ISID Speakers Series: Roy Bin Wong & Lucan Way
McGill’s Institute for International Studies (ISID) has been organizing a speaker series event that brings researchers from around North America to present their research topics. Recently, Roy Bin Wong from the UCLA Asia Institute and Lucan Way from the University of Toronto participated in the speaker series. R. Bin Wong presented the idea of an alternative development path that is in opposition to the Euro-American model, giving the example of China’s current path of development. Lucan Way discussed his new book, Pluralism by Default and the Sources of Political Competition in the Former Soviet Union. Professor Bin Wong’s presentation rested upon the idea that scholars generally agree on a universal development path, whereas in reality many paths toward development exist. Different types of governance exist in the world today, each being explained by different sets of historical experiences. R. Bin Wong gives the example of modern-day developed countries that although having the same level of democracy, can have a full range of varying political and economic structures. In other words, “different historical experiences explain different set of conditions in the world.” This highlights the notion that we do not have one fixed state of affairs for democracy, rather, a full range of flavors exist. Political regimes under a capitalist system vary enormously. For example enormous differences exist between France and the United States’ political systems, these being explained by different sets of historical experiences that shaped the practices that endure today. To illustrate his point Bin Wong presented the example of non-democratic regimes completing certain of the World Bank’s democracy indicators. These include good governance, political accountability, absence of violent repression, government effectiveness, rule of aw, control of corruption.
Different mixes of institutions shape different political regimes. Practices that people believe define a path forward have profound and enduring vitality on present and future regimes. For example, in China, a recurrence of empires has taken place. Today China has a very bureaucratic top-down system; Bin Wong gives the example of water control in pre-modern China, which had a very top down approach in order to manage the distribution and consumption of this resource.
Bin Wong concludes by saying that we must take a step back from our traditional idea of a set path to democratic development and progress towards an individual case-by-case basis. In other words, this system that we have applied to all countries on a path to democracy is not necessarily false, but rather it does not correspond to the actual history of development of today's institutions. Professor Bin Wong gives the image of finding the stepping-stones when crossing a river. One must find the first before passing on to the second. We have to slowly tread our way through the water, following a distinct path every time. Every political system will follow a different political path and policy makers must reform themselves from the typical Euro-American model and search for new possibilities of democratic development.
Lucan Way, an extremely passionate lecturer, stood up to defend his book’s thesis, using strong body language to illustrate each of his arguments. Professor Way examined the classical way that autocratic regimes rise to democracy: through economic development, emergence of a stronger civil society, stronger institutions, exterior pressure, information technology; the emergence of great leaders, such as a Nelson Mandela type. Way offers an alternative process, where the appearance of pluralism and consequently democracy is a failure of weak authoritarian regimes. Way gives three sources of pluralism: a weak ruling party, a weak authoritarian state and a divided national identity. A weak party will logically be divided, easily making way for pluralism. He defines authoritarian strength as: “willingness and capacity of the state agencies to repress and distribute resources in support of the incumbent power.” In other words, a strong authoritarian state will usually have a leader with an iron grip and a source of funding backing his actions. A divided national identity will manifest itself with two parties equally plausible of gaining power.
In explaining his argument, Way provides a comparative study between Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine: all countries that were between both blocs during the Cold War. Variation exists between, within, and across these cases. Nevertheless, they all translate to a weak authoritarian state. Way also highlights the importance of strong state resources to pay officials and maintain a grip on the population.
In conclusion, he states that what promotes political competition can also undermine long-term democratic development. Chaos can be a cause of democracy. For example, weak states that have suffered from severe conflicts often found themselves as weak democratic regimes: Benin, Madagascar, Malawi and Mali. Many listeners were very curious of Ways’ argument; it is, after all, very unconventional from typical ideas about authoritarian regimes. A question that arose multiple times was that of large demonstrations. Are they proof of a weak authoritarian state and a weak party? Or the opposition party strength? Or rather, as conventional theory would suggest, a strong civil society? Lucan Way stands firmly on his argument that this is a result of one of the three factors stated explaining that the emergence of a strong civil society is either because of a strong opposition or a lack repression and control.
Both of these speeches had in common the idea of democratic development, and both opposed conventional theories on these subject matters. Regime evolution is a very complex matter with number of issues to take into account. One pervasive explanation is often very hard to make as so many factors enter the equation. Would Bin Wong agreed with Way’s argument and vice-versa?