Asia Policy Brief:
The Struggle for Democracy in Asia – Regression, Resilience, Revival
Worldwide, democracy is under pressure. The slow but steady erosion of democracy in many places in the last decade seems to be accelerating since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. Why the Asia-Pacific region is of crucial importance for the future of democracy, explains Aurel Croissant, Professor of Political Science at Heidelberg University, in our new Asia Policy Brief.
Around the world, democracies are in trouble. As political leaders seize powers to fight the Coronavirus, worries grow if they will give up accrued powers readily once the crisis eventually subsides. In addition, the uneven performance of many democracies in fighting the pandemic rekindles questions about the superiority of political systems and if authoritarian governments do a better job in handling this or other mega challenges than democratic governments.
The Asia-Pacific region is of crucial importance for the future of democracy and its global contestation with autocracy in the twenty-first century. It is home to the largest democracy (India) and the most powerful autocracy (China) on earth. It is also the world’s most populous and economically powerful region. The development of democracy in Asia will shape its global fate in the 21st century.
As Aurel Croissant points out in this Asia Policy Brief, the region is not immune to the impositions of authoritarian populism and other illiberal threats to democracy. Democracy in Asia has suffered setbacks in some places in recent years, but has shown remarkable resilience in others. Thus, the Asia-Pacific region provides both major examples of democratic regression and failure as well as inspiring stories of democratic resilience and revival.
In contrast to highly predatory autocracies in the Middle East, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, non-democracies in Asia-Pacific often achieve economically sound governance and high collective goods provision. Since the early 2000s, the People's Republic of China has become an authoritarian global player with unique “sharp power”, and analysts highlight China’s role as a global provider of innovative methods of autocratic control and repression. It comes therefore as no surprise that scholars discuss the possibility of a new Asian – essentially Chinese – alternative to both liberal capitalism and democracy. Whether democracies in the Asia-Pacific region will regress or fail is, therefore, of crucial importance for democracy’s global competition with authoritarianism in the twenty-first century.
In light of a shared concern about the revival of authoritarian challenges and the loss of U.S. leadership in advancing democracy abroad, pro-democracy actors in a number of Asian countries had already begun to cooperate before the pandemic struck the region. Governments, civil societies and democracy activists in Germany and Europe need to step in and support such efforts. With backsliding democracies in the European Union, pro-democratic political actors here should also start to learn from their like-minded peers in Asia.