Asia when a country reaches its peak

Asia is the epicentre of the entire debate around development and democracy. This essay will advocate that there is a link between development and democracy to some degree. For the last 30 years Asia has been one of the fastest growing economic regions in the world even with the absence of democratic practises, (Chan,2002). On the other hand, democracy is the system I which individuals can obtain greater human development and enjoy fundamental human rights. The pioneer of the Modernisation Theory, Walter Rostow argues that when a country reaches its peak economic development a gradual transition to a democratic political framework can follow. This is because development subsequently leads to political liberalisation, allowing for an environment where democracy and human development can flourish. (Rostow,1995) This essay will first make the distinction between what development and democracy mean, give a theoretical framework from the main aspects of the Modernisation Theory and its strong advocate Walter Rostow to make a comprehensive analysis on the course of development in South Kore and China. Secondly, it will highlight how democracy may be unnecessary for successful economic development. Consequently, using the arguments of the Modernisation theory it will portray a case on how economic development can create and environment for a democratic order, simultaneously identifying the correlation between the two ideas. Lastly, a closer look some Chinese and Korean examples will help us understand how both successful economies in the absence of democracy and their consequences on human development are intriguing. The idea of Asian values and china being a civilizational state will also be explored. Concluding with the idea that modernisation theory by Rostow shows genuine correlation between democracy and development.

Democracy is a multifaceted principle concerned with providing freedom to the individual in addition to incorporating the processes of free elections, freedom, liberty, free speech and an unrestricted distribution information. It also means holding the people who govern you to account. As a state structure democracy entails the ability to exercise your basic rights of political and civil participation; having the opportunity to voice economic and political grievances. (Hollis,1979) On the other hand, development incorporates constant change in a multi-dimensional way which includes political, social, economic, legal and institutional structures. For this essay development will be understood as two elements that being human and economic development. In terms of Human development, it refers to giving people greater choice to improve the overall quality of life and the standard of living (Mubangizi,2011). In addition to this Human development also entail having fundamental human rights, political freedoms and providing individuals with better economic and social opportunities. Economic development focuses on achieving high economic growth rates in the form of GDP and creating increased wealth for the nation as whole, so it can spend it on infrastructure, public services and create employment and opportunity to its population(Eltis,1991). Economic development does not necessarily need a democratic framework to be successful, the cases of Korea and China demonstrate this. On the other hand, for human development to flourish simultaneously with economic development then democracy would certainly be important because human development is embedded in the principles of democracy and liberty. It can be argued that human development and economic growth are intertwined because only after strong economic growth can the condition and resources be used to sustain betterment of greater human development. (Eltis,1991) Highlighting how a state is overall better developed if it encompasses both these forms of developments, it also shows how economic development provided the correct resources for human development to emerge.


Walter Rostow argues that economic development creates the necessary preconditions for democratisation process because of the transformation of the inner social and institutional structures resulting in citizens wanting democracy. (Eltis,1991) Rostow argues that this transition would be lobbied by and pushed through by the efforts of the influential middle class civil society, a product of economic growth. They can exert great pressure on undemocratic or authoritarian regimes to change the system through protestor revolution. Therefore, Rostow views democracy a logical step to economic growth, highlighting how it can create a bridge to human development. Overall, this process is known as the Modernisation theory and implies that although the transition is not a certainty, economic development can be a catalyst to bring democracy by allowing the creation of political, institutional and social changes which consequently result in human development. Showing that development must reach a point before it can be effectively utilised by democracy.(Rostow,1985)

When these principles of democracy are cemented within the state, the perks of human development can be enjoyed by the citizens alongside economic prosperity, this can be seen in the case of Korea. China on the other hand, has not yet seen a democratic transition despite rapid industrialisation and incredible economic growth of nearly an average of 10% GDP growth over the last 30 years. But China seriously lags in human development with strict censorship laws, undermining of human rights and lack of political freedoms (Mubangiz,2011) . However, this does not necessarily mean that China will never see a transition to democracy in the distant future. It can be argued that Chinas economic growth has already vaguely had some contribution to section of the Chinese population demanding greater political rights and government reform, as seen in the infamous Tiananmen square demonstrations(Haq,2000). China was once considered an exception to the Modernisation theory, however recent developments such as the Hong Kong student Protest movement are signs of social and political discontent growing and indicates that china may adopt democracy sooner rather than later as pressure mounts(Fung,2016). Therefore, it would be dismissive to assume that economic growth will not lead to democratisation of china.

A major drawback of the modernisation theory is that it is considered to wester-centric and ignores the complexities of Asian societies. The Theory is a one size fits all theory being applied to unique and complex societies. Another predominant criticism is that the theory is overly optimistic and blissfully undermines the importance of Asian Values (Haq,2000). To a large extent economic development even without democracy is highly plausible as Asian values constitute a cultural inclination to work hard, respect authority and bring honour to family and country. Therefore indicating that the pursuit of liberalisation is merely symbolic and unnecessary. Going by this argument it would suggest that china has no reason to adopt democracy and will unlikely do so. The simmering tension surrounding the social and political discontent and right to self-expression of individuals, the same way Korea experienced by transforming highlights how the theory has weight(Fung,2015) The modernisation theory does not 100% argue that economic development is a prerequisite to democratic reforms. Instead it creates the arena for debate and by making social and cultural evolution hence making the prospect of democracy greater.

