H. Edward Kim/GETTY IMAGES I did it my way: Park Chung-hee in South Korea, 1975 

China’s Future Is South Korea’s Present

Why Liberalization Will Follow Stagnation

After overseeing his country’s rapid economic development for nearly a decade, the leader of an Asian nation abolishes term limits and assumes absolute power. As justification, he cites the need for national unity in an increasingly uncertain security environment. Western-style democracy, he argues, is neither necessary nor inevitable; the country needs a strong leader and a government with distinctive national characteristics. To counter the influx of Western values, he rehabilitates Confucianism, once shunned as the root of the country’s backwardness. In the West, meanwhile, observers lament this political regression, wondering why economic growth has not led to political liberalization; some argue that the country represents a new model of development. 

The country is not China under Xi Jinping but South Korea under Park Chung-hee. The year is not 2018 but 1972. At the time, few imagined that South Korea would be a functional democracy and a member in good standing of the liberal international order within a decade and a half. The heavy industrialization program that Park launched when he consolidated power not only helped South Korea overcome poverty to become a producer of high-value goods such as automobiles, ships, steel, and chemicals; the reforms that made South Korea’s economic development possible also undermined Park’s authoritarian government. The regime tried and failed to stem the tide of liberalization: in 1987, South Korea made a successful transition to democracy.

Today, China is having its own Park Chung-hee moment. Xi has resisted political reforms and tightened his grip on the state while overseeing continued economic growth. However, as with South Korea, what may look like an exception to the rule that economic openness leads to political liberalization is more likely a case of delayed effect. Ultimately, the very steps required to achieve the economic growth that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) needs will also invite the political liberalization that it fears and resists. 

THE ROAD TO DEMOCRACY

Despite a legacy of dire poverty, colonial exploitation, and fratricidal war, South Korea is now an industrial powerhouse. And

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