Comparative Development of Democratic and Authoritarian Government

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Political and economic processes vary in each region, but there are a few parallels that characterize their mechanisms. Many nations in the world follow one of two government systems: democratic or authoritarian. People of democratic countries are required to participate in government relations (Lee and Zhang 1478). Individual freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion, and expression of views through the press are also tolerated in a democratic society. At the same time, the majority of those who win through the vote in a free election, and the rest of the people accept the outcome. In an authoritarian political system, one ruler, or at times a small group of individuals, hold real power in the country. Although an authoritarian political system may hold elections, the citizens do not determine how they are ruled. This paper will discuss the reasons as to why China and South Koreas developed authoritarian and democratic political systems respectively, although they are in the same region.

Development of China’s Authoritarian Political System

The People’s Republic of China is governed by an authoritarian political system which is basically controlled by the Communist Party of China where the authorities have taken strict measure to control the media as well as the civil society (Teets 21). Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also strengthened the political system using legal forms in the 1990s and early 2000s, in an attempt to strengthen the authoritarian political system (Brady 439). In the country, the leader decides on what the people are supposed to be doing. Citizens do not also participate in the decisions made by the government.

The development of an authoritarian political system in China is highly associated with the revolution that took place in 1949, where the leader at the time, Mao Zedong, was attempting to remold China (Teets 26). In the process, the leaders imposed communist ideologies as well as an economy run by the state. The state was also controlled the absolute party in order to control the lives of the citizens. However, this led to a massive famine which resulted into riots and demonstrations in the country between 1958 and 1960 (Guo 379). Later, the Cultural Revolution in China which was refuting the authoritarian leadership took place.  

Cultural Revolution did not eradicate the system of authoritarianism but rather, the leadership of the country under Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s reinforced the system but with modern reforms (Brady 441). The country experienced economic growth during the reform period but the leaders remained opposed to political reforms that would grant citizens the freedom of democracy. The leaders continued to reject freedom of speech as well as representative democracy, instead aiming at maintaining the authoritarian political system. In addition, due to the developments and reforms enacted by the then leadership, many people in the country concentrated on maintaining their economy as well as improving the technological status of the country. Protests were faced with a brutal force which also resulted in the jailing of individuals in instances such as Tiananmen student demonstrations in 1989 (Landry 31). Political reforms are not encouraged in the country since they attract lengthy imprisonment.

The authoritarian political system continues to develop in China because of the strategic reforms that are conducted by the leaders in order to maintain the positions. For instance, since the 1980s, the authorities have implemented electoral reforms which only allow a restricted level of participation by the public (Brady 443). This is only allowed for the selection of local officials. Western political reforms have been discouraged in the country. For instance, in 2010, Wen Jiabao criticized the centralization of power that was present at the time declaring that it would destroy economic reform as well as disrupt modernization in the country (Lee and Zhang 1482). Since then, political reforms have been put in place; people such as Liu Xiaobo have also been jailed because of calling for political as well as civil rights (Guo 387).

Democratic Development of South Korea

 Although it is in the same region as China, South Korea is one of the most democratic countries in the world according to 2011 Democracy Index of Economic Intelligence Unit (Gilson and Milhaupt 227). While China had established itself much earlier, South Korea only came to be a country on August 1948 (Brazinsky 29). It was a partition from the larger Korea in 1945 after the end of World War II since. The Japanese had ruled Korea for a long time; its surrender led to the division of the country into North and South after the United States and the Soviet Union were unable to agree on a joint trusteeship over the country (Gilson and Milhaupt 227).

Due to the influence South Korea received from the United States, the urge for democracy started to develop in the country. After 1948, the 1950 war broke out where the North, as well as the South, wanted to claim superiority (Poguntke and Webb 179). However, the status quo of the 1948 declaration was maintained and citizens in South Korea through demonstrations fought for democracy in the country. For more than 35 years, the country was faced with periods of democratic as well as autocratic rules as pointed out by Cincotta (81). The country was strongly aligned with the United States which triggered their struggle for democracy since their first president was appointed by America (Brazinsky 36). From 1963 to 1979, the country was led by a military general, Park Chung Hee, until he was assassinated due to lack of democracy as asserted by Lee and Ku (201). Chun Doo Hwan was elected by an Electoral College vote but due to his corrupt ways, protests and attempted assassinations led to his acceptance to step down.

The peak of democracy in South Korea was witnessed in 1987 after a transition was made by the acceptance of full democracy in the country (Cincotta 82). This was as a result of student protest and involvement of the church leaders who insisted that democracy was a moral imperative and it would assist the country to move forward. Although Chun Doo Hwan had good relationships with the then president of United States, Reagan, he surrendered in 1985 and demanded free and fair elections in South Korea (Gilson and Milhaupt 228). Direct presidential elections therefore took place in the country after Roh Tae Woo declared that the government had accepted the demands of the protestors in June 1987 (Poguntke and Webb 198). South Korea has then remained a full democracy country.


Challenges that faced China and South Korea made their political systems to change and adapt to the needs during their developments although they are in the same region. China had for a long time practiced authoritarianism which was strengthened after the Cultural Revolution (Brady 452). In order to control the people and enhance economic growth as well as modernization, China was made a one-party state where the government leaders solely make decisions. In South Korea, the challenges that faced it such as the war with the North made the nation adapt to the circumstances by aligning itself with the United States’ democratic ideologies (Lee and Ku 209). The U.S therefore influenced the citizens to fight for a free democratic country through demonstrations and protests. 

Works Cited

Brady, Anne-Marie. “Mass persuasion as a means of legitimation and China’s popular authoritarianism.” American Behavioral Scientist 53.3 (2009): 434-457.

Brazinsky, Gregg A. Nation building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the making of a democracy. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Cincotta, Richard P. “How democracies grow up.” Foreign Policy 165 (2008): 80-82.

Gilson, Ronald J., and Curtis J. Milhaupt. “Economically benevolent dictators: lessons for developing democracies.” The American Journal of Comparative Law 59.1 (2011): 227-288.

Guo, Gang. “Retrospective economic accountability under authoritarianism: evidence from China.” Political Research Quarterly 60.3 (2007): 378-390.

Landry, Pierre F. “Decentralized authoritarianism in China.” New York: Cambridge University Press 6 (2008): 31.

Lee, Ching Kwan, and Yonghong Zhang. “The power of instability: unraveling the microfoundations of bargained authoritarianism in China.” American Journal of Sociology118.6 (2013): 1475-1508.

Lee, Yih‐Jiunn, and Yeun‐wen Ku. “East Asian welfare regimes: testing the hypothesis of the developmental welfare state.” Social Policy & Administration 41.2 (2007): 197-212.

Poguntke, Thomas, and Paul Webb, eds. The presidentialization of politics: A comparative study of modern democracies. Oxford University Press on Demand, 2007.

Teets, Jessica C. “Let many civil societies bloom: The rise of consultative authoritarianism in China.” The China Quarterly213 (2013): 19-38.

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