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ON ASIAN DEMOCRACY
*%* ON ASIAN DEMOCRACY: Its Roots Go Back to the Ancient; %*%
%*% Its Future Could Change the Globe *%*
%*% ASIAWEEK's Twenty Anniversary ESSAY by Kim Dae Jung, a Korean %*%
%*% dissident, human rights activitist, and former president candidate %*%
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and resulting end of the
conflict between contending ideologies that began with the Communist Manifesto
of 1848, socialism as a political paradigm has been in retreat. Some conclude
with conviction that this change is the result of the victory of capitalism
over socialism. But I believe this change represents the triumph of democracy
and the defeat of dictatorship.
Democracy and the free-market economic system are two sides of a coin.
Throughout this century, however, many countries have tried to promote economic
modernization through market-based systems while rejecting political
modernization -- democracy. All such attempts have failed. Without democracy,
capitalist systems in "Prussian" Germany and Meiji Japan eventually met their
tragic ends. The many Latin American states that in recent decades embraced
"capitalism" while rejecting democracy failed miserably. On the other hand,
countries practicing "democratic" capitalism or "democratic" socialism, despite
their temporary setback, are enjoying freedom, prosperity, and social welfare.
They have succeeded because the necessary changes were put into effact based on
popular demand, and agreed upon through consensus.
In spite of such trend, there remain lingering doubt in Asia and in the
West about the applicability and future prospects of democracy in Asia. Such
doubts have been raised mainly by Asia's authoritarian leaders, who have long
maintained that "cultural" differences between Western Europe and Asia and the
lack of democratic thought in latter make the "Western concept" of democracy
and human rights inapplicable in Asia.
For examples, Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, in an
interview last year with FOREIGN AFFAIRS, admonishes the Western societies "not
to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work."
Lt.Gen. Khin Nyunt of Burmese junta also argues in an interview with TIME last
August that "the democratic system that is practiced in the West cannot be the
same as those in the East, because there are differences in customs, traditions
and ethos." Does Asia have the philosophical underpinnings of Democracy? Is it
achievable in Asia?
First of all, if democracy is such an unsutiable political system for
Asia, why is it that Japan and India have been able to practice it consistently
since the end of WWII? If democracy is really unsuitable for Asian, they will
reject it even if they are not told to do so. Why then do Asia's authoritarian
rulers have to resort to suppressing dissenting opinions and denying their
people free election? Furthermore, how can anyone explain the fact that the
National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won by landslide in the
1990 elections administered by Burma's military government?
A closer analysis makes it clear that Asian has a rich heritage of
democracy-orientated philosophies and traditions. In addition, as we examine
Asia's record of democratization and evaluate the evolution of economic
structure that Asian countries must pursue in thenext century, it becomes
obvious that democracy is not only feasible but denied to be practiced and
developed in Asia.
It is widely accepted that English philosopher John Locke laid the
foundation for modern democracy. According to Locke, sovereign rights reside
with the people and, based on a contract among the people, leaders are given
mandate to govern, which can be withdrawn for failure to provide good
government. But two mallennia prior to Locke, Chinese philosopher Meng-tzu
(mencius) had preached similar idea, According to Meng-tzu, the king is "the
son of Heaven" and heaven bestowed on its son a mandate to provide good
government. If he did not govern righteously, the peoplee have the rights to
rise up and overthrow his government in the name of heaven. Meng-tzu even
justified the removal of an unrighteous king when asked whether regicide of
tyrant was justified, he replied that once the king loses the "Mandate of
Heaven" he is no longer worthy of his subjects' loyalty. Meng-Tzu said that
the people came first, the country second and the king third. In the ancient
Chinese philosophy of "people-based politics" which is widely accepted in East
Asia, we are taught the "the will of the people is the will of heaven."
Looking westward toward India, one can also find ideas consistent with
democracy. For example, Buddha stated there is nothing nobler than self in the
whole universe, implying that each individual has certain inalienable rights.
He also said that all human beings and other creatures are equal, which was a
truely revolutionary statement considering that it came out of India with its
ironclad caste system.
