Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space
Chan, Jennifer, Journal of East Asian Studies
Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space. Edited by Muthiah Alagappa. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004. 528 pp. $35.95. Paper.
As the scholarly and political attention on civil society continues to surge, particularly in a region where civil society space may still be limited by strong states, this timely study covering twelve countries in Asia offers an excellent comparative analysis of a complex phenomenon that remains little understood. What is the nature of civil society organizations in Asia? Does civil society in Asia foster or inhibit political change? These are the two central questions in this edited volume written by practitioners and academics from a range of fields, including political science, sociology, and history.
In this study, civil society is broadly defined as the distinct realm of organization and governance by nonstate and nonmarket groups that take collective action in the pursuit of the public good and that influence the politics and policies of the state. The book contains many important findings. Contrary to the claim that the concept of civil society is alien, civil societies have long histories in Asia and are highly diverse in terms of composition, goals, and strategies. They display features of both neo-Gramscian (civil society as a key terrain of strategic action to construct an alternate social and world order) and neo-Tocquevillean (participation in associations produces social capital that is vital to a healthy democracy) frameworks. The dramatic growth of civil society organizations has not, however, been accompanied by institutionalization of the nonstate public sphere. Civil society in Asia is viewed largely in instrumental terms, as a force that brings about or prevents political change rather than as an autonomous arena of self-governance. There is no necessary connection between civil society and democratic change. Its specific role then is contingent on, for example, the stage of development, the role of the state, and the political opportunities the state offers.
In addition to the rich historical as well as analytical country studies, one of the most important contributions of this book is to refute a common assumption that civil society necessarily contributes to democratic development. As Edward Aspinall writes in his fascinating study of civil society development in Indonesia, conflict within civil society itself reflected broader political, class, and cultural conflict, and the conflictual nature of Indonesian civil society contributed to the decline of democracy in the 1950s and 1960s. The Indian example of Hindu fundamentalist nongovernmental groups further attests to the fact that not all civil society organizations promote equal rights and democratic development. Another major contribution of this book is to challenge the predominant conception that civil society activities must be severely curtailed in strong militaristic or communist states and hence little political change may occur. …