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.