Why are so many Asian countries run by families?

In the United States, it's the Kennedys and Bushs; in South Korea, it's the Parks. On December 19, South Korea elected Park Geun-Hye as president -- but she's not just the country's first female head of state, she's heir to a controversial political legacy. Her father, Park Chung-hee, was South Korea's dictator in the 1960s and 1970s. And Park's not the only recent ruler with family ties. Across Asia, heirs of political dynasties have taken power.

Three days before Park's win, Japan chose as prime minister the right wing Shinzo Abe, son of a Japanese foreign minister and grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who as a cabinet member in 1941 signed the declaration of war against the United States, and served as prime minister almost two decades later. (Abe himself was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007.) In China, there's a new princeling-in-chief, too. In November, Xi Jinping became Communist Party chairman, 30 years after his popular father Xi Zhongxun, respected for his principles and his decency, ascended to China's elite decision-making body, the Politburo. And when Kim Jong Un became supreme leader of North Korea in December 2011, he too was following a family tradition: two generations of Kims had preceded him.

More than ever before, Asian summit meetings resemble family reunions. With few exceptions outside the dictatorships in the southeast and central part of the continent, virtually every country in Asia has been ruled by the offspring of a high-ranking politician in the 21st century. And these are mostly democracies we're talking about. Listing the family connections between current and former rulers quickly becomes tedious: There's Thailand's Yingluck Shinawatra, whose father was a member of parliament and whose brother, Thaksin, is the now-exiled former prime minister. In Bangladesh, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president. (Her longtime rival, former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, is the widow of a former president.) In Pakistan, current President Asif Ali Zardari was married to the assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is herself the eldest daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And so on.

It's a phenomenon that doesn't have clear socio-political divisions -- or recipes for success. While Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and embodiment of Burma's democratic ideals, is the daughter of Aung San (Burma's founding father and the closest thing the country has to political royalty), Thein Sein, the repressive (though liberalizing) president of Burma, is the son of farmers. Likewise, the rulers of the dictatorships of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam come from poor backgrounds, while in the more liberal, wealthy, and democratic Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is the son of the country's second prime minister and the nephew of its third. Lee Kwan Yew and his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, stewarded Singapore from a colonial backwater into one of the world's most innovative financial capitals. North Korea, run by a third generation Kim, is a mess. Mongolia, run by the son of nomad, is a promising democracy. 

So what is it about Asian political clans that makes their scions so appealing to voters? That the president of South Korea's father and the prime minister of Japan's grandfather likely met and sympathized with each other "as defenders of freedom against the Communist hordes" doesn't affect policy decisions today, nor make rapprochement between the two nations any more likely, says Richard Samuels, the director of the MIT-Japan program.

What lineage does do is allow voters in Asia's often-raucous democracies to select a known brand. Many Asian nations didn't shake off colonialism until after World War II, so the child or grandchild of a country's beloved independence leader still benefits from the shine of ancestry. Consider how distant the American equivalent feels: The 82-year-old Paul Emerson Washington is reportedly the closest living kin of the family of the first president of the United States of America -- he's the retired regional manager for a building supplies company. By contrast, both the daughter and grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as prime minister themselves; Nehru's descendants still dominate The Congress, India's most powerful political party.

It may be both a function of time and of political history. Asian societies "never ran themselves through an individual revolution like we did in the West," says Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of several books on kinship. Therefore, they more often fall back on the default system: clan rule. "It's vanity," he says. "You see these kids in supposedly socialist societies in Asia grooming their children like they were Tudor monarchs."

Indeed, political nepotism is a common practice, in varying degrees, throughout the world. "We make the mistake thinking that individual democracy is the natural state of man," says Fox. The truth is that humans tend to believe "that the charisma, the power, and the right to rule is inherited," and accept the offspring or spouse of a ruler as "a legitimate substitute," notes Fox. Four years after the 2000 election saw George W. Bush (son of a president) defeat Al Gore (son of a senator), Adam Bellow wrote a book arguing that "the American political class, along with other sectors of our society, is increasingly filled with the offspring of established parents." Bellow (himself the son of Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow) doesn't see this as a problem: His book was called In Praise of Nepotism.

