COM 02/2019

Modernisation Theory in Pacific Asia

By Jan Kliem, Senior Programme Officer and Researcher at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG)


Industrialisation – Modernisation – Democracy?

The relationship between democracy and development has been the focus of many debates held in social science. The general validity of theories such as modernisation theory, especially outside of the European experience is however heavily disputed. In essence, it claims that a country that modernises; i.e. industrialises, develops economically, urbanises etc.; will eventually undergo political change towards democracy. Prezworski et al. for example claim to have proven modernisation theory wrong. Their quantitative research on democracy and development in over 130 countries between 1950 and 1990[1] suggests major flaws in traditional modernisation theory. Nevertheless, a case can be made on either side of the argument, even in Pacific Asia. Prime examples of where modernisation theory applies rather well can be found. Taiwan and South Korea for instance underwent democratic transitions after strict authoritarian rule set up their respective economies. The underlying question of this debate relates to the linkage of democracy and capitalism. Is democracy conducive or even necessary to become a successful part of a capitalist oriented global economy? If it is not necessary in the first place, is democracy a predetermined outcome of successful (capitalist) development? Should the question then be whenrather than if economically successful countries turn democratic?

The following examines the argument that economic development and democracy can and must go hand in hand. Advocates of this argument draw, for example, on the above mentioned successful examples of modernisation theory in Pacific Asia, Taiwan and South Korea. However, on the other hand, some cases suggest- in particular the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)- that the aforementioned linkage lacks general applicability. While post-1978 China makes clear concessions towards a more liberal-market economy which turned the country into an economic powerhouse, the development towards democracy is severely lagging behind. State-sponsored capitalism and partial liberalisation of the market or rapid urbanisation do not come with a push for democratisation. Moreover, the authoritarian and increasingly totalitarian Beijing government is often considered a – if not the– major factor for the PRC’s economic success. A strong economy in fact legitimises the rule of the party and as long as China is successful economically, democratic reform is not to be expected. Therefore, not only challenging but outright contradicting modernisation theory, China seems to be a case in which economic prosperity leads to the manifestation of authoritarian rule.

Below, the basic idea why economic development and democracy could go hand in hand will be depicted briefly. Then, secondly, it will be explained why modernisation theory is facing difficulties assessing the PRC, and thirdly, it will be argued that because of the predicament caused by evidence on either side, it appears wise to not suggest a one-dimensional linkage between economic growth and democracy. Evidence suggests that each case has to be analysed with regards to its very specific circumstances.


Modernisation Theory’s basic assumptions and endogenous democracy

Seymour Martin Lipset initiated the discourse on the linkage between economic development and democracy in the late 1950s. In his article on economic development and political legitimacy he elaborates the idea that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances it will sustain democracy.”[2] Put differently, Lipset suggests that once a democracy is established, it is more likely to be stable and remain in place in affluent countries than in poor countries. Most of Lipset’s critics agree and also empirically this point is well-proven.[3]

However, in this context, a different aspect is of more interest. Instead of treating democracy as exogenous, Lipset’s more debatable argument is that democracy is endogenous, i.e. something inherent to and eventually originating from within the system. The difference between the exogenous and the endogenous version is indeed vital and lies at the heart of modernisation theory. If democracy is exogenous, i.e. outside the system, the basic idea of modernisation theory with regards to the transition of political systems becomes meaningless. The fact that in affluent countries democracy is ‘there to stay’ has no explanatory power regarding the origins of democracy. A transition towards democracy could be related to modernisation, but not necessarily exclusively or even primarily. In fact, countries can also become democratic for many other reasons such as wars or foreign or economic pressures. However, if democracy is endogenous, it can explain why and when countries become democratic. In this view, democracies are not established independently from economic development but precisely because of economic development and modernisation.

An oversimplified explanation of this transition process, for example from an authoritarian to a democratic regime could read as follows: an authoritarian government rules a society which is structured in a simple way. No groups or organisations emerge independently, labour processes are top-down oriented, technological development is mainly in the hand of the state and the emergence of a strong civil society is controlled and impeded due to strict rule by the leaders. However, alongside economical development, old and simple structures of the society will eventually yield to more complex structures which allow for more contingency. Complexity, in turn, makes it impossible for an authoritarian government to rule effectively. Enhanced communication within the society, the formation of groups and organisations and the simple increase in information will eventually lead to a stronger civil society, which is to be seen as a stepping stone towards an inevitable outcome: democracy. The entire process that has lead to democracy would then be referred to as ‘modernisation’.

