstrations, has hit world headlines, and elections have also been violently contested in Bangladesh. There have been widespread human-rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Cambodians have suffered a brutal political clampdown. And political life in the world’s largest democracy, India, is raucous and unruly.

Nonetheless, the notion of democratic exclusivity is both wrong and historically short-sighted. Although almost all Western countries are currently democracies, this has only been the case since the 1990’s. Just a half-century earlier, one could count the number of Western democracies on one’s fingers. And even these were imperfect: using the most basic democratic yardstick – universal suffrage – the United States could not be seen as truly democratic until the civil-rights victories of the 1960’s.

Although Britain was a beacon of democracy in the twentieth century, it did not extend this principle to an empire that held sway over more people and territory than any previous world power. It suppressed independence movements in India and across the Middle East and Africa (though many of these movements’ members willingly fought for Britain during both World Wars).

Similarly, the Dutch did not extend their democracy to Indonesia. Nor did France support free and fair elections in Indochina or in its Middle Eastern and African colonies. The Belgians were particularly brutal in Congo. The Spanish and Portuguese ravaged Latin America. And the Germans were not much better in Southwest Africa. Indeed, two of history’s most terrifying ideologies, fascism and communism, were devised and embraced in continental Europe.

The fact that the word “democracy” derives from ancient Greek, and that one can discern the kernel of democratic thought in Greek philosophy, by no means implies that democracy is embedded in the West’s political DNA. Only after centuries of absolutist rule, extremism, war, revolution, and oppression can the West as a whole reasonably claim to be free, democratic, peaceful, and prosperous – and even now there are exceptions. It is also debatable whether this so-called Western democracy was a cause or a consequence of peace and prosperity.

The West was not always the world’s most politically advanced region. When Jesuit missionaries came to China in the seventeenth century, they enthused about how much Europeans could learn from the country’s enlightened political philosophy, Confucianism. The enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Kant did just that.

Confucian concepts such as the “mandate of heaven” seemed infinitely more just than that of Europe’s “divine right of kings.” The Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen traces the origins of Indian democratic dialogue to the third-century BC Buddhist Emperor Ashoka. He also contrasts the religious tolerance preached and practiced by the Muslim Emperor Akbar in the 1590’s with the Inquisition, which was hounding heretics in Europe at around the same time.

Our assumptions about the relative prosperity of Asia and the West should also be reconsidered. As recently as 200 years ago, Asia accounted for 60% of global GDP. However, following the industrial revolution in northwestern Europe, the colonization of much of Asia, and the Opium Wars in China, their relative positions switched. By the 1950’s, Asia’s share of global GDP had fallen to less than 20%.

In his 1968 work Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, Swedish economist and Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal considered the words “Asian” and “poor” to be synonymous. But, over the past three decades, Asian prosperity appears to be within reach once more.

It is of course impossible to say how Asia might have developed had Western imperial powers stayed away. There is no reason to suppose that the region could not have found its own path to peace, prosperity, and democracy. Socially and economically, Asia now stands roughly where Europe was at the start of the twentieth century; and one can only hope that its democratic journey will be shorter and less violent.

Crucially, that path has already been taken by South Korea. Despite 35 years of brutal Japanese colonization, three years of civil war, military dictatorship, and a lack of natural resources, the country has emerged from extreme poverty to become – in a volatile neighborhood – a stable, prosperous, and vibrant democracy. Its neighbors could surely follow in its footsteps.

Democracy is not a Western product; nor is it for Western citizens alone. Asia has enough historical experience to suggest that even its six remaining dictatorships could, in time, embrace a fairer system of government – and the peace and prosperity that come with it.

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  1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I hop prof. Lehmann will excuse this as the door of commenting to the War Drums in Asia is closed.

    Such a small country as Japan starting war with such a giant as the United States in 1941 will quite naturally give the impression that the Japanese are a formidable people.

    The truth was that that act was the fact to show that the Japanese had weaknesses. Joseph Grew said in his diary "Ten Years in Japan" that the Japanese turn round when they come up to a difficult problem instead of facing up and grappling squarely with it.

    "Japan" chose war with the United States. But Japan was different from Nazi Germany as Nazi was the only organization in Germany but Japan was the composite of many organizations and the Army was one of them. As both China and Japan failed to contain armed hostilities and as war escalted, "The military increasingly came to dominate the governmet (E. O. Reischaur, The Japanese)," for war requisitions. If the war of 1937 had not broken out, if it had not escalated into a big war, what is usually termed the 1930s' militarism would have subsided. "The Japanese experience is often compared to the fascism of interwar Europe, and certainly the resemblances are in some ways striking. But, unlike the Italian and German cases, there was no dictator and the system was not the product of a well-defined. popular movement, but more a vague change of mood, a shift in the balance of power between the elite groups in Japanese society, and a consequent shift in national policies (ibid.)" The so-called militarism did not have programs like anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, or. as is perhaps unblievable. any particular anti-Chinese sentiment, geographical and military expansionism into South East Asia for living space, or subjugating the Japanese people under one political totalitarian oraganization. Pro-Europeanism or more accurately pro-Americanism was very strong in Japanese society as I said somewhere, though of course there were many Japanese who were more traditionally minded and frowened upon American flippancy particularly in agricultural areas.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Lehmann, you question, if "Asia is ill-suited for Western-style democracy."
    Ideal democracy requires much consensus to appease everybody. This means that some of us would have to sacrifice our self-interests for the common good. It's not always easy! Western-style democracy, with all its flaws and imperfections, respects human rights, protects individual freedoms and allows grassroots movements. While Europeans inheirt their concept of democracy from ancient Greece, the Asian history and culture are more diverse and there is no Socrates or Aristotle that Asians can share together.
    Many parts of the Asian continent had - for centuries - been occupied by rivalling European colonialists, which adopted the divide and rule policy, while denying the indigenous universal rights. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, which marked the democratisation process in Europe, were absent in Asia. So, it isn't far-fetched to maintain that "Asia now stands roughly where Europe was at the start of the twentieth century".