A native religion in Korea, Tonghak (Eastern Studies0, went even
further to advocate that man is "heaven" and that we must "serve man as we do
heaven." This spirit of Tonghak was the source of motivation that enabled
nearly half a million peasants to rise up in 1894 against feudalistic invasions
from outside. It is clear that Asia has democratic philosophies as profound as
those in the West.
When Western societies were primitive stage ruled by succession of
feudal lords, China and Korea practiced "county/prefecture system" which have
been sustained for about two thousand years. And for nearly 1,000 years in
China and Korea, even the son of high-ranking officials were not appointed to
important official positions unless they passed civil service examination. This
practice is a sharp contrast to that of European fiefdoms, where one's pidigree
more or less determined one's officials position. Moreover, there existed in
China and Korea powerful boards of censors, who were a check against emperor's
Freedom of speech was highly valued, based on the understanding that
the fate of the nation depend on it. Many scholars and promising political
elites gave their lives to protect their rights to freedom of speech. It is
well-known that Korean scholar-stateman Yi Yul Gok, who was the most highly
respected among all scholars of the 500-year-long Yi Dynasty, said near the end
of the 14th century that the "rise or fall of a society depends on whether or
not a way is open for free speech."
In view of these facts, one could justifiably say that the fundamental
ideas and traditions necessary for democracy existed in Asia as well as in
Europe. The only difference between them is that although Asian developed these
ideas long before Europeans did, the latter were one step ahead in formalizing
these ideas into political system. The invention of democratic system including
periodic elections is Europe's greatest accomplishment. However, it is absurd
to say that "it will not work in Asia" just because this system of democracy is
developed in elsewhere. The best evidence that democracy is possible in Asia
is the fact that democracy has made the remarkable progress here despite
stubborn obstructions of authoritarian rulers. I am convinced thatby the first
quarter of next century, we will witness an era not only of economic
prosperity, but also flourishing democracy in Asia. My optimism is based on
the following two reasons.
First, Asian economies are moving from a capital-and labor-intensive
industrial phase into an information- and technology-intensive one. Many
economic era, success requires a guarantee of freedom, enabling information to
flow unimpeded and creativity to flourish unhidered. Needless to say, these
things are possible only in democratic society.
Second, we can cite in actual reality of democracy in Asia as evidence
of its ultimate success. Since the end of WWII, democracy has been
consistently practiced in Japan and India. In such countries as Korea, Burma,
Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and others,
there were time when democracy has been frustrated, or even suspended entirely.
Nevertheless, most of these countries have become democratized through
elections and popular government, proving that democracy has great resilence.
The fundamental reson for my optimisism is, therefore, this increasing
awareness of the importance of democracy and human rights among the Asians
It is well to note that European may have practiced democracy within
the political boundries of their own nation-state but outside of their realm,
they have shown an entirely different attitudes. They imposed harsh colonial
rules over native populations and exploited them without remorse. We must,
therefore, start with a rebirth of democracy so that it can promote freedom,
prosperity, and justice within each country and among the nations, including
less developed Third World countries.
We can find the base of such an idea in the ancient Asian philosophies
of Confucius, Lao-tzu and Mencius. These great thinkers revealed around the
country under feudal rule and lectured their disciples and feudal lords about
politics for the people. But they did not preach for the victory or prosperity
of any particular rulers or their feudal domains. They spoke of great peace
reigning everywhere under heaven (taiping tianxia). These philosophical
legacies of Asia can become intellectual and ideological foundation for a new
Glodal Democracy that can reach every corner and every people in the world.
However, even the democracy acceptable to all human being may not be
sufficient. Its power and benefits must reach all existing things in the world.
Today er are threatening the very survival of all creatures and things through
wholesale destruction. Accordingly, the benefits of this new democracy ought to
reach all organic and inorganic things of the universe. The teaching of Buddha
and of taiping tianxia provide the philosophic basis. The unceasing advances of
science and technology offer us the ability to provide universal peace and
prosperity for all being-- IF WE ONLY MAKE UP OUR MIND TO DO IT.