Challenges of Promoting Liberalism in Asia
By Dr. Ronald Meinardus'* notes for a presentation
at the Democratic Pacific Assembly, "The Common Future of
the 21st Century Pacific," Grand Hotel, Taipei, Taiwan, 19-21
The promotion of liberalism is problematic for a number of reasons
– political, economic, sociological, cultural and historical. It
becomes even more complex in an international, cross-border setting.
To begin with, the definition of “liberalism” is anything but clear.
While in Europe, the place of origin of liberal thoughts, liberalism
is associated with a set of policies that elevate the promotion
and protection of the freedom of the individual to the center of
all societal considerations, liberalism in the United States is
associated with the expansion of the welfare state and “big government”.
In economic terms, European liberals tend to be free-marketers,
whereas in the U.S., they often favour state interventions in economic
Despite this confusion over the defining elements of the liberal
ideology and its policy manifestations, we may turn to an Asian
statesman for a definition of liberalism that should be acceptable
to all sides.
In a classical manner, the former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung
stated that “democracy and the market economy are two sides of a
coin.” For me, this is the shortest (and therefore best) definition
of the concept of liberalism. In his inauguration speech in 1998,
the Korean statesman also said, “Every nation that has embraced
both democracy and a market economy has been successful.” 1
In the past decades, political liberalism (or liberal democracy)
has made great advances in all parts of the world. This general
trend clearly also applies to the Asian region, as documented inter
alia in the annual “Freedom in the World” surveys published
by the Heritage Foundation:
“In the Asia-Pacific region, only 8 states (a quarter of the region’s
total) were rated Free in 1972, while 13 were Partly Free, and 11
Not Free. Today, there are 18 Free countries (an increase of 21
percent from the region’s total 30 years ago), while the number
of Partly Free and Not Free states is 10 and 11 (a decrease of 15
and 6 percent), respectively.” 2
Interestingly, in the Heritage Foundation-survey, the Asia-Pacific
is today rated as the third most “free” region of the world after
the Americas and Western Europe, and ahead of the states of the
former Soviet Union, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East/North
With regards to the “Economic Freedom of the World”, the annual
reports of the Canadian Fraser Institute, an independent economic
research organization, has become an important point of reference.
In its most recent global survey, two East Asian economies once
more take the lead in the international ratings. They are Hong Kong
and Singapore (followed by the United States, the United Kingdom,
New Zealand, Switzerland and Ireland). The rankings of other East
Asian countries are as follows: Japan (24th), Taiwan (30th), Philippines
and South Korea (38th), Malaysia (51st), Thailand (56th), Indonesia
(77th) and China (101st). 3
From a liberal perspective, these data on the state of economic
and political freedom in the Asian region point to positive trends.
The expansion of democracy and the market economy are good news
for the peoples of the region. It is not only a liberal conviction
but also an empirical fact that economic and political liberalization
has created wealth and thus alleviated poverty. “The truth about
market liberalisation and economic growth is not that it increases
inequality, nor that it hurts the poor: just the opposite. The truth
is that some large parts of the poor world are pulling themselves
out of poverty while others are not.” 4 Importantly,
those that are pulling themselves out are following the liberal
paradigm. This is an ongoing – and highly dynamic – social process
of revolutionary dimensions, if viewed in an historical context.
Still, it would be inaccurate to describe today’s East Asian societies
as liberal paradises. In some cases, just think of Burma or North
Korea, two of the worst dictatorships in the world, not even lip-service
is being paid to democratic and/or economic freedoms. While in many
other countries in the region significant progress in a liberal
sense has been achieved, political and economic liberalization may
be called a never-ending process.
In East Asia, as in other parts of the world, several forces are
involved in the promotion of liberalism. Basically, we should differentiate
between domestic and outside forces. Domestically, the following
actors come to mind: civil society organizations and political parties,
enlightened governments and parliaments, the business community
and trade unions, the media and last but not least religious groups.
In this age of globalization, where domestic affairs are increasingly
influenced also by international factors, the outside actors have
come to play an ever greater role. Although many governments are
slow in acknowledging this reality formally, it has become a fact
of life that national sovereignty (as a concept developed in the
context of the formation of the nation state some two hundred years
ago) is increasingly being eroded. This is clearly the case with
regards to the issues of democracy and human rights which many democratic
governments have long put on their foreign policy agenda.
