Remarks by Carl Gershman on Promoting Democratic Cooperation in Asia

Seoul Forum of the Asia Democracy Research Network

I want to thank Sook Jong Lee, the East Asia Institute, and the Asia Democracy Research Network for organizing this timely discussion about how to strengthen democratic cooperation in Asia.  

As we all know very well, there is great concern throughout the world today about the state of democracy.  This concern contrasts sharply with the optimism that prevailed in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War and the third wave of democratization.  Democratic expansion has been succeeded by what is commonly called a democratic “recession,” and there is even talk of democratic erosion and “deconsolidation” in the advanced democracies of the West. 

Last May, at a global meeting of public intellectuals in Prague, an “Appeal for Democratic Renewal” (The Prague Appeal) was adopted that opened with the declaration that “Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defense.”

According to The Prague Appeal, the threats to democracy are both external and internal.  Democracy is being threatened from without “by despotic regimes in Russia, China, and other countries that are tightening repression internally and expanding their power globally, filling vacuums left by the fading power, influence, and self-confidence of the long-established democracies.”

It is also being threatened from within by the authoritarian backsliding of once-democratic countries like the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela; and by a wave of illiberal populism in the established democracies of the West, where political polarization and dysfunctional government have fueled a backlash against political elites and the rise of anti-system movements and parties. 

According to the latest Freedom House survey, political rights and civil liberties have declined globally for eleven consecutive years, and established democracies dominate the list of countries that suffered setbacks in freedom in 2016.

Asia has not been unaffected by the democratic recession.  Democracy has retreated in a number of emerging Asian democracies, including the Philippines, where an illiberal president threatens the rule of law; Thailand, where a military junta has cemented its control; and Bangladesh, where a single party holds authoritarian power while extremists kill bloggers and other independent voices.  On the security front, North Korea poses an increasingly dangerous nuclear threat, while China continues to flex its muscles against its neighbors, first in the East and South China Seas and now, as we speak, by militarily occupying and building a road in Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau on the border with India, a move that threatens both Bhutan and India.

While these developments are worrying, the trends in Asia are actually more encouraging than in other regions.  According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, since it began producing its Democracy Index in 2006, Asia has made more headway in advancing democracy than any other region. And in an article published in 2012 entitled “The Coming Wave” (the Journal of Democracy, Volume 23, Number 1), Larry Diamond asserted that East Asia is the region that has the best prospects for democratic expansion in the period ahead, a development that he said could have “profound consequences for democratic prospects globally.

The progress of democracy in Asia has not been limited to democratic expansion and the consolidation of democracy in South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Mongolia, and other countries.  According to a recent article by Charles Welzel and Russell Dalton in the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, growing social and political modernization in Asia has brought about a shift toward “a more assertive model of citizenship,” which has had the effect of producing “more effective and accountable governments.”  There isn’t better or more important example of the consequences of this shift than the political change that assertive citizens have brought about in this country over the past year.

The democratic progress in Asia is a vindication of Kim Dae-jung’s defense of the compatibility of democracy and Asian culture that he mounted in his debate with Lee Kuan Yew two decades ago.  Lee had argued that “Asian values” were incompatible with democracy, which he said was a Western idea with no indigenous roots in Asia. 

Kim advanced a number of fundamental counter-arguments, drawing upon the views of the Meng-tzu, the most famous Confucian philosopher after Confucius himself, who said more than two millennia before John Locke that “the will of the people is the will of heaven,” and that the ruler had an obligation to provide good and accountable governance.  Kim also said that democracy would spread in Asia, and out-perform dictatorships economically, because its policies were arrived at through public debate and therefore had “the strength of Asia’s proud and self-reliant people.”

Kim said that the fundamental reason for his optimism about the prospect for democracy in Asia was “the increasing awareness of the importance of democracy and human rights among Asian themselves.”  Nothing demonstrates more powerfully the depth of this commitment to democratic values than the life and courageous struggle of Liu Xiaobo, the dissident Chinese intellectual who was the most eloquent and insightful voice for democracy anywhere in the world since the beginning of this new millennium.

It’s still less than a month since Liu died a martyr’s death in China, so I want to pause for a moment to reflect upon his life and legacy.

