How East Asians View Democracy

Dr. Albert Keidel, Andrew Nathan, Yun-han Chu, Larry Diamond November 14, 2008 Washington, D.C.
Despite the growing global skepticism of Western-style democracy, citizens across Asia decisively reject authoritarian alternatives such as strong-man rule or military rule.
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The past eight years have witnessed growing global skepticism of, and even hostility to, Western-style democracy.  Across Asia, large majorities countries want their countries to become more democratic in the future, but fewer believe that it is suitable today, even fewer believe that it is effective in solving societal problems, and yet fewer believe that it is the most preferable form of government. Although support for democracy and certain democratic principles is not high across Asia, citizens decisively reject authoritarian alternatives such as strong-man rule, military rule, or "experts-decide" governance.

To locate East Asian opinion within this overall trend, Carnegie hosted an event with three of the editors of a new book, How East Asians View Democracy: Yun-han Chu, distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Political Science of Academia Sinica and professor of political science at National Taiwan University; Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy; and Andrew J. Nathan, the Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.  Albert Keidel, senior associate at Carnegie, moderated the discussion.

Book Origins

The book has its origins in the work of the East Asia Barometer, which was established in 2000 as the first systematic comparative survey of attitudes toward democratization in East Asia.  The first phase of the project (2001-03) relied on thousands of face-to-face interviews to track opinion in eight countries / territories: Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines,  Mongolia, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Japan.  The first five comprise East Asia's emerging democracies.  Hong Kong's governance combines democratic and centralized elements, China's is highly authoritarian, and Japan's is fully democratic.  With the second wave of the project (2005 to the present), the East Asia Barometer became the Asian Barometer, gauging attitudes in five more countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia. 

China vs. Japan
The discussants noted sharp, and counterintuitive, differences between Chinese and Japanese attitudes.  While 94.4% of Chinese citizens agree with the statement that "Our form of government is best for us," only 24.3% of Japanese do.  Similarly, while 81.7% of Chinese are satisfied with how democracy functions in their country, only 49% of Japanese are.  The poll data also suggest that the Chinese have a much clearer conception of democracy than their Japanese counterparts: they desire a "socialistic," harmonious form of democracy, while Japanese do not seem sure what their preferences are (35.5% say that they do not know what democracy entails).  

Pan-Asian Findings
Across Asia, large majorities believe that democracy is desirable for their countries.  Fewer, however, believe that it is suitable today, even fewer believe that it is effective in solving societal problems, and yet fewer believe that it is the most preferable form of government.  Minorities in each of the Phase I countries except Thailand believe that democratization is as or more important than economic development (for example, 23.5% in Taiwan, 21.8% in the Philippines, 30.1% in South Korea, 19.6% in Hong Kong, and 40.3% in China). 

To gain a deeper understanding of East Asian attitudes, the Barometer pollsters asked for their opinions on certain principles that are widely recognized as cornerstones of democracy without explicitly using the word "democracy": political equality, the separation of powers, government accountability, political liberty, and political pluralism.  They found that while support for political equality was quite high, at an eight-country average of 73.5%, support for political pluralism was less than 40%.  Most striking, there was a decisive drop in support for the notion that "democracy can solve problems" between the first and second wave of surveying: that figure fell from 89.8% to 66.2% in Thailand and from 71.7% to 55.2% in South Korea.

Overall Assessments
Although support for democracy and certain democratic principles is not high across Asia, respondents decisively rejected authoritarian alternatives such as strong-man rule, military rule, or "experts-decide" governance.  The discussion concluded with Professor Diamond's argument that support for democracy is responsive to short-term economic performance.  He contends that the political systems of authoritarian countries such as China and Vietnam will collapse as modernization accelerates. 

Questions & Answers
One of the focal points of the discussion period was relativism.  Specifically, one attendee noted that while some of the survey data measured East Asian countries' support for "democracy," other data gauged their support for democratic principles that the respondents may well have believed to be in alignment with nondemocratic political systems.  The attendee asked, accordingly, whether the book could truly purport to understand the region's attitude towards democracy.  Other discussion topics included the "path" to sustainable democracy, assuming that one or more exists, and the importance of a given economic development trajectory's characteristics and pace in shaping it.   


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