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The Nature of Asian Politics

Published 05 Feb 2015
reviewer Professor Benjamin Reilly

Is there a common model of politics across East Asia? This is the question animating Bruce Gilley’s comprehensive and provocative new venture. Not lacking in ambition, Gilley sets himself an almost insurmountable task – to capture both theoretically and empirically the deeper logic animating politics across Northeast and Southeast Asia.

He finds a common core in what he calls the ‘Asian governance model’, characterized by a strong but delivery-focussed state in which the common good takes precedence over sectional interests. In an impressive display of both scholarship and synthesis, Gilley takes the reader through some of the key dimensions of Asian politics – democracy, development, governance, policy – arguing that all share the same underlying logic of deeply entrenched, legitimate and capable central states.

This broad-brush yields some striking regularities, such as the primacy of executives and bureaucracies over parliaments and civil society, across time and space. Rationality and order are constant preoccupations in Gilley’s Asia, with ‘executive-led government’ (think Hong Kong, or Singapore) the standard-bearers for privileging public order and social goods over other political goods – including, where necessary, democracy itself.

Democracy, however, is a more complex subject in Asia than many assume. Neither pre-colonial orders nor European colonial rule were democratic. But colonialism, as Gilley breezily observes “came and went like a summer monsoon”, with nothing like the devastating impact on existing power relations seen in Africa or Latin America. Contemporary politics in Asia is pragmatic and developmental, seeking to emulate and surpass the West, not blame it for past sins. Similarly, culture and religion in Gilley’s telling were co-opted, never allowed to exist as rival source of authority to the state itself – indeed, Gilley argues that the state in East Asia is ontologically the precursor to society, raising some awkward unanswered questions about where precisely state originates.

When it comes to economic development, for instance, most readers would be well aware of Asia’s rapid rise, but may not connect this so directly to state capacity. For Gilley, however, Asia is the “land of the Leviathan”, in an echo of Wittfogel’s hydraulic despotism thesis, with pre-colonial state-building ensuring that “traditional political orders were revamped and updated with modern notions of technocratic rule, state-led development and modern public administration” across the region.

Gilley’s analysis of modern democracy in Asia is similarly tied to order, development and state capacity. The practice of democracy in Asia displays recurring commonalities, being state-preserving, developmental, majoritarian and consensus-based. The emphasis is less on the rights of man and even less on the rights of minorities. Similarly, judiciaries act as defenders of the state, not individual rights. The contrast between East Asia and India is apposite here – India’s unruly democracy and judicial activism find no place in Gilley’s schema (other troublesome cases such as the Philippines and East Timor create similar problems for his argument, it should be said).

This kind of marginalisation of unhelpful cases and shoehorning of some others is only to be expected in a work of this scope, but will inevitably incite debates with country specialists. Is Indonesia really a case of bureaucratic efficiency? Is Thailand really poised for greatness, if only the King would get out of the way? Does democracy in China really “have excellent prospects for consolidation”, as Gilley claims, doubling down on some earlier predictions? Others will find his relentless focus on state-society partnership neglects the role of social movements, ethnic identity, class and other cleavages.

But these quibbles should not detract from the breadth of Gilley’s achievement. The Nature of Asian Politics is full of insights, innovation and ideas. Most interesting for me is the contention that democracy, far from a challenge to the Asian state, is actually central to its maintenance and management of social order – a contention which Gilley has made in different forms over the years and which is fundamental to his long-running optimism about democracy’s prospects in China. Indeed, Gilley’s long association with China and his journalistic background – he was a reporter in Hong Kong for some years – infuses his work, making for a spirited read.

I was struck with how The Nature of Asian Politics itself resembles a classic Asian state in its unyielding emphasis on themes of solidarity and unity in the face of the unruly and contentious Asian politics literature. As a grand exercise of discipline, focus and synthesis, it presents as a manifestation of the same centralizing ethos that underpins and sustains Asian politics.

Bruce Gilley, The Nature of Asian Politics, CUP, 2014

Reviewed by Professor Benjamin Reilly, Dean, Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs