Before transforming into the stable democracy it is today, South Korea was an authoritarian state. However, the authoritarian state distinguished itself from others of the same type in its effective mixed governance, which facilitated both sustainable economic growth and social improvement, in particular regard to remarkable poverty and inequality reduction. This paved the way for continuous economic and social achievement throughout the democratization of South Korea, and then brought the country into ranks of developed economies.
This consistent achievement both before and after democratization has been considered the South Korean miracle and attributed to Korea’s mixed governance. The style of governance was of a strong state, whether authoritarian or democratic, which coordinated with a developing network of civil society groups (albeit a controlled, apolitical, and voluntary sector during the authoritarian stage) and corporatism. “The corporatist ethos underlying South Korea’s mixed governance blurred the boundaries between the state and civil society, impelling both sides to work together,” a group of scholars wrote in 2011.
Despite being one of the reasons behind the overall South Korean success story, the mixed governance exercised by the authoritarian South Korean government may not be favorably perceived by other authoritarian governments, given its assumed association with the democratization. Hence, it may not be welcomed as good practice facilitating good economic growth and solution for many social issues. However, for the sake of political survival, maintaining economic growth, curbing corruption, and simultaneously reducing inequality and poverty have always been critical to any responsible government. Thus, the effectiveness of mixed governance consistently employed by the South Korean government in economic and social progress should be considered as a good example for authoritarian governments around the world.
Specifically, authoritarian governments would be better off employing mixed governance. In the case of South Korea, the strong authoritarian state itself was an advantage facilitating a social safety net and responsible corporatism critical to both economic growth and inequality alleviation — not to mention the restriction of epidemic corruption. Unresolved, these issues would undeniably threaten the legitimacy and even the survival of relevant regimes. In the case of Vietnam, Vietnamese Communist Party leaders have more than once emphasized the need to solve the issues for the sake of the party’s endurance.
Possible Application of South Korean Mixed Governance
Leaving aside the debate on whether an autocracy or democracy will fare better in bringing about economic growth and a reduction of poverty and inequality, South Korea’s socioeconomic achievement demonstrates the need for a strong state regardless of the institutional system. However, if only a strong state is emphasized, another part of the equation of Korean success may have been overlooked. Specifically, the state should be strong to use its hard power when needed to maintain order and rule, but it must also cooperate and engage with the market and civil society to serve the people to accomplish the above objectives. It is the flexible authoritarianism that characterized South Korea – a strong state combined with corporate responsibility and civil society, albeit controlled – which has facilitated the country’s outstanding development.
So, what can Vietnam learn from South Korea’s lessons in seeking strong economic growth while attempting to curb corruption and reduce poverty and social inequality? If achieved, these objectives will certainly reinforce both the nation and its leaders’ position.
Obviously, Vietnam is a strong authoritarian state, controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party. However, the practice of market economy concepts, including the legitimization of corporate responsibility in solving social and environmental issues and ensuring employees’ benefits, is still at an impulsive and compromising level. In addition, civil society groups are still limited, so their role in filling the gaps left by the state and markets has not been fully realized. Thus, Vietnam needs to promote the contributions of both market economics and civil societies to form a mixed governing regime comparable to the Korean experience.
The question remains, how can the Vietnamese Communist Party ensure its almighty position in maintaining a strong state while simultaneously developing responsible markets and civil societies, thus ensuring economic development and social progress?
Vietnam’s “Controlled Democratization” or “Adjusted Public Collaborative Governance”
With its politically dominant position, the Communist Party of Vietnam can fully control the process of exercising a mixed governance model. Initially, the social responsibility of the market would be institutionalized with large enterprises taking a bigger role in caring for their employees. At the same time, there would be a need to build safety nets for employees, students, the elderly, disadvantaged groups, and ethnic groups in remote areas through large-scale social insurance programs. These programs should be transparent and accountable to prevent corruption and loss that may discredit the government.
The Communist Party also needs to facilitate the participation of civil society groups and independent professional associations when people have not had sufficient information and knowledge to raise their voice. These actors can participate in discussions and debates on the policymaking process as a unique way of civil participation. Vietnam’s civil society is not as pervasive as South Korea in the authoritarian period; Vietnam needs to take advantage of the capacity and knowledge of these groups to supplement the state in selected areas. As the Korean authoritarian state did, the Vietnamese government may require such groups to be apolitical.
The areas that significantly affect the entire population, if improved, will quickly advance the welfare of the people as well as the prestige of the state. Some areas suggested to initially put mixed governance into practice might be the environment, education, healthcare, and agriculture. Once these fields have mobilized the aptitude and interest of non-political civil society groups, the government can further facilitate a broader level of civil participation to secure the foundations for sustainable development. Such an adjusted model can be seen as either a “controlled democratization” process or an “adjusted collaborative governance” with Vietnamese characteristics in which the Communist Party plays the controlling role.