Review– Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia

Title: Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia
Author: Mark Thompson  
Publisher: Palgrave Pivot; 1st ed. 2019 edition (December 29, 2018)
130 pages

Over the past decade, democracy has regressed in much of Asia, though there are notable exceptions including Malaysia and Taiwan. Southeast Asia has witnessed a reversal in Thailand, weakening institutions and norms in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and India, backsliding in Cambodia and even to some extent Indonesia, and sustained authoritarian rule in Laos and Vietnam, among other examples. Most notably, despite decades of predictions that China would, as it grew wealthier and more modern, undergo the type of political liberalization that had occurred in Taiwan and South Korea, China actually, in many ways, is more politically repressive today than it was in the early period of its reform era. The space  in China today for political discussion has shrunk, even mildly reformist voices within the Party have been ostracized or essentially purged, the Internet and social media are far more controlled than they were in China even five years ago, and the government is rolling out some of the most Big Brotheresque surveillance technology of any state on earth.

Indeed, there are few signs that the Communist Party is seriously threatened, President Xi Jinping has effectively abolished term limits, and the regime appears to enjoy a high degree of popularity and legitimacy, although it is of course hard to measures these factors in a highly authoritarian state. Still, as Wenfang Tang noted last year in American Affairs, public opinion survey research in China suggests that people in China have a relatively high degree of trust in the central government, and a relatively high degree of trust in government institutions, especially as compared to citizens of many leading democracies. The Party has no obvious challengers and none of the clear types of fissures that existed in the 1970s and 1980s; Xi has built a powerful cult of personality around himself. What’s more, under Xi China increasingly posits itself as a model of development.

Foreign leaders, analysts, and policy-makers, in countries and regions from the United States to Japan to Australia to Europe had, until recently, confidently touted that China’s modernism would ultimately produce political change – the “soothing scenario” that economic development will lead to Chinese political opening coined and mocked by longtime China skeptic James Mann. Now, those foreign observers’ views are beginning to change, as they rethink their once supreme confidence that there was an end point to authoritarian modernism in China. This foreign disillusionment with the direction of politics in China – and to some extent anger at having been wrong about China for so long – has combined with other, major fractures between China and leading democracies: Concerns about trade, intellectual property, foreign influence strategies, and other challenges. Together, all these problems are creating the tensest period in U.S.-China relations in decades, and souring Beijing’s relations with many other leading powers as well.

In his concise but well-argued new book, Mark Thompson, Head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and Director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong, notes that China could clearly challenge the notion that modernism must necessarily, eventually, lead to political liberalization. China could indeed further modernize without democratizing. Thompson places China’s four-decade trajectory in the context of authoritarian modernization in East Asia (and to some extent other areas like Europe), where many states, at least initially, modernized their economies and societies without real political reform. He examines the links between China’s strategies and those of Singapore, the clearest model for what China has achieved – albeit one that can only explain so much about China’s development – and he cogently assesses how the Communist Party stays in power, and well could stay in power for many decades to come, diverging from the paths of other Asian modernizers, and even from Singapore.

As Thompson correctly notes, authoritarian modernism has a long history in Asia, the region where this type of development has been most prevalent, at least since Germany modernized while remaining authoritarian in the late 1800s. Meiji Japan achieved dramatic modernization within an authoritarian system. Later, during the Cold War, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and to some extent Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia also achieved relatively high levels of modernization in autocratic systems as well. In most of these countries, as Thompson notes, leaders embraced aspects of economic reform and modernism, while trying to maintain conservative cultural norms and centralized, authoritarian political forms.

Singapore, which for decades now has hosted Chinese officials, academics, and other opinion leaders to study the Singapore model – and which was specifically cited by Deng Xiaoping as a model for China’s development – has been enormously successfully in this form of modernization. Beyond Deng, as Thompson notes, many top CCP cadres echoed the idea that China should study Singapore and eventually use Singaporean methods to surpass the staggering success of the city-state; leading Chinese publications also have caught this fever for the Singapore model. As Thompson notes, that model, at least to Chinese leaders, has centered on the fact that Singapore’s People’s Action Party has managed to remain in power since Singapore was founded, while overseeing dramatic development, creating development without democracy; however, as Thompson notes, Chinese leaders have in some ways misidentified the Singapore model. Chinese leaders look to Singapore to show that Beijing, too, can remain in power indefinitely while managing strong economic growth and modernism, but mostly overlook the fact that Singapore’s success long has been predicated on an excellent rule of law and a tough battle against graft, two areas where China scores poorly. And, in recent years, even Singapore’s society and politics have shifted dramatically from the way they were during the Cold War. The country is not yet a full democracy, but there are contested elections, albeit ones in which tools of the state are deployed against opposition parties. Meanwhile, in Singapore the Internet and social media have fostered more significant debate about politics and society, culturally conservative norms have increasingly been eroded, and it is not implausible to think that PAP rule will eventually face a real, organized and effective opposition.

