In This Review
From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia

From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia

By Dan Slater and Joseph Wong

Princeton University Press, 2022, 368 pp.

Slater and Wong ask why economic development does not always lead to democracy, as traditional modernization theory predicted it would—and also why it sometimes does. They compare 12 Asian states that started the post–World War II period with nondemocratic regimes that focused on economic development. Each regime was unique, but the authors’ explanatory theory makes general sense of diverse cases by considering structural forces, historical contingencies, and political agency. When domestic or international challenges confronted regimes that had built strong ruling parties and state institutions, such as those in South Korea and Taiwan, their leaders were confident enough to gamble on democratic reform to shore up stability and stay in power, achieving what the authors call “democracy through strength.” In Myanmar and Thailand, regimes overestimated their strength and had to reverse reforms when opposition forces posed genuine challenges. The least secure regimes, such as that of China during the 1989 pro-democracy uprising, were “too weak to concede” to challenges to authoritarian rule. But the authors have a warning for this last category of regimes: “pressures for political reform cannot be forestalled forever in the face of a modernizing, increasingly demanding society.”