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 shortsighted. Although almost all Western countries are currently democracies, this has only been the case since the 1990s. 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 1960s.
Although Britain was a beacon of democracy in the 20th 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 17th 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 B.C. Buddhist Emperor Ashoka. He also contrasts the religious tolerance preached and practiced by the Muslim Emperor Akbar in the 1590s 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 percent 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 1950s, Asia’s share of global GDP had fallen to less than 20 percent.
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.
Over the past three decades, however, 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 20th 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.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is an emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of The Evian Group and a visiting professor at Hong Kong University. © 2014 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences (www.project-syndicate.org)