Indeed, Singapore is not exactly the perfect model of authoritarian modernism that China would like to portray it as. And most of the East Asia authoritarian modernizers have eventually made the transition to democracy – albeit in some cases, like Thailand, democracy has faltered. South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, and Thailand eventually developed sizable and educated middle classes that demanded a stronger rule of law, built more powerful civil societies, and saw those civil societies help bring down autocrats. In some of those cases, as Thompson notes, authoritarian rule collapsed occurred as autocracies became uberkleptocracies, and/or suffered legitimacy crises due to the changing international environment, or due to external economic shocks like the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

Now, though, some of those countries remain weak democracies (Thailand’s democracy has failed entirely) – democracies challenged by high inequality, persistent levels of graft and political patronage, and growing sectarianism, among other problems.  Popular frustration, in East Asia, with democratic politicians’ lack of leadership, and inability to address these deep challenges, has allowed illiberal populists like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and, before him, Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, to come to power; in the future, dissatisfaction with East Asian democracies could, one might imagine, result in illiberal but elected populist governments in Indonesia, Myanmar, and other states. And, dissatisfaction with democracy, at least in some East Asian states, now is part of a clear global trend – one in which politically liberalized, modern states seem plagued by gridlock, weak leadership, and an overall inability to address the most consequential policy challenges of the current era.  Research published in 2017 in the Journal of Democracy, by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, for instance, suggests that young people, across a range of countries, are becoming more amenable to strongman rule, and view democracy less favorably. This growing distrust of democracy, surely, is a major reason why illiberal leaders have come to power not only in the Philippines and Thailand but also in places as varied as Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, and, to some extent, the United States.

In an era in which democracies often seem, at least to some members of their publics, ineffective, gridlocked, and unresponsive, the potential appeal, at least theoretically, of other models of development, is obvious. Illiberal but elected strongmen have won power in many states. But China poses the most obvious alternative model of modernism, and President Xi Jinping, at speeches like his major address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, touts an authoritarian capitalism that other developing states could emulate. Before Xi’s rule, Chinese leaders were reticent to suggest that Beijing could serve as any kind of model or other countries. Now, Xi and other leaders have embraced the idea – and created tools for potentially teaching China’s model, including training programs for foreign opinion leaders, a modernized and expanded state media, an expansive global cultural diplomacy strategy, and massive aid and lending programs, among other efforts.

Perhaps, in this era of global democratic distrust for democracy, dysfunction in democratic systems, and China’s unique advantages as an authoritarian regime – a country so large that foreign investors will likely continue pouring in money no matter the nature of the regime, for instance – China could be the ultimate counterexample to the idea that modernism eventually fosters an end to authoritarianism. Whether Beijing’s model has significant appeal remains uncertain. A handful of states, like Vietnam, have copied elements of the China model as they have charted their own courses of development. Aspects of China’s authoritarian modernism, like its version of a closed and sovereign Internet, appear to be gaining popularity with autocratic regimes in other parts of the world. But the overall appeal of China’s model ultimately will be linked to whether Beijing can maintain authoritarian rule, for an extensive period of time, even as its people become richer.

As Thompson notes, the Chinese regime could survive – and it could prove an enduring model for other states. So far, Beijing has bolstered its legitimacy through strong and consistent economic growth – one major reason behind the “authoritarian resilience” and high degree of public support for Beijing that Wenfang Tang, among others, has noted. It also secures its legitimacy by fostering nationalism and promoting reactionary, conservative cultural strands that encourage popular support for the regime. Nationalism is encouraged through educational curricula, through Party campaigns, through clear appeals to China’s history including its period of humiliation by outside powers – and by an expansive strategy of claiming disputed territories, particularly in Southeast Asia. In some ways, this use of militarized nationalism as a source of authoritarian resilience is more reminiscent, Thompson notes, of authoritarian modernism in Prussia/Germany in the 19th century than the other Asian authoritarian modernizers of the post-Cold War era.  China also has not faced, at least since 1989, the kind of legitimacy crises that doomed many of the other Asian authoritarian modernizers. As Thompson notes, the Communist Party also proven extremely effective in co-opting and repressing civil society — more effective in co-opting civil society, which had flourished in the earlier part of the reform era, than authoritarian modernizing predecessors like the regimes in South Korea or Taiwan or the Philippines.

Can China succeed in sustaining authoritarian modernism? It is certainly the most powerful, and potentially capable authoritarian capitalist challenger in decades. Beijing’s co-option of civil society and use of cultural conservatism and nationalism, and the apparent quiescence of the Chinese middle class suggest that Beijing may be successful.

Yet the leadership in Beijing still faces real obstacles. A slowing economy (albeit one still outperforming many other developing states), an aging workforce and higher labor costs, the challenge of balancing increasing economic centralism with the fact that China’s private sector has been the most dynamic part of its economy, the continuing challenges of graft despite Xi Jinping’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign, a looming 21st century cold war between Beijing and Washington – all of these obstacles could ultimately impact China’s stability, or create an eventual legitimacy crisis.  And some of the methods Beijing is using to perpetuate its brand of authoritarian modernism cites could backfire. To take but one example Thompson cites, the growing use of expansive territorial claims, which helps foster nationalism within China, is potentially alienating China’s neighbors, leaving it more isolated – and creating more challenges for Beijing. Xi Jinping’s growing dominance of power, Thompson notes, could further undermine an important factor that has helped China remain authoritarian while modernizing – the succession plans, or informal term limits, that the Chinese regime used in the past to achieve elite consensus and create clear political successions. Indeed, the increasing centralization of power in Xi’s hands, while seemingly strengthening the Party’s grip, could actually damage its brand of authoritarian modernism.

Reviewed by Joshua Kurlantzick
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is the author, most recently, of A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA