It has often been said that democracy is not endemic to Asia, or that its development is inevitably stunted by so-called “Asian values” or “Chinese characteristics.” Opponents of this view, meanwhile, argue that modernization leads to democratization as an increasing number of groups and individuals are empowered and therefore become more prone to challenge the authorities. This has led to the belief — and hope — that modernity, oft-defined as the adoption of capitalism, will transform a state from within and initiate the process of democratization.
If this were the case then China, of all countries, would be expected to be the next country on the democracy waiting list. And yet, there are hardly any signs that it is about to do that. How do we explain this?
As “most similar cases,” two Asian city-states — Singapore and Hong Kong — allow us to experiment with the impact of modernity on post-colonial regimes with a tradition of “soft authoritarianism.” By following the emergence of contention alongside rapid economic development in the city-states and how the authorities responded to that challenge, we can establish whether democratization is a teleological phenomenon — in other words, that modernity/capitalism inevitably leads to democracy — or if other preconditions are necessary for this transformation to occur.
This is what Stephan Ortmann, assistant professor of comparative politics at Fern University in Hagen, Germany, undertakes in Politics and Change in Singapore and Hong Kong. To this end, Ortmann presents a detailed analysis of the ruling elites in Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as the oppositional groups that have challenged their authority.
The author shows us that “soft authoritarian” regimes depend on performance for their legitimacy. Their ability to deliver on their promises (stability, security, economic growth), therefore, is directly related to the emergence of oppositional groups and their capacity to challenge the authorities. It quickly emerges that while the Singaporean elite has been largely successful in implementing its policies, Hong Kong authorities fared much worse. Public housing, among others, is discussed to compare the outcome of similar projects in the two city-states. Given its performance, Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) was able to cultivate the belief that the stability of the state — its very survival, in fact — depends on the party.
The fact that the PAP was a direct descendent of post-colonialism, whereas the Hong Kong authorities in the 1970s — the period of interest here — were British colonial and manned mostly by foreigners, also had an impact on perceptions of legitimacy.
Beyond this, the strategies used by the ruling elite can be simplified to two approaches: co-optation and coercion. The section of the book that explores these two is by far the most fascinating, especially when it comes to Singapore.
Co-optation was an instrument used by both one-party city-states to prevent the emergence of strong oppositional groups by bringing them into government and thereby institutionalizing the opposition. Invariably, however, oppositionists were limited in their ability to climb the hierarchy and were relegated to consultative (as opposed to partisan) bodies with very little ability to influence policymaking. What little elections were held were usually for such positions, which while not threatening the ruling elite nevertheless gave it a veneer of democracy.