In The News

Springtimes of Political Reform: Looking to East Asia for Clues to Democratic Consolidation

May 4, 2011

Journalist David Ignatius recently wrote on Foreign Policy‘s website that the “Arab Spring” may be part of a “global political awakening,” a concept he borrows from former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Egypt protests

Protesters in Egypt hold up home-made signs at protest rallies. Photo by Essam Sharaf.

If this is so, there are bound to be reverberations in Asia, but thus far, the biggest signs of this have been a political crackdown on dissent in China and evidence that North Korea is digging in its heels to resist steps toward denuclearization such as those that Libya took in 2003. The evidence of the impact of the Arab Spring on East Asia to date has come primarily in the form of backlash rather than contagion.

For every Twitter feed and Facebook post that might have worked in Egypt, there is a Chinese wall denying access to the Twitterverse in China. Chinese leaders seem to be well-versed at fending off color revolutions, be they orange revolutions from the Ukraine or jasmine revolutions from Egypt. North Korea’s nascent mobile phone network has created a symbol of a new elite, as cell phone ownership in North Korea had reportedly expanded to almost 400,000 by the end of 2010, a four-fold increase in just one year. But even if North Korean customers know that their new mobile phone service has been provided since 2008 by the Egyptian firm Orascom, they appear to have kept any perceived irony to themselves. Chinese and North Korean leaders are clearly awake to the potentially subversive properties of technology. This does not mean that the firewall is necessarily working, but technology alone is only a single ingredient in the recipe for political change; other factors within these societies must also come into play to create conditions for any transition to a new political system in these countries. Chinese leaders are clearly aware of the stakes involved, while North Korean leaders may indeed take cues from the Libyan model by using all means available to suppress dissent if it materializes.

Of course, East Asia has had prior experiences with the springtime of political reform – a generation ago in South Korea and the Philippines in 1986 and in Indonesia in 1998. The experiences of that generation with democratic consolidation may be more relevant to developments in the Middle East than the further spread of revolution. South Korean and Indonesian democracy activists have matured through the raucous and messy experience of democratic consolidation. These mature idealists have much vital experience to offer to their Middle Eastern counterparts who now uphold the banner of democratic freedom, but still must find ways to channel hopes for political reform into effective action and to practically implement reform agendas in ways that meet the needs of their own societies. The task of democratic consolidation is a tricky one, but one that can be nurtured if newly successful Middle Eastern democracy activists can translate the right lessons from the experiences of their Asian predecessors.

Scott Snyder directs The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. He can be reached at ssnyder@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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