Tinkering with the natural order of ancestral veneration can be dangerous. "For thousands of years the Chinese state had relied on families and clans to maintain social order, and had supported their authority with laws that enforced filial piety," Bellow wrote. Indeed, Mao Zedong, the son of a middle-class farmer, tried to destroy the bonds that attached people to their families, replacing them with ties to the state. But shortly after the end of his 27-year rule -- marred by famine and chaos -- Mao's surviving comrades-at-arms begin institutionalizing a system and a government that they could pass to their descendents. Today, four out of seven of Xi's colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body, are princelings -- the offspring of those who held high-ranking party posts.

It could be an unlikely coincidence that most of Asia is now run by political scions, but perhaps it's a universal phenomenon. In the rough and tumble world of democracy, we still like our political brands. Maybe we just prefer the illusion of choosing them. 


Democracy Lab

In Defense of Civil Society

Civil society does exist in authoritarian countries.

Sarah Kendzior's article recently published in Foreign Policy, "Stop Talking about Civil Society," is correct in calling on the international community to focus attention on the abuses of authoritarian governments. Yet Kendzior's piece falls short when it recommends discarding the concept of "civil society" as applied to these states. She makes the same mistake as USAID, the United Nations, and the OSCE when they changed their focus from "civil society" to "community," dismissing the concept of "civil society" as foreign and ill-fitted to the countries in question.

In attempting to define the "authenticity of civil society" and its "fit to the local environment," it is important to remember that external concepts such as "civil society" are not simply imposed by the international community or imported wholesale by West-leaning activists. They seep into society through cosmopolitan academics and activists, who bring a version of the concept into the public sphere, where it is not replicated just as it was received; rather, local actors alter it through interpretations or purposeful misinterpretations.

The term "civil society" has entered into the discourse of authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Russia -- as a term with its own histories, connected to, but also separated from, those of Western Europe and the United States. In these countries, examining civil society through the interplay between the concepts of the international development community and the authoritarian societies of Central Asia would serve us better than stating outright that the "Western" concept has no place. In fact, the concept does have a place, and ceases to be "Western" the moment it is uttered by local actors.

The renaissance of the term "civil society" in the 1990s itself was greatly influenced by the nationalist movements in the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Republics during the late 80s and 90s. Western scholars and development professionals saw this uniting of individuals under nationalist banners as an organic manifestation of "civil society" in a totalitarian state. The backgrounds of those protesting in the Soviet Union suggests that they tended to come from the intelligentsia -- making it noteworthy when a worker, Neimat Panakhov, became a leading figure in the Azeri nationalist movement during the 1990 protest over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, both Soviet and post-Soviet newspapers and literature described the leadership of the intelligentsia as continuing the social role of enlightener, leader, and source of social consciousness -- a role prescribed to them even prior to the founding of the Soviet Union.

So when we imagine the professional class (in this case, the intelligentsia) as using "civil society" -- whether via independent NGOs or so-called GONGOs ("government-organized non-governmental organizations) -- in truth the intelligentsia is continuing the role it played in the national movements, a fact that is clearly visible in NGO mission statements and grant and program applications in Eurasian countries. Thus, Kendzior's statement that "the term 'civil society' forces citizens to pick a side --'the government' or 'the people' -- in a system where to choose sides is personally harmful, difficult to practice, and tricky to conceptualize" neglects the descriptions the NGOs have for themselves. For the post-Soviet intelligentsia, "civil society" is not a choice between the government and the people, but rather a choice between government and opposition and for the protection of "the people" (an ill-defined group outside of which the members of the intelligentsia routinely locate themselves).

The intelligentsia and the nonprofit sector have had varied and complex relations with local governments in post-Soviet history, rather than the purely negative view Kendzior describes. During the 1990s and 2000s in many of the Central Asian countries, the repression of the nonprofit sector fluctuated and differed depending on the type of NGO (thus human rights and education NGOs, for example, received different treatment). The level of repression was influenced by a need for external aid in some cases, and a lack of power consolidation in others. Kygryzstan's authoritarian tendencies did not occur until the late 90s, once Askar Akayev had secured power.

Regarding Azerbaijan, in 2002 the United States lifted aid restrictions that were put in place through the 907 Amendment to the Freedom Support Act, thus slightly opening opportunities for civil society to flourish. But as oil money began pouring into Azerbaijan in the mid-2000s, and following the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- which the Azerbaijani government associated with international foundations and nonprofit organizations -- the openings for civil society began to close.

After the USAID Civil Society Assessment in Azerbaijan in 2005, which expanded the definition of civil society to include citizen activism (particularly "