To put things in a historical context Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who led china to radical economic reform in 1978, moved China towards a free market orientation and integration with the world economy. From 1979-2004 real yearly GDP nominal growth rates averaged 9.4% showing an incremental growth in the economy. (IMF,2014) The state’s primary goal was to lift its millions of citizens out of abject poverty, develop it infrastructure and provide public services. Over 300 million people were lifted out of poverty and a rising middle class was established. The once great civilizational state was back after having become the Second largest economy with a GDP of 11 trillion USD in 2013. However, internally China maintains disparity within its vast population, but it has proved to critics that regardless of its regime, it delivered on its promise of long term economic modernisation(IMF,2014). Same as China, beginning in 1961 Korea experienced high economic growth under the military government of General Park Chung. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and early 80s Korea was under military rule the regime initiated five-year plans for the local economy and subsequently nationalised the country’s financial system (Heo,2005). From the 60s Korea was ranked as one of the poorest countries with a $158 GDP per capita; by 2006 it ranked 13th in the world’s GDP ranking and per capita income rocketing to over $20,000 with a burgeoning middle class and civil society (UNSD,2010). Both countries demonstrated rapid economic success with no democracy implying that the principle of Asian values was sufficient to maintain economy performance.

 Rostow understands that high economic growth is possible under authoritarianism, but implies that it undermines the negatives of authoritarian regimes because the economic prosperity creates opportunity and little incentive to pursue democracy. (Liu,2013) Economic growth gave Korea the preconditions and stable environment for democracy with fair distribution of educational opportunities, wealth, social justice and an affluent middle class to thrive (Eltis,1995 ,p62). Rostow denies that economic development will guarantee democracy however, understands that it facilitates in changing people’s discourse towards democratic principles and therefore allows human development. The June struggle (Democracy Movement) of 1987 is a text book example of the Modernisation theory in action. Educated, middle class and young Koreans demanded elects and democratic reform. (Chan, 2009)

China sparks debate around whether economic development can circumscribe democracy. The “civilizational state” question is also relevant, according to Zang Weiwei who advocates the idea of Confucian tradition of meritocracy where a state should always strive for what’s called “shangshangce,” or “the best of the best” option by choosing leaders of the highest ability, caliber and loyalty(Zhang,2012,p32). Chinas ego will not allow it to adopt external ideological political framework. Zhang argues that these growing social-economic factors such as educational opportunities will continue to be manipulated by the regime, so democracy will also be established by the state instead of the public, ‘the masses only enter politics only when elites prepare them for their own political aspirations” (Heywood,2013,p84) It would be naïve to exclude china from the Modernisation theory. With increasing political and economic globalisation, it would be difficult for the state to supress the desire for structural change and similarly with slowing growth figures of 6.8% this would test the communist party for how long it can deal with growing discontent in its civilian population as their aspirations are changing; wanting higher living standards and ability to practise civil rights (Heywood,2013). This ever-growing people pressure for liberalisation will rise because disregarding this will cost in terms of enabling economic deficiency, hindering development and reducing public confidence. For Korea the Rostow’s theory has demonstrated clear link. China of course is larger in size and complex in approach, but signs are there for future transition little maybe but some change nonetheless.(Liu,2013)

  After the success of the 1987 uprising and the transition of the political structure being converted into a liberal presidential representative democracy. Again, the civil society and the middle classes were fundamental to achieving this system and achieved to enshrine their human rights and liberties in the constitution. Today according to amnesty International Koreans enjoy an electoral democracy, free media, educational freedoms and overall respect of right to privacy (Kooe, 2003). It also works in harmony with Asian value system. This human development would have been difficult under the previous regime indicating the importance for democracy. It vindicates the Modernisation Theory, as economic growth directly caused social change in attitudes through establishment of the middle class.

However, China hasn’t democratised and unsurprisingly has sluggish human development. The last attempt to bring fair and free elections was met with brute force, resulting in a bloodbath of the notorious Tiananmen square. Human Rights watch have condemned china for “it gross violation of human rights”, from detain political activists to students and indulging in extrajudicial killings. China ranked the 12th worst human rights abuser in 2009(HRW,2014). Tiananmen protests were spearheaded by a generally middle class, highly educated; highlighting the calls for democratisation rooting from economic growth (Langley,2000). Research indicates that currently the pressures for democracy in China is not powerful enough to change the motivation of political elites, but it is possible they may be compelled to embrace democratisation to account for political participation and providing political freedoms to reconcile growing frustrations and discontent and mass self-expression of its citizens (Preston,2005) It may be a matter of when, then if. This demonstrates development can only progress so far without democracy as here human development is massively limited.

To conclude, it would be unrealistic to assume that Rostow’s Modernisation theory is convincing enough to show a direct link between democracy and economic development. However, this essay has established how plausible the prospect economic develop and democracy is by the example Korea. For china there is reason to be optimistic because some small signs of future change are visible by the boiling over of frustration and the slowing of economic growth will pressure the state to liberalise. Aloes, economic growth has the potential to develop without democratisation and can be substituted by Asian value, further human development is practised better in a democratic regime such as Korea because they are similar in principle. The correlation is indeed true, and that democracy is advantageous for human and economic development to work in cohesion, as development without democracy can only progress to a limited extent.