Will These Youth Protests Spread to Asia’s Corrupted Democracies?
Image Credit: Semilla Luz

Will These Youth Protests Spread to Asia’s Corrupted Democracies?


The last few years have witnessed a wave of youth protest in developing countries, reaching even to developed states. Democracies, or regimes at least posturing nominally as democracies, have been the general target. It is unclear if these movements are cross-pollinating one another, but the similarity in both the profiles of the protestors and their grievances is suggestive. To date, Asia’s democracies have missed this wave, but it is worth noting that the protest profile could easily apply there too.

The youth riots in Brazil, Chile, the European Union, the Arab Middle East, Turkey, and even the “Occupy” movement in the West all reflect what political theory broadly calls the “legitimacy crisis” of modern democracy – the notion that participation in democratic politics does little to change the actual process of government, that elites are dug-in and immoveable, that cronyism is endemic, and so on. Young voters particularly become cynical of the formal electoral process, either dropping out in disdain, or expressing their grievances “extra-parliamentarily”, i.e., on the street. (For example, see this on Australia; or this on Brazil.) To be sure, the Arab Middle East’s pseudodemocracies are something of an exception. Protest there includes far more foundational or revolutionary grievances. But insofar the area’s “republics”, rather than monarchies, have been hit, that too is suggestive of the hopes raised by democratic forms, and then dashed in the minds of younger citizens by corruption and cronyism.

Watching all these riots – particularly listening to articulate young people in Ankara, Rio, or Cairo – raises the question if this wave might spread to Asia’s similarly corrupted democracies. Asian states, too, have well-educated youth, exposed through modern technologies to the reality of better, cleaner governance elsewhere. And many of the problems these protests are identifying exist in spades in Asia: high-handed, out-of-touch governments; election-proof pseudo-technocracies that act as unaccountable oligarchies; shallow, clique-ish political parties that provide no meaningful transmission belt of citizen preferences; massive government and business corruption; wasteful white-elephant spending to capture global “prestige” while everyday services like health care and education are underfunded; closed political opportunity structures that regularly reward insiders and large corporations with crony connections to the state; wealthy, de-linking elites with 1% lifestyles wildly at variance with the rest of the population… That is not just Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, or the EU/Brussels. That is Asia too; there is more than enough sleaze to go around. Will this spread?

Transition expert Jay Ulfelder and I had a lengthy Twitter conversation on this question in recent weeks (here & here; and here). Jay runs an excellent website on the causes and consequences of social unrest, modernization, and democratization, and participates in the path-breakingGood Judgment Project”, which seeks to answers exactly these sorts of questions. (This short essay can only scratch the surface, but interested readers can actually participate in the Project as forecasters.) Jay asked which countries might this apply to in Asia. My first thoughts were India, the Philippines, and South Korea among the democracies (given the obvious problems street protests face in non-democracies). Are those countries really governed better than Brazil? I doubt it.

India is infamous for its corruption, while simultaneously praised for its quality education. That contradictory combination practically guarantees disappointed youth lapsing into either apathy or street anger. India’s democracy is robust, but its political parties are poorly institutionalized, frequently rooted in ethnic and local affiliation, and prone to elite control – family control even, in the case of Congress. They are poor vehicles for the transmission of shifting policy preferences rather than tribal identities. And governance – the actual provision of services – in India is notorious, as the recent global attention on the poor police and state response to sexual violence has made clear. Indeed, one might argue that Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign was a local analogue to the Occupy movement in the West and precursor to the recent events in Brazil and Turkey.

John Longva
July 6, 2013 at 13:57

So true! I was surprised too, what is going on here?? Being married to a Cambodian and also providing aid to the country, my extended family and its villagers, no mention of the current situation of the upcoming Elections on the 28th of July, the Facebook wars between the corrupt Dictator Hun Sen and the disposed opposition leader Sam Rainsy. The way Foreign aid to this country is frittered away to Vietnam and Switzerland, leaving the country with poor roads and infrastructure, no health services for the majority and the income from Angkor Wat (USD$120 Million PA) being given away to Vietnam to stop them invading Cambodia!! Check out Sam rainsy's FB pages.