    Empirically democracy had best been practised in sparsely populated areas, with local governance, like the Greek city-states. These characteristics still exist in the US and some parts of Europe like in Germany and Switzerland. Most Asian countries have a history of centralised governance and a culture of social hierarchies. Inspired by the French Revolution, Europeans worked hard on breaking their shakles of social stratification. Their efforts began to bear fruit at the beginning of the last century.
    Although Confucius had embraced Duke of Zhou's "mandate of heaven" some 2500 years ago, which inspired the European theory of "divine right of kings", most Chinese rulers since then had failed to rule in harmony with heaven. Since 1949 party ideology became the paragon of virtue.
    In the 21st century, more and more people mistrust their government. At the same time there is a trend of oppressing the freedoms of expression and information, even in countries regarded as democracies. So even for us, the struggle has to go on, to prevent the West from turning its clock back to the 1930s.
    "Democracy is not a Western product; nor is it for Western citizens alone". Democracy shouldn't be seen as a culture, but a political structure, which ought to be self-evident. Yet, for the majority of uns on earth, it's a long road to equality.

      Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Please read: Although Confucius had embraced Duke of Zhou's "mandate of heaven" some 2500 years ago, which served as a warning to the European theory of "divine right of kings",

  3. Commentedhari naidu

    Selective use of historical data or statistics will never remove Japanese imperialist occupation of Korea or mainland China, for that matter.

    That's why Abe is facing such an acrimonious attack in Beijing press and media - after visiting the Temple Shrine of WWII.

    Taiwan (Formosa) and South Korean modern development may be more a consequence of strategic US policy and FDI.
    Both countries are often used as models for post-war development in text books.

    The other point you raise is the history of ideas and its impact on civilization specially ancient one's like Indian subcontinent and mainland China.

    There was an ancient Chinese scholar travelling and writing about Vedanta and its intellectual impact on Chinese civilization...Buddha, he claimed, conquered mainland China without a shot fired!

    Friedrich Nietzsche, at Heidelberg, was writing about the cultural and intellectual tolerance encapsulating Vedanta (Indian) philosophy which was reason enough for Goethe and other's to visit the subcontinent to understand its influence - far away from India.

    Today Indian democracy, after British Imperialism and its Colonization, one might be allowed to argue, is not only imperfect but may be even unfit for the subcontinent....

    Gunnar Myrdal's Asian Drama (1968) was in preparation - financed by 20th Century Fund (USA) - when I arrived in Stockholm (1962) for a graduate year. I became one of his paid assistant and even had the intellectual audacity to criticize Gunnar for using secondary sources on economic developments in subcontinent....

    Democracy, per se, is not a panacea...for economic and financial modernization today - mainland China testifies it.

  4. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Despite 35 years of brutal Japanese colonization (of Korea)....

    Money came into use in Korean economy only around 1600 and transactions had been done by barter before then (J.K. Fairbank, E.O. Reischauer, and A.M. Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation.)
    Isabella Bird, an English woman traveller, said that she had not seen such a filthy capital of a nation as Seou before going to Beijing... and that Korea would not be able to modernize itself on its own without foreign aid and assistance (Korean and Her Neighbours.)
    Richard Storry said, "It (Japanese rule) conferred a great many material benefits on the country, and certainly it was more efficient and in some respects much less arbitrary and harsh than that of the former royal govenment (A History of Modern Japan.)" (He added, though, "But it was rigid, severe and unimaginative..."
    David S. Landes says, "...the best colonial master of all time has been Japan, for no ex-colonies have done so well as (South) Korea and Taiwan...The world belongs to those with a clear conscience, something Japan has had in near-unanimous abundance (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.)"
    Bruce Cumings compared the British rule in India with the Japanese rule and said that the latter stood in sharp contrast with the former because Indian economy retrogressed from industry to agriculture (The Legacy of Japanese Colonization in Korea.)
    Korea registered the annual growth rate of close to 4 % on the average during the 35 years. No country showed such a remarkable rate during the same period.
    The mileage of railways constructed, the number of railway passengers. the number of elementary school built, the number of children who attended and graduated, the literacy rate, the production of rice, etc. grew enormously. The Korean population
    was 13.2 million in 1910 and 25.5 million in 1942. Seou Imperial University was establlished in 1924 while young people in other parts of Asia and Afirica had to go to Great Britain, France or America for advanced education.

    The opinions such as those are echoed by South Korean academics like Kim Wansop, Oh Seonhwa and 催基鎬.
    Oh Seonhwa is a naturalized Japanese citizen now. Last year she wanted tp go back to South Korea to attend the funeral of her relative but the South Korean authorities refused her entry on the ground that she was anti-South Korea.
    A thirteen-year-old South Korean boy said on the Internet about two years ago that South Korea was wrong and that Japan was right. He was arrested by the police.
    A few months ago a South Koren old man in his nineties happend to be drinking with a young man in his thirties at a street stall. Asked of his opinion, the old man said that the years of Japanese rule were lenient and not bad. He was beaten to death by the young man.

      CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      Correction: The old man was ninety-five and the young man was thirty-eight. The former was beaten and died in a park of Seol City lat may.
      Oh Seonhwa was denied entry at a South Korean airport.

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