The Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED) hosted a book talk Tuesday to discuss “From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia” co-authored by Dan Slater, professor of emerging democracies at the University of Michigan and WCED director, and Joseph Wong, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Slater and Wong, who hosted the talk themselves, discussed the political theories presented in their work as well as ways in which countries in Asia have adopted democracy.

Wong said their book centers around the complicated relationship between development and democracy in Asia. Wong and Slater developed a thesis around the “paradox of the strong state,” which explains how authoritarian countries are actually in the best position to democratize under consistent development — a central idea in the text. 

”It is precisely those regimes that are strong enough to resist democratization … that are in the best position to democratize with stability, and indeed democratize with uninterrupted development,” Wong said.

Slater said strong economic development is key for dictators who want to democratize. However, Slater said there are two factors that can influence whether dictatorships remain in power despite adopting democratic values. These two factors are victory and stability.

Slater said during periods of economic growth, dictators develop a positive economic track record. So their thesis proposes that if that same dictator runs in a democratic election, they might be voted back into a position of power. Slater added that the economic success of a nation tends to alleviate poverty rates, which decreases the risk of an uprising, or calls for a radical change in government.

Slater said he and Wong have found that authoritarian regimes are often replaced by democracies when the leaders are either powerful enough to initiate the transition and stay in power — they argued that this was the case in the formation of democracies in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — or a revolution topples an unstable dictatorship, as is in the Chinese Revolution in 1911 when a temporary republic was created. The latter, Slater said, is often the messier of the two routes.

“It is often a product of bungling,” Slater said. “Dictators think they are more powerful than they are.”

In other cases though, Slater said some rulers, in theory, are confident enough in their popularity that they believe they can transition their nation to a democracy without losing power during the transition — in essence, that their people would still choose them as a leader if put to a vote. 

“They don’t concede defeat, they concede democracy,” Slater said. “The idea is, let’s compete and keep winning if we hold fair elections.” 

Rackham student Sarah Godek, who attended the event, spoke with the authors during the Q and A part of the event and asked what they thought about the White Papers — the Chinese government’s national defense strategy that is released to the public every couple of years. 

The latest White Paper, released on August 10, stated China’s determination to unify Taiwan under authoritarian control, which has long caused tension between China and the U.S. since Taiwan was first democratized in the 1980s. 

“Does (the content in the White Papers) signal a permanent avoidance of democracy as we might conceptualize it in the West?” Godek asked. 

Wong rescinded by stating the word “permanence” might not be the best way to describe authoritarian regimes because no regime has lasted forever. 

“These White Papers that have come out — certainly the actions of Xi Jinping — signal a sense of permanence in avoidance (of democracy),” Wong said. “I’m just skeptical of that because forever has never happened.”

Slater responded by distinguishing a misconception in Western thought related to democracy in China. Slater said the common belief that China transitioning to democracy would ultimately lead to its collapse — therefore hoping for democracy in China is hoping for its downfall — is actually false thinking and can lead to tension between the U.S. and China.

However, Slater said the Chinese government has enough political strength to adopt democracy through strength, which would allow the government in power to maintain control, despite what would appear to be a fair election

“No one is calling for the destabilization of China,” Slater said. “Treating democracy as a set of western values … draws black-and-white divides that aren’t helpful.” 

Slater said democracy is a universal value and not the ultimate end of politics. Democracy, he argued, should be used as a means to provide safety, prosperity and other important functions of government.

“We believe that unless we build stronger democracies that actually can answer the challenge of peace, (democracies) will remain forever and everywhere challenged,” Slater said. “It doesn’t matter if you are (from the) West, East, North or South.”

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