In a recent survey entitled “Defending Democracy: A Global Survey
of Foreign Policy Trends 1992-2002” 5 , a group of American
scholars analyses how well the governments of 40 countries from
around the world have lived up to their commitment to advance the
cause of democracy and human freedom. From the many interesting
findings in this report, I will mention only two that I find relevant
in the context of this commentary: First, the authors ascertain
“a strong direct correlation between the level of a country’s internal
democratic development and its support for democracy abroad”. Second,
they argue that the so-called established democracies do a better
job than other states of promoting and defending democracy abroad,
but nevertheless “in practice few regard democracy promotion as
in their vital national interests”.
From a liberal point of view, it is worrisome that after 9/11, security
considerations tend to trump democracy promotion concerns in the
foreign policy planning of certain governments; this has become
particularly apparent for the United States of America. Apart from
the reshaped strategic priorities of the sole superpower domestic
forces and factors in some East Asian countries hinder the promotion
of a liberal agenda in the region.
First and foremost this is the principle of non-interference in
the affairs of other countries, which is a “holy cow” for the member-states
of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The much-quoted
“ASEAN-way” has effectively prevented member governments of this
grouping to criticize the policies of other states in public. Efforts
by more “progressive” governments – namely the former government
of Thailand – to interpret the non-interference principle in a more
flexible manner (“flexible engagement”) are not acceptable to a
majority of ASEAN-governments. This conservatism explains why this
most important Asian regional grouping has yet to come up with any
democracy-promoting activity related to the area. “States that belong
to multilateral organizations that do not have pro-democracy clauses,
like the Association of South East Asian Nations or the Arab League,
are the least likely to respond to challenges to democracy abroad.”
In the stated survey, the Republic of Korea is the only Asian country
with a “good” rating regarding the promotion of democracy abroad.
This favourable ranking may be attributed mainly to the personal
initiatives of the former president Kim Dae-jung who hosted a series
of important democracy-related conferences in his country and also
played an important role in supporting independence for East Timor.
In the survey that covers 40 countries and grades their performance
regarding the promotion of democracy abroad in four categories (very
good, good, fair, poor), Korea is in the second category (together
with countries like Germany, Spain, the U.S. and the United Kingdom).
India, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand are in the third group
(“fair”) together with France, Nigeria and South Africa. And finally,
Indonesia is ranked in group 4 (“poor”) together with Jordan, Kenya
Aside from the ASEAN-principle of non-interference the weakness
of democratic institutions and lack of financial resources may also
be considered as containing factors. Last but not least, I wish
to mention the cultural factor. In some East Asian countries, influential
circles up to this very day contend that democracy and human rights
are Western concepts not suitable for the political and social orders
of this part of the world. Fortunately, the notion that Asian and
liberal values are not compatible has – for all times - been dismantled
in a convincing manner by Kim Dae-jung. In his article “Is Culture
Destiny? The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values”, he argued that
Asians have not only their own democratic traditions to be proud
of. He also refers to a set of “indigenous” Asian democratic ideals.
It is worthwhile going back to this text published at the height
of the so-called Asian Values-debate in 1994. As in other parts
of the world, it is not cultural values that stand in the way of
liberal democracy and market economy in East Asia but political
and economic interests of local elites, who are afraid of losing
their unmerited privileges if a truly liberal order sets in.
*Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the former resident representative
of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Philippines
- Presidential Inaugural Committee: The Government
of the People: Reconciliation and a New Leap Forward (Kim Dae-jung),
- Adrian Karatnycky: The 30th Anniversary Freedom
House Survey. Liberty’s Advances in a Troubled World, in: Journal
of Democracy, Volume 14, Number 1 (January 2003), p. 101.
- James Gwartney and Robert Lawson (ed): Economic
Freedom of the World. 2002 Annual Report (published in Germany
by Liberales Institut. Friedrich Naumann Foundation), Berlin 2002,
- The Economist, June 28th, 2003 „Liberty’s
Great Advance“. '
- Democracy Coalition Project: Defending Democracy:
A Global Survey of Foreign POlicy Trends 1992-2002, Washington
- Ibid, p. 12.