Could the Youth Protests of the EU, Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil Spread to Asia’s Corrupt Democracies?


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Jay Ulfelder and I had a Twitter conversation on this question in the last few days (here and here). But Twitter has such limited space, I thought I would break out our discussion on the blog and ask what others thought.

Watching all these riots – driven heavily by youth dissatisfaction, it seems – is making me wonder if this might spread to Asia’s democracies. A lot of the problems these protests are identifying exist in spades in Asia: high-handed, out-of-touch governments; election-proof pseudo-technocracies that act as unaccountable oligarchies; shallow, clique-ish political parties that provide no meaningful transmission belt of citizen preferences; massive government and business corruption; wasteful white-elephant spending to capture global ‘prestige’ while everyday services like health care and education are underfunded; closed political opportunity structures that regularly reward insiders and large corporations with crony connections to the state; wealthy, de-linking elites with 1% lifestyles wildly at variance with the rest of the population… That’s Asia too; there’s more than enough sleaze to go around.

Jay asked which countries might this apply to in Asia. My first thoughts were India, the Philippines, and South Korea among the democracies (given the obvious problems street protests face in non-democracies). Are those countries really governed better than Brazil? I doubt it. Anna Hazare pushed this sort of agenda in India a few years ago, and South Korea, which Asian case I know best, has all those Brazil problems particularly – and probably even worse than in Brazil. I’ve wondered for years why there isn’t more populist anger and protest over the cronyist, Seoul-based chaebol oligarchy that is Korean democracy. (I’m usually told it has something to do with ‘Confucian’ or ‘Asian’ values.)

It’s terribly hard to predict outbreaks of mass street protest of course, but if I’ve identified the broad structural conditions of the current wave correctly, and if protest in one locale seeds it in another (“cascades”), (two huge “if”s to be sure) then Asia’s oligarchic, corrupt democracies are/should be next.

8 thoughts on “Could the Youth Protests of the EU, Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil Spread to Asia’s Corrupt Democracies?

  1. To answer your question in a strange way, think of Canada. It’s a country with problems of wealth disparity, limited choice in political parties, and youth unemployment. It’s just not that bad compared with the countries you’re listing! So I think the point that most or all countries have problems and friction between the government and governed, and it’s a tricky question of determining whether the quantity is toxic or not, needs to be made, obvious or not.

    The claim has been made that many Asian countries such as China and Singapore have made the social contract that if governments offer the availability of wealth people will trade freedom for it. It’s a pretty cynical deal and perhaps a cliche or generalization as well. But while Koreans seem aware of the corruptions and problems of government, it doesn’t seem to me that conditions are sufficiently bad for dissent to catalyze. Despite the whining, youth unemployment is relatively low here.

    I would also guess that a major factor in protests is the feeling that one has no chance to join that elite, whereas Koreans foster the hope of joining that chaebol elite some day. Americans are the same, enduring horrible wealth disparities and parties which belittle and hurt the working classes because many Americans still see themselves as temporarily inconvenienced millionaires.

    My guess is that if real protests ever hit South Korea it would not come from the youth. Such people are more likely to vote with their feet and leave. Knowing Korea, it would come from the ajummas, who would riot over foot prices or housing costs and cause the protests to spread and metastasize into deeper expressions of anger. I’m not joking. I know less about China. I think some sort of mass insurrection is more likely there as the problems of land seizures and wealth disparities are much more serious, but again I think it will probably originate with landholders and not disaffected youth.

    • If you look at Korea and Brazil, their structural similarities – for these protest efforts – are fairly similar: elitism, white elephants, boundless corruption, flaccid political parties. And to be honest, Korea could use a real youth movement to de-oligarchic-ize governance here.

  2. I think it’s a fair prediction but overall less likely for South Korea.

    I do not know about social conditions in Brazil but I guess as long as Koreans have credit cards they will remain submissive. Middle-class Koreans are so caught up in the rat-race that they feel they have more to lose than gain whilst keeping up with the proverbial Joneses.

    I don’t know if this is changing but perhaps the majority of younger Koreans do not so much resent the Chaebol as still want to work for them: they consider themselves temporarily inconvenienced Chaebol employees!

    And of course, the Chaebol are closely associated with Korea’s international branding and national prestige; Koreans are indoctrinated with such strong ethnic nationalist sentiment, they accept the systemic corruption at least as much as the West accepts the corruption of investment banks (being ‘too big to fail’ etc).

    And just as any single male is about to protest, they are drafted into the army and indoctrinated for two further years!

    Those who do feel disenfranchised and disaffected in Korea are on the political left and do protest all of the time (which I generally support except their views on North Korea). The proportion of youth actively involved in left wing politics seems relatively small; it is predominantly middle-aged. Protesting is what the current young generation’s parents did, so it’s not very trendy.

    I’d also note, Korea is so Seoul-centered, you won’t get the ‘countryside provinces vs cities’ style confrontations as occur in China and Thailand.

    (Andrew Logie – University of Helsinki)

    • Yeah, I don’t really expect Koreans to go in the streets I guess. But then no one expected that in Brazil or Turkey either, right? Hence the post. The point is that Korea is as corrupt, closed, and elitist as any other developing world democracy. Why even vote here? It makes no difference. Korea’s a chaebol oligarchy, and no one seems to care. As you say, they’d rather pine away at the infinitesimal chance they’ll capture some Kangnam style than actually elect someone seriously committed to anti-trust. What’s the point? Why not just let the CEO of Samsung be president of the Republic?

  3. i really wish you would stop writing on koreabridge. At best you “analysis” is egocentric and boring to red. Being in Korea too long doesn’t make you an expert on anything except the failures of life.

  4. The difference between a conservative and a liberal is that; a conservative believes that he can find success in the world as it is whilst the liberal believes that the system does not allow for success the way it is.

    So you have one that will get a job whilst the other will cry disparity.

  5. Pingback: My ‘Diplomat’ Essay on whether these Youth Protests will Spread to Asia’s Democracies | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  6. We have heard and see a lot of these youth protest in Asia. Democracy’s rights is just a medium of expression, what causes the protest is both the people fault and government shortcomings.

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