Even though it is tempting to believe in such reasoning and, if true, the discovery of such causality would arguably be one of social science’s greatest achievements, one has to be aware of the pitfalls of oversimplification. Critics- at least of the endogenous version of modernisation theory are many and indeed Przeworski’s study deals a blow to traditional modernisation theory. Others hold this is a typically “Western” modernisation experience, that not only relied on the exploitation of one’s own working class, but also on the exploitation of colonies without which such process would not have been possible.

Nevertheless, not all is lost. In Mark Thompson’s words, “East and Southeast Asia are proving to be […] [modernisation] theory’s last redoubt.”[4] In the Pacific Asian region, first and foremost two of the Asian tiger economies, i.e. South Korea and Taiwan fulfil the theoretical expectations of endogenous modernisation theory. Both countries democratised after what now is labelled as ‘developmentalist’ dictatorships had built the path to successful economic development. Furthermore, modernisation theory can be applied to other countries of the region and even if reality does not always fit as well as in the cases of South Korea and Taiwan, some scholars believe that democratisation in Pacific Asia generally is ‘driven by growth’.[5]

Nonetheless, modernisation theory’s last redoubt seems to be porous as some Pacific Asian nations stand as strong counterexamples to many of the theory’s assumptions. Singapore can hardly be expected to fully democratise – in a “Western” sense- anytime soon, Thailand seems to be stuck in a loop, and the Philippines achieved relatively stable democracy without significant economic growth.

The People’s Republic of China

The PRC in particular does not seem to develop accordingly to the basic assumptions of modernisation theory at all. Especially in the light of developments since President Xi Jinping has taken the leadership into his hands, it is unrealistic to expect a push for democracy – at least based on further economic development.

After its foundation in 1949, the People’s Republic of China focused on Soviet-style industrialisation. The first five-year-plan under Chairman Mao (1953) put emphasis on heavy industry and closely resembled Stalinist economy of the Soviet Union. Markets were replaced by planned resource allocation, banks were nationalised and workers were organised in communes.[6] Furthermore, large state-owned enterprises were created and central planners determined output and allocation of products and raw-materials. After Mao came to realise that the stage of Chinese development was fundamentally at odds with this development strategy, he ‘adjusted’ his policies to Chinese technological underdevelopment[7] and the preponderance of the agricultural sector.[8] Despite adjustments during the Mao years and more severe adjustments since the onset of the post-Mao era, one aspect seems to be a most stable constant; the state, in this case, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has always been playing a pivotal role. Especially the Stalinist model Mao initially chose to follow “required an extraordinarily powerful state apparatus able to exercise and allocate resources freely, deploy manpower, and enforce the sacrifices that rapid growth demanded.”[9] The sanctity of Mao, his legacy as to the setup of the state and the early orientation to ‘Asian values’ still holds democracy at a fair distance.[10]

A second argument, as put forward by Pei[11], discusses the will and the resourcefulness of the Chinese Communist Party to hold onto power.[12] Before transition occurs, ruling authoritarian elites will try to prevent the absolute loss of power by any means. Economic growth can facilitate this endeavour by equipping the rulers with more resources to achieve this end. Modernisation can in fact hinder democratisation if gained resources are used to pay for efforts to suppress alleged political effects of modernisation. Pei sees this occurring in China:

“For example, growth has fuelled the rising tax revenues that fund expanded and upgraded police efforts (including monitoring and censorship of the Internet), as well as programs meant to co-opt emerging social elites (particularly intellectuals and professionals) with better pay and perquisites. This strategy of repression for some and blandishments for others has enabled the CCP to prevent organized challenges to its authority, contain unrest, and retain the (contingent) support of the urban middle class. Such a strategy is costly, but as long as a growing economy keeps tax receipts strong, it may be more sustainable than most of us think.”[13]                                                                                                               

Thirdly, in 2010 Jie Chen and Chunlong Lu studied the Chinese middle-class and assessed their attitude towards democracy.[14] Whereas the middle-class is often perceived as motor of social mobilisation, they found that the middle class in the PRC does not necessarily support democracy. Instead, it is mainly concerned with its socio-economic well-being and feels to be dependent on the incumbent authoritarian state to maintain such.

