Tue, Feb 18, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Asia’s lengthy dance with democracy not about West’s influence

The drama of South and East Asia’s progress toward a democratic peace and prosperity shaped by local needs and intermingled histories fits historical models

By Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Our assumptions about the relative prosperity of Asia and the West should also be reconsidered. As recently as 200 years ago, Asia accounted for 60 percent of global GDP. However, following the industrial revolution in northwestern Europe, the colonization of much of Asia and the Opium Wars in China, their relative positions switched. By the 1950s, Asia’s share of global GDP had fallen to less than 20 percent.

In his 1968 work Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, Swedish economist and Nobel Prize in Economics laureate Gunnar Myrdal considered the words “Asian” and “poor” to be synonymous. However, over the past three decades, Asian prosperity appears to be within reach once more.


It is of course impossible to say how Asia might have developed had Western imperial powers stayed away. There is no reason to suppose that the region could not have found its own path to peace, prosperity and democracy. Socially and economically, Asia now stands roughly where Europe was at the start of the 20th century; and one can only hope that its democratic journey will be shorter and less violent.

Crucially, that path has already been taken by South Korea. Despite 35 years of brutal Japanese colonization, three years of civil war, military dictatorship and a lack of natural resources, the country has emerged from extreme poverty to become — in a volatile neighborhood — a stable, prosperous and vibrant democracy. Its neighbors could surely follow in its footsteps.

Democracy is not a Western product, nor for Western citizens alone. Asia has enough historical experience to suggest that even its six remaining dictatorships could, in time, embrace a fairer system of government — and the peace and prosperity that come with it.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, Switzerland; founder of The Evian Group and a visiting professor at Hong Kong University and NIIT University in Neemrana Rajasthan.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences

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