Hardcover: UK: A tale of two city-states

At first glance, Hong Kong and Singapore could be twins, but the manner in which the authorities handled political dissent led to very different results. What happened?

By J. Michael Cole
Sunday, Feb 07, 2010, Page 14


It has often been said that democracy is not endemic to Asia, or that its development is inevitably stunted by so-called “Asian values” or “Chinese characteristics.” Opponents of this view, meanwhile, argue that modernization leads to democratization as an increasing number of groups and individuals are empowered and therefore become more prone to challenge the authorities. This has led to the belief — and hope — that modernity, oft-defined as the adoption of capitalism, will transform a state from within and initiate the process of democratization.

If this were the case then China, of all countries, would be expected to be the next country on the democracy waiting list. And yet, there are hardly any signs that it is about to do that. How do we explain this?

As “most similar cases,” two Asian city-states — Singapore and Hong Kong — allow us to experiment with the impact of modernity on post-colonial regimes with a tradition of “soft authoritarianism.” By following the emergence of contention alongside rapid economic development in the city-states and how the authorities responded to that challenge, we can establish whether democratization is a teleological phenomenon — in other words, that modernity/capitalism inevitably leads to democracy — or if other preconditions are necessary for this transformation to occur.

This is what Stephan Ortmann, assistant professor of comparative politics at Fern University in Hagen, Germany, undertakes in Politics and Change in Singapore and Hong Kong. To this end, Ortmann presents a detailed analysis of the ruling elites in Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as the oppositional groups that have challenged their authority.

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