To phrase it in Eastonian’ terms, the middle-class does not necessarily always provide specific support, but according to the study it is a reliable source of diffuse support for the system. Diffuse support is of course the more vital factor for the overall stability of the system. Unsurprisingly, diffuse support also stems from tangible Chinese achievements since ‘modernists’, led by Deng Xiaoping, took over in the late 1970s. China’s economic success-story did lift millions out of poverty and despite all negative externalities; the Chinese way made for some apparent achievements perceived by many people in and outside of the country.

The endogenous version of modernisation theory struggles to provide the right answers when analysing the PRC. Modern day China does not seem to have democracy inherent to its system and is only waiting for it to emerge. The CCP’s grip on power is tighter than ever and economic success possibly rather helps than hinders the leadership to stay in power. They of course, control the narrative and make sure they are credited with successful aspects of economic development.

Accounting for a more complex reality

Basic tenets of modernisation theory fail when applied to the PRC. In other countries however, modernisation theory provided some valuable insides and even though many Pacific Asian countries did not always follow the exact timetable of modernisation theory, it still manages to explain the development of a significant number of countries. Moreover, it cannot be overemphasised that the question of a ‘plain’, direct linkage between development and democracy is only the very basic assumption of simple post-war modernisation theory. The discourse on modernisation theory is still ongoing and improves the theory and adds aspect to it to make it more practicable and convincing at the same time.[15]

Modernisation in general and economic development in particular do not lead to democracy necessarily. Regarding the PRC for example, several aspects need to be included in a holistic observation through a modernisation theory lens:  Firstly, path-dependency and the weight of history ought not to be underestimated when analysing any given country. “[S]tate behaviour is necessarily determined and constrained by its particular history in ways that will limit what is politically possible and institutionally feasible.”[16] Secondly, more often than not, a transition from one political system to another happens without the consent of the old rulers. Hence, with more resources at their disposal- and economic growth and technological modernisation can breed these resources as perfectly exemplified in the PRC today – democratisation can become less likely. 


[1] See Przeworski, A., Alvarez, M., Cheibub, J.A., Limongi, F. (2000): Democracy and Development: political institutions and well-being in the world 1950-1990, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[2]Lipset, M. (1959): Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy, American Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 69-105: 75.

[3] See Przeworski, A., Limongi, F. (1997): Modernization. Theories and Facts, World Politics, Vol. 49, No.2, pp. 155-183: 156-167.

[4] Thompson, M. (2010): Modernization theory’s last redoubt: Democratization in East and Southeast Asia, in: Chu, Y., Wong, S. (ed.) (2010): East Asia’s new democracies, Routledge, New York, pp. 85-101: 85.

[5] Morley, J. (ed.) (1993): Driven by Growth: political change in the Asia pacific region, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY.

[6] Dernberger, R. (1999): The People’s Republic of China at 50: The Economy, The China Quarterly, Vol. 159, pp. 606-615: 607.

[7] Wong, J. (2003): China’s Economy, in: Gamer, R. (ed.): Understanding Contemporary China, 2nd ed., Lynne Publishers, London, pp. 111-154: 125.

[8] At the onset of Mao’s reforms, employment in China was 75% agricultural, in the Soviet Union 75% industrial (Walder, A. (1995): China’s Transitional Economy: Interpreting its Significance, The China Quarterly, Vol. 144, p. 963-979: 971).

[9] Bernstein, T. (1999): China: Growth without political liberalisation, in: Morley, J. (ed.) (1999): Driven by Growth: political change in the Asia pacific region, revised edition, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY: 87.

[10] A similar argument can be made in the contentious case of Vietnamese democratisation with regards to Ho Chi Minh.

[11] Pei, M. (2007): How will China democratize?, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 53-57: 55.

[12] Again, similarities to the Vietnamese Party occur.

[13] Pei, M. (2007): How will China democratize?, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 53-57: 55.

[14] Chen, J., Lu, C. (2010): Democratisation and the Middle Class in China: The Middle Class’s Attitudes toward Democracy, Political Research Quarterly, August 2010, pp.1-15.

[15] For a useful approach to enhance modernisation theory see for example Goorha, P. (2003): The new Modernization Theory: A politico-economic theory of transition, PhD Dissertation, Faculty of the Graduate School of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

[16] Beeson, M. (2007): Regionalism and Globalisation in East Asia. Politics, Security and Development, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke: 180.