Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao: Asian Politics


Alternative Political Systems in Asia?


Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao

In 2014, I published an edited book titled Democracy or Alternative Political Systems in Asia: After the Strongmen (Routledge). In that volume, different authors explored the future of the political changes after the fall of the strongmen in various countries in Asia. In Northeast Asia, we examined Taiwan, South Korea and China, while in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand were analyzed. Out of the seven cases under close investigation, three discernible typologies were discovered. These were (1) democratization with substantial political reform and consolidation, as observed in Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia; (2) democratization with limited political reform leading to weak democratic institutions and instability, like what have happened in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand; and (3) political system with sustained authoritarianism, such as in China. If I may, I could expand the above three trajectories of political development into the following more differentiated four political models practiced in today’s Asia. These are (1) consolidated democracy, the same as the above (1) typology; (2) democratic breakdown or reversal, similar to the above (2) typology; (3) non-liberal democracy in Singapore, which was not dealt with in my above book; and (4) sustained authoritarianism, exactly the same as the above typology (3), of which China is the case in point.

If we further compare this with the Freedom House Report on Freedom in the World 2016, we can easily find the consolidated democracies belonging to the category of “free countries”, while the weak, instable, reversed or non-liberal democracies are associated with the categories of either “partly free” or “not free” countries, and the sustained authoritarian states with the “not free”. To be free and democratic means the electoral democratic political system can protect political rights and safeguard civic liberties of their citizens. And that certainly fulfills the requirements of a working democracy. To me, it should be the desirable model for any decent political system in Asia. Any political systems that does not meet the above criteria can only be called partly free or not free at all; in other words, it is an inadequate or non-democratic political system. They are in no way to be praised as viable or plausible “alternative” political systems.

I have no doubt to choose and prefer a democratic and free political system as the preferred model for Asia to pursue. As we have witnessed profound political transitions in Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Mongolia, they qualify indeed to be regarded as new democracies, although they are still far from ideal. We could make the same assertion about the old democracies in Asia, such as Japan and India. It is possible to distinguish democracy from non-democracy, but it is nearly impossible to identify a perfect democracy out of the actually existing ones.

For scholars of democracy and political transformations, it is also not difficult to turn away from the anti-democratic political systems in North Korea and China. Regarding the political systems in Thailand and Malaysia that show democratic reversal and breakdown, one can only express deep disappointment and regret. Considering the long lasting dominance of oligarchic political families in the Philippines, one must question the strength of democracy in that country. The same could be said about the illiberal nature of Singapore’s electoral democracy. None of the above appears to be provide a plausible alternative political system. Finally, one may also be skeptical about the future of electoral democracy in today’s Myanmar, which appears in dim light but does allow cautious hope.

As Asian sociologists who believe in freedom, equity and democracy, we should of course be objective in observing and studying the democratic transformations around us, but we must not refrain ourselves from openly speaking out about the political systems we prefer and the future of democracy we envision.



Hsiao_Michael - portrait-cutHsin-Huang Michael Hsiao is Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute of Sociology , Academia Sinica, Professor of Sociology, National Taiwan University, and Chair Professor of Hakka Studies, National Central University. His current research areas include middle class, civil society and democracy in Asia, local environmental history and risk society in Taiwan, and comparative Hakka studies in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. His recent publications are Globalization and New Intra-Urban Dynamics in Asian Cities (co-editor, National Taiwan University Press, 2014), Democracy or Alternative Political Systems in Asia: After the Strongmen (editor, Routledge, 2014), Chinese Middle Classes: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and China ( editor, Routledge, 2015), and Policy Responses to Precarious Work in Asia (co-editor, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, 2015).



Banner Image: Taiwanese protesters against a China-Taiwan trade pact occupy the legislature, March 20, 2014 (photo from Voice of America, public domain).



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