Over the past decade, democracy has regressed in much of Asia, though there are notable exceptions including Malaysia and Taiwan. Southeast Asia has witnessed a reversal in Thailand, weakening institutions and norms in Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines, backsliding in Cambodia and even to some extent Indonesia, and sustained authoritarian rule in Laos and Vietnam, among other examples. Most notably, despite decades of predictions that China would, as it grew wealthier and more modern, undergo the type of political liberalization that had occurred in South Korea and Taiwan, China actually, in many ways, is more politically repressive today than it was in the early period of its reform era. The space in China today for political discussion has shrunk, even mildly reformist voices within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been ostracized or essentially purged, the internet and social media are far more controlled than they were in China even five years ago, and the government is rolling out some of the most Big Brotheresque surveillance technology of any state on earth.
In his concise but well-argued new book, Mark Thompson, head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong, notes that China could clearly challenge the notion that modernism must necessarily, eventually, lead to political liberalization. China could indeed further modernize without democratizing. Thompson places China’s four-decade trajectory in the context of authoritarian modernization in East Asia (and to some extent other areas like Europe), where many states, at least initially, modernized their economies and societies without real political reform. He examines the links between China’s strategies and those of Singapore, the clearest model for what China has achieved—albeit one that can only explain so much about China’s development—and he cogently assesses how the Communist Party stays in power, and well could stay in power for many decades to come, diverging from the paths of other Asian modernizers, and even from Singapore. My full review of Thompson’s timely new book can be read in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia.