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New Authoritarianism in Asia

FES-APISA-Ewha Conference

LG-Hall Ewha Womans University, Seoul

3 - 5 March 2016


The Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA) and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung decided to host an international conference on the rise of new authoritarianism in Asia.






This workshop frames these challenges based on the prevalent threats they pose to good governance throughout the region, in all countries regardless of formal government type. Country, or more accurately polity case studies are grouped, therefore, according to different conceptual themes, rather than in accordance to the democratic/non-democratic dichotomy, or sub-regional geographic categorization more commonly used. The broad theoretical categories are neo-monarchism, democratic roll-back, national project prioritization, and political culture. Each case study could in fact face two or more of these sets of challenges, but they have been categorized according to which concept best encapsulates the type of authoritarianism rising to prominence in the polity.


Neo-monarchism refers to two growing authoritarian challenges to governance in Asia which are redolent of monarchic or autocratic feudal systems of government. These are first, inherited reservoirs of power and authority which distort democratic governance structures, and facilitate elite capture of the commanding heights of government, the economy, and society; and second, the further concentration of power in the hands of a central political figure. No matter how enlightened an elite is placed over the common people, it is unlikely that they will give equal consideration to interests that they do not share and which are not represented among their number. This may not necessarily be as a result of any callous disregard, but merely due to the pressure of time and the complexities of government. Thus in order for the wishes of all to be represented, the people must rule and exercise power. The more power is concentrated in the hands of the elite, and the smaller the number of the enabled elite, the greater the authoritarian challenge posed by neo-monarchism.


Democratic roll-back is a problem for all those states in the region, whether or not they are generally considered consolidated. Indeed, as mentioned above, the Economist Intelligence Unit finds Japan to be the only truly 'Full Democracy' in Asia. Yet even Japan is not immune to the march of new authoritarianism, and indeed, under the new Abe administration, would seem to embody the concept of 'freedoms imperiled' highlighted in this panel. Essentially this concept is related to that outlined by Samuel Huntington in his work on the 'Third Wave' of democracy, which covers many of these case studies, whereby for every wave of democratization, there is a countering movement of authoritarianism. This manifests in attacks by the central authority on freedom of speech, assembly, association, etc. usually under the guise of protection of national security from enemies both domestic and foreign.


The third category is somewhat related to the second, in that national security projects, as well as national economic development projects are championed by authoritarian forces as being in the interest of collective good for the whole society. There are a number of consequences of this prioritization. First, the interests of minorities may be sacrificed on the altar of conformity or in the interests of the supposed collective good. Second, the national projects may themselves provide reservoirs of power and patronage for authoritarian elites. Third, national projects may serve as diversionary activities and rallying points to divert publics from questioning elite domination. Finally, and perhaps most devastatingly, security and development interests at the human level (particularly those of the most vulnerable sections of society) may be undermined through the pursuit of the national variants.


The final category looks at the political culture of the people themselves may be the source of authoritarian governance challenges. There are two broad sub-categories to consider here. First, the idea that societal values somehow support authoritarian governance practices rather than more representative or democratic versions. Henry Nau notes that the lack of full protection for civil liberties in Asia 'reflects the significantly different traditions regarding the relationship of the individual to society. Nowhere in Asia is there a celebration of political individualism as we know it in the West, either in political thought or in historical events such as the Reformation or Enlightenment' (163). Furthermore he claims that authority patterns 'infuse all social relationships íV in the family (Confucianism), in religion (Buddhism and Islam), and in the state (Shintoism)' (164). Second, that hopeless divisions within societies create a space, or even a desire for authoritarian solutions to the national governance stalemate; or alternatively they allow authoritarian actors to exploit and politicize the divisions, using antagonisms to rally support for their political agendas against the 'other'.

Draft program PDF

Conference outline PDF

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E-Mail: brendan.howe[at]