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I begin with three general points about the relationship of area studies to political science, before turning to the specific contributions that Asia and China studies have made in advancing knowledge in political science.
Many knowledgeable people believe that developments in East and Southeast Asia will vindicate the theory that successful economic growth can set the stage for political democracy. Two decades of rapid economic growth there hold out the promise that the arrival of democracy may not be far behind. First Japan and then South Korea and Taiwan broke from their one-party, authoritarian traditions to become plausible democracies. Their achievements have given hope that China and the economically developing Southeast Asian countries will follow the same path. Such, after all, was the implicit expectation in much of modernization theory, including the assumption that foreign economic aid would, by facilitating economic development, prepare the way for transitions to democracy.
Current practices from Singapore to Beijing, however, are a cause for concern. Not only have there been no smooth transitions from economic to political change in these countries, but numerous Asian leaders are now insisting that such a sequence is neither inevitable nor desirable. In contrast to the dominant thinking in Asia during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century that these societies had to take on new values in order to make both economic and political progress, voices there now are proclaiming that “Asian values” are different from Western ones, and that economic growth can occur without the individualism associated with pluralistic democracy.
In the light of these concerns, it becomes reasonable to reconsider judgments about the character of democracy in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan since it is still seen as an exceptional event for an opposition party in even those supposedly democratic countries to come to power.
Developments in both China and Russia are a challenge to political science, and more particularly to theories of political culture. Both countries are engaged in profound processes of transition involving the abandonment of totalitarianism and the adoption of market-based economies. It is, however, far from clear what form their political systems will eventually take. They are currently following strikingly different paths. Are the differences a reflection of their distinctive cultures? Or, are the differences more structural, a manifestation of their respective stages of economic and social development? Or, are they merely the consequences of the idiosyncratic choices and policy decisions of the two leaderships?
In the very first sentence of the first article in the first issue of The China Quarterly, Howard L. Boorman, seeking to summarize the first decade of the PRC, wrote: “The man who faces his typewriter to set down a thousand words of coherent comment on the Communist revolution in China confronts not only a massive experiment in social engineering but also the fact that his interpretation of that experiment will expose as much of the author as it does of the revolution.” Except that now it is a computer and not a typewriter, little is different for anyone who would try to summarize what is now 50 years of the PRC. True, enough time has gone by for us now to have not just the initial standard interpretations as to what transpired in China but revisions and then further re-revisions of the story, so that even though we cannot be so bold as to say that we now have the full truth, we probably are a bit closer.