Study finds democracy a matter of location

December 5, 2013
Study finds democracy a matter of location

New research suggests understanding the uneven distribution of democracy in Asia may depend more on geography than political theory.

Professor Benjamin Reilly, Dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch Graduate School of Public Policy and International Affairs, said traditional theories of democratic development have proven lacking for the Asian region.

"The vast political and economic advances in Southeast Asia in recent years should be a showcase displaying the positive link between development and ," Professor Reilly said.

"Yet the long-standing belief that democracy is more likely to occur in well-off countries compared to poor ones has been turned on its head.

"Democracy is weak or absent in some of the region's richest states, such as Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia, but present in poorer ones, such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste.

"Political scientists have been at a loss to explain this tendency using traditional analyses, such as the role of domestic elites, state structures or money."

Surprisingly, Professor Reilly came up with an intriguing explanation by simply stepping back from the map.

He found that the distribution of civil liberties and political rights across Southeast Asia followed a striking spatial pattern: states become more democratic the further they are geographically located from mainland China.

To explain this, Professor Reilly considered the region's history prior to European colonisation, during which China permitted trade relations with its neighbours to the south in exchange for a 'tributary' system.

"Near countries on China's border, such as Vietnam, were required to send tribute every three years. More distant countries were required to send tribute only infrequently," Professor Reilly said.

"The tribute itself, usually consisting of local luxury goods, was less important than the symbolism of ritual submission to the Chinese empire. China very much had interest in asserting influence in its backyard."

Professor Reilly said this active-passive engagement could be seen again under Mao, with buffer states such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam enjoying Chinese support, and is present in Beijing's continued preference for familiar nondemocratic regimes, particularly if they share China's quasi-communist model of governance.

He noted that his geographical-historical theory is supported by the fact that all maritime states in Southeast Asia, aside from Brunei, are democratic, and that countries such as Indonesia and The Philippines have had no historical kingdom-to-empire legacy with China.

'Southeast Asia: In the Shadow of China' has been published in the Journal of Democracy.

Explore further: Contented citizens vote against change

More information: Read the paper:

Related Stories

Contented citizens vote against change

March 23, 2011

US citizens who have a high quality of life are more engaged in the direct democracy process, according to Ryan Yonk from Utah State University and Professor Shauna Reilly from Northern Kentucky University in the US. Their ...

More than 800 arrested in fraud blitz: Taiwan

September 28, 2011

Taiwan police said Wednesday that a record 827 suspected fraudsters, including nearly 500 Chinese and over 300 Taiwanese nationals, have been arrested in an international crackdown on the crime.

Asian gecko threatened by medicine trade

April 11, 2013

Activists warned Thursday that wild populations of Southeast Asia's striking Tokay Gecko were in danger of being over-hunted for use in traditional medicine in China and other countries.

Democracy trumps cash as key to Nobel success

October 7, 2013

For a scientist to win a Nobel Prize, many things have to come together—ample funding, a supportive environment, even luck. But one rarely recognised factor may be more important than any other: democracy.

Recommended for you

Biologists trace how human innovation impacts tool evolution

November 24, 2015

Many animals exhibit learned behaviors, but humans are unique in their capacity to build on existing knowledge to make new innovations. Understanding the patterns of how new generations of tools emerged in prehistoric societies, ...

How experienced buyers can mitigate economic bubbles

November 19, 2015

(—Over the last decade, many people got a tough primer on the effects of economic bubbles, as the bursting of the 2007-2008 housing bubble sent shockwaves through most of the major world economies. But property ...

First Londoners were multi-ethnic mix: museum

November 23, 2015

A DNA analysis of four ancient Roman skeletons found in London shows the first inhabitants of the city were a multi-ethnic mix similar to contemporary Londoners, the Museum of London said on Monday.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.