Liu was hopeful about the prospect for democracy in China because he saw the economic, ideological, and political pillars of Chinese totalitarianism eroding under the impact of modernization and technological change.  He was arrested in 2008 for being the lead author and organizer of Charter 08, a manifesto for democracy and constitutional government that was signed at great personal risk by more than 10,000 Chinese citizens.  His imprisonment only increased his stature and international fame, and in 2010 Liu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

At the Nobel ceremony, which neither Liu nor his wife, Liu Xia, was permitted to attend, the Swedish actress Liv Ullmann read Liu’s closing statement at his trial in which he said that “China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”  In that statement, Liu also called for an end to “the enemy mentality of the regime” that “poisons” the spirit of the nation, “incite[s] cruel mortal struggles,” destroys the society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinders the  country’s progress toward freedom and democracy. 

Liu had continuously called for an end to hatred and “class-struggle thinking,” most notably in “The June 2nd Hunger Strike Declaration” that he authored in Tiananmen Square, less than two days before the regime crushed the nonviolent uprising with massive force. 

He said that he wanted to “dispel hatred with love.”  But he was far from a naïve or quixotic idealist.  He saw a terrible danger coming for both China and the world if China continued to rise as a dictatorship.  He worried that “The great powers in human history that rose as dictatorships – …Hitler’s Germany, the Meiji Emperor’s Japan, and Stalin’s Soviet Union – all eventually collapsed, and in doing so brought disaster to human civilization.”   And he warned that “if the Communists succeed in…leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.”

We’re at a very dangerous moment today, with China’s rise as a dictatorship coinciding with the crisis of democracy in the West that has caused new uncertainties in international relations.  But as countries in the region make their adjustments to the new geopolitical realities, democratic values are becoming integral to strategies for shaping the region’s political trajectory.  The Asia analyst Michael Green has written, for example, that Japan and China are “engaged in an ideational competition to define the content of East Asian integration. Where China is pushing a broad agenda premised on the principle of noninterference in internal affairs, Japan has begun pushing for a ‘principled’ multilateralism based on the advancement of democracy, rule of law, and good governance.”

Japanese officials continue to press this line and to call for the defense of the “liberal world order” at a time when that term that has gone out of fashion in the West because it seems to suggest support for elitist global institutions.  The fact that Japan has raised its voice on this issue is important, and I regret that NED and other democracy organizations have had difficulty engaging Japanese counterparts in the World Movement for Democracy and in other global and regional democracy networks.  There may be an opportunity now to change that, and I think we should look for ways to take advantage of it.

While Japan and other democratic Asian countries face grave democracy and security challenges, they do not seem to be gripped by the crisis of confidence that today affects many transatlantic countries.  There is a more positive and hopeful spirit in Asia about the importance of defending democratic values, perhaps because democracy has come more recently to this region than to the West and is not taken for granted as much, or cynically dismissed as a failure when it runs up against inevitable roadblocks and political divisions.

Whatever the reason for the different attitude in Asia, I think that Asian democrats have an important contribution to make to the renewal of global democracy.  If this conference can succeed in developing new ideas for strengthening democratic solidarity and cooperation among legislators, journalists, policy specialists, democracy activists, and government officials, it could help chart a course that counterparts in other regions can follow – and also inspire them to do so.

The Prague Appeal called for the creation of a new Coalition for Democratic Renewal that will be a moral and intellectual catalyst for the revitalization of the democratic idea, as well as a forum to share thinking about ways to address the complex challenges facing democracy in an era of globalization, authoritarian resurgence, and revolutionary technological change.  I hope there will be a strong Asian voice in that Coalition, and also at the next Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, which will meet in Dakar, Senegal, in May of next year.

In the past, leadership and solidarity in the struggle for democracy came from the transatlantic heartland of global democracy.  It is my hope that the present crisis will awaken enough people in the West to the crisis of democracy to spark a revival of democratic conviction and solidarity. 

For now, though, Asian democrats must help fill the vacuum.  The democratic struggles that have been waged in this region over the past decades, and the enormous progress that has been made in so many countries in promoting the rule of law and accountable and effective governance, have laid the foundation for Asians to play a greater role in defending democracy.  At a very troubled moment in world history, the prospect for a better and more democratic future depends in a no small measure on whether Asian democrats can rise to this challenge.