July 6, 2013 at 10:33

Everybody seems to overlook the U.S. who is not really a democracy. The movement of 1% has been silenced and written off, the Tea Party the other extreme is still making the government unworkable because of its association with the GOP, the gridlock in Congress and Senate with no sign of being resolved is real and a source of great frustration. The financing of political campaigns has become a game between the two political parties, the GOP demonizing the have nots and wanting everything for those who have it all. All signs that point to future unrest by the general population in particular the youth. If the U.S. does not resolve those problems, the street will try to deal with it. The U.S. has a very unhealthy left/right party system which does not represent the view of all. Change is sweeping the World and the U.S. is not immune to this change.

Michael Guy
July 4, 2013 at 04:43

Some form of feudalism is the natural state of a country or political entity in the same way as weeds are the natural state of a garden. Oligachs, plutocrats and, most damnable of them all, bureaucrats  naturally tend to usurp the liberies and freedoms of their fellow citizen , because the citizenry is more concerned ith matters of employment, business and family while those addicted to power plot to control these at ease, trusting masses.   But the worst form of a tyranny is a person or a group that actually believes they are needed.  God save us and make us diligent from those who justify their totalitarian desires with the belief that they are the necessary, enlightened and essential.

Little Helmsman
July 3, 2013 at 04:59

In order to become a modern country, a country needs to evolve its own political ststem which grows along the same rate as its economic system to address the rising grievances that dislocate certain segments of society! Taiwan and S. Korea have shown they were able to adapt their political system along with rising economic development. India and the Philippines should take lessons from Taiwan and S. Korea experience by ensuring that all voices are heard in the political system. However convoluted and disorderly a democratic system is, it has the capacity to change and evolve within time unlike an authoritarian system which only change when major crisis occur. Problems are out in the open in a democratic system while dictatorships hide those problems until the problems become unavoidable to address.

The next revolution will be in old dinosaur communist systems like China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea! These countries are more communist feudalism. Within a decade this system will unravel!

July 2, 2013 at 14:50

Couldn't have said it better.

They will be overthrown soon with Egypt still in turmoil. A new wave of change is sweeping the Middle East.

July 2, 2013 at 14:46

Not in South Korea which is a super democracy in Asian standards. People's wishes are addressed so need for Arabic Spring type never ending protests.

But India is a definite candidate. An Indian youth movement will soon turn nationalistic centred on each state. Indian states aspire nationhood. A large protest will certainly lead to individual nationalist struggles leading to the peaceful disintegration of the Union.

July 1, 2013 at 16:30

Not only Cambodia was forgotten. Not a single mention of Thailand, where all criteria mentioned in this article are strongly present. See the white mask protesters, who are mainly under 40.

July 1, 2013 at 15:11

And by the grace of God they will be. The two most dangerous blocks of countries in the world today are the Gulf countries (especially Saudi and Qatar) who are spreading Islamism around the world, and the West (especially the US, Britain and France) who are spreading Cultural Marxism around the world.

It is that marriage made in hell of Islamism and Cultural Marxism that pose the double whammy threat that we must defeat. 

Kris Armani
July 1, 2013 at 12:18

This is a vaild question. India and the Philippines are clearly on the edge of an explosive confrontation between entrenched powers clinging to feudal notions of government and an awakening educated youth that demands far greater transparency and accountability. I am not sure of South Korea. It may well share this kind of social divide with India and China, but it is missing the extreme poverty and economic marginalization of the majority common to India and the Philippines. There are other eligible Asian candidates though, such as Indonesia, Brunei, Bangladesh, Nepal and even Thailand. 

July 1, 2013 at 10:58

I enjoyed reading it but disappointed that Cambodia is not mentioned in this article.  Cambodia epitomizes corrupted democracy and has all the characteristics, challenges, and problems you mentioned in South Korea, India, the Philippines and so on. 

I hope you would consider mentioning Cambodia's corrupted regime in future article.  Thank you for your attention.

June 30, 2013 at 22:19

I doubt the Philippines would have unrest or massive protests similar to what is happening in Brazil and Turkey right now. Unrest won't happen if the government is popular and P-Noy is pretty popular. Indonesia would more likely have these protests, as well as Thailand.

June 30, 2013 at 20:20

I hope that the corrupt western backed gulf monarchies are all overthrown.

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