Jagdish Sheth, author of Chindia Rising, believes that a growing middle class such as is appearing in China almost inevitably eventually leads to political and economic reforms, with ‘democratisation of capital’ being ‘the first step towards democracy.’
‘You have to privatise wealth first, and this means that communist countries have to change their societies in order to create wealth for their people,’ he says. ‘If that isn’t done right, then any form of democracy would be unstable, and you’ll see consequences like the toppling of the incumbent government or a situation where elections are won or lost every two years.’
So, will a Chinese or Vietnamese shift to democracy look anything like the changes that took place in Eastern Europe? Michael Dembinski, head of policy at the British Polish Chamber of Commerce, says he doesn’t think so, largely because of the ‘huge cultural and historical differences between Asia and the Central and Eastern Europe.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
He argues that the close proximity of these countries to their Western models allowed countries like Poland to find and examine best practices simply by looking across their borders, and that although both Asian nations will eventually ‘dissolve into a more democratic framework,’ it could be a 100-year process.
Indeed, a number of countries appear to have continued to prosper without any particular push for democracy.
Singapore, one of the wealthiest nations per capita, has by most reckonings a partial democracy at best, with many accusing the government of exploiting the country’s strict libel and slander laws to bankrupt political opponents. As a consequence, the People’s Action Party has been in power since Singapore gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, with the government’s success remaining focused on key personalities such as Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew—the country’s first prime minister after independence—and his son Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s third premier.
But as Andrew Ellis, director for Asia and the Pacific at the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, notes, the example of Singapore is by no means the rule in Asia, with countries including South Korea and the Philippines demonstrating that growth and democracy can go hand-in-hand (although he’s careful to draw a distinction between a shift from authoritarianism and moves toward a free market economy and democracy).
So where does this leave the prospects for democracy in Asia’s two communist giants? Simply put, high income countries ‘tend to be democracies, but low income nations tend not to be,’ says Robert Wade, professor of Political Economy at the London School of Economics, who adds that when average incomes rise it means countries are better able to sustain a substantive rather than just a formal democracy.
But he cites South Korea and Taiwan as two examples that underscore the point that although economic growth is often a necessity for democracy, it isn’t always a trigger for it. As he notes, they were, after all, ‘already as rich as the southern European Mediterranean countries before they finally became real democracies in the late 1980s.’