Economic Growth and Democratisation in North East Asia

by James Graham

Economic development is conducive to democratisation but is not sufficient for its achievement. For while economic growth provides people with the spare time and resources to partake in politics and also creates the demand for it, it does not automatically ensure democratisation takes place. North East Asia shows that political and economic elites must also support democratisation and this support depends much on its timing. Nevertheless South Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese democracy has all followed periods of strong economic growth.

The very poor simply do not possess the resources required to take part in a democracy let alone the amount required to successfully pressure a ruling regime to democratise. When your first priority is mere survival it can be difficult to find the time for much else. Spare time brings the opportunity to take part in demonstrations and other political activity or even just keeping up with the day's political events. Uneducated and illiterate peasants have throughout history been able to mobilise and form political movements to further their causes. Localised and easily isolated these movements have however almost always lacked the national scale to achieve their goals.

National movements require modern communication technologies and an educated populace both of which are products only of economic development. Education however exemplifies how loose this relationship can be. Almost all of the North East Asian nations invested heavily in both their own education systems and in sending their students to study in western countries. Yet these educated citizens concerned themselves largely with achieving economic prosperity and not with increasing their political freedoms.

Economic growth leads to a more complex and multi-connected economy. This kind of economy breaks down class barriers by necessitating a country's people to interact more often and in more diverse ways. To support and inform economic decision makers a relatively free mass media needs to develop. This mass media can just as easily spread implicit and explicit pro-democracy messages. An implicit message could simply be reporting on a foreign democratic election. Mass media were however rarely used for explicit independent political reporting preferring to restrict their independence to economic reporting. Thus an educated and linked populace does not automatically bring about democratisation but is an important precondition.

Economic development also changes the social composition of a nation, rapidly expanding the middle class. On the eve of Taiwan's democratisation its middle class had expanded to a third of the total adult population. While arguably the middle class benefits most from economic development and thus has the largest vested interest in its continuation this does not automatically translate into support for democracy. If given the choice between continued economic growth under a mild authoritarian regime and a democratic regime which could not so easily deliver continued growth most would have little hesitation in choosing the former. It is inconclusive that conditions for economic growth are more favourably under an authoritarian regime however as corruption and wasted resources can potentially be lowered by a transparent and accountable democratic regime.

Without exception economic growth has drawn the nations of North East Asia into the world economy. This has exposed them to western ideas of democracy and to western influence. As they have all pursued paths of export led industrialisation no country was in a position to ignore western sensibilities and influence. Whether this influence came in the form of economic sanctions against China after Tiananmen Square or as a condition for economic aid its effect was and is significant. South Korea and Taiwan both made the choice to democratise partly to build distinct national identities and partly to earn the sympathy and thus continuing protection of the world. This protection has been as much economic as military with both nations closely linked to the world economy. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia decreased the ideological threat South Korea and Taiwan faced and thus allowed pro-democracy forces to shape post-authoritarian politics in these nations. International factors play an important role in prodding a nation towards democratisation.

Social mobilisation theory conceptualises this process. It states that economic development increases the desire and capability of people to participate in decision making and that this facilitates a democratic transition. This process occurs because people's orientation towards political objects is changed as their interaction with the state in the economic sphere increases. Once the state is humanised and people realise its economic policy can be influenced it is a small step to believing that it can be influenced politically. Once begun democratisation tends to develop a momentum all of its own.

Economic Growth & Democratisation in N.E. Asia

Economic Growth & Democratisation in N.E. Asia (Part 2)
Economic Growth & Democratisation in N.E. Asia (Bibliography)