From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia

Kenichi Ebisutani

The conventional golden path toward democratization is through socioeconomic development. As a society modernizes with a growing economy, the gap between the rich and the poor becomes smaller. With a moderate level of equality, citizens do not pose serious threats to the government, lowering the cost of coups that the authoritarian incumbents have in their minds. As a result, they rest assured to move onto democracy. If this modernization story is universal, we should see it in Asia, one of the puzzling regions with relatively high economic development and yet diverging regime outcomes.

The book From Development to Democracy: The Transformation of Modern Asia by Dan Slater and Joseph Wong provides an alternative explanation – namely, democratization through strength. In comparison to the economic-driven theory of democratization, they argue that the essential element of democratization is the strength of the state. To be sure, the authors treat the level of economic development as one of the conditions that is necessary, but it is not sufficient alone for the likelihood of democratization. However, with the concept of strength, the authors argue that the puzzling coexistence of high levels of economic development and non-democratization can be explained.

By strength, it essentially boils down to the extent to which actors are subject to systems. In other words, political affairs are not arbitrarily hinged on personal judgments but are subject to the system. The inner workings of the democratization deal with the authoritarian incumbent’s calculation of victory and stability confidence. With certain levels of economic development as the condition, authoritarian incumbents gain confidence in staying in power in the next election (victory confidence) as well as in social stability by reducing poverty (stability confidence). With these two confidences combined with promising geopolitical, economic, and electoral signals, they pre-emptively concede or avoid democratization.

With this inner working of the democratization, the authors argue that the interactions between the degree of development and state strength offer four different outcomes of democratization: developmental statism, developmental militarism, developmental Britannia, and developmental socialism, with each containing three cases in Asia. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are the typical cases of pre-emptive democratization with strength and high economic development. Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar are the cases with lower levels of state strength and economic development, with the last two eventually reversing to non-democracies. Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong are grouped as developmental Britannia, the case of relatively high economic development and high state strength, leading to democratic avoidance. The last group consisting of China, Vietnam, and Cambodia with the interaction between relatively lower levels of economic development and the state strength exemplifies the case of democratic avoidance. In total, the book examines the trajectories of regime change in 12 cases of East and Southeast Asian countries.

One of the contributions this book offers is its emphasis on authoritarian actors’ choice instead of liberalizing societies that desire democratization, which modernization theorists assume to be a pressing force for democratization. To be sure, liberalizing societies with economic development do pressure authoritarian leaders to consider regime change. However, their calculation of victory and stability confidence ultimately determines their choice whether to democratize or not.

Japan’s democratization is a case in point. It was conventionally thought of as an “imposed” one by the United States, with previous ruling elites not having options other than democratization. Instead, Slater and Wong argue that Japan’s democratization and its consolidation ultimately boil down to the stability and victory confidence of Japan’s conservative elites. Japan’s first democratic experiment, namely Taisho democracy (named after the Taisho emperor) in the 1920s, was initiated by conservative elites. Except for the tentative exclusion from the political arena during the wartime period, the conservative elites regained their power with the end of World War II. In this democratizing period, they succeeded in stabilizing their victory confidence in maintaining their majority in the next election as well as in stability confidence by using the intact bureaucratic bodies for rapid economic development. In fact, the authors note that the time between 1946 and 1955 was a reversible period during which the ruling conservative parties had a chance to reverse the democratization by taking advantage of their electoral majority and excluding opposition forces. Therefore, a single-sided story of the US-led democratization was not sufficient for Japan’s complete democratization.

What they argue ultimately does not contradict what modernization theorists argue, meaning that some extent of economic development does matter for the outcome of the regime change. Instead, the book adds more nuance with respect to autocrats’ perceptions and calculations. More specifically, the book argues that it is not only the pressing society that makes autocrats consider democratization; geopolitical, economic, and electoral signals also affect their confidence level of democratization. In this regard, the book succeeds in integrating, rather than contradicting, the conventional economic-driven story of democratization into their own model.

While the book is highly legible to a wide audience with historical narratives, it could have enhanced the persuasiveness of its argument by incorporating some forms of quantitative methods. Considering the fact that a large body of literature on democratization in political economy has many quantitative methods, the core readers of this literature may want to see more support from quantitative methods. Moreover, the definition of the primary concept, the “strength” of the state, could deserve more exploration. While the book offered various characteristics of state strength – such as absolute power of incumbent over the opposition, meritocratic system, and bureaucracy-oriented nature – readers might be left wondering what the strength ultimately means. There may be some risk of simplifying state strength, as the concept consists of a set of multiple features. However, providing even one chapter on how to best capture the concept could have been helpful. In other words, offering some of the approaches such as qualitative way to capture the multifaceted nature, a quantitative way to aim at clarity, or a mix of both could have been helpful not only to understand but to replicate the model in comparison to other models of democratization.

Overall, the book’s contribution on democratization through strength outweighs its methodological challenges as well as its conceptual complexities. In comparison to classic schools of modernization theories, this book should appeal to students in regime change, especially modernization theorists, political economy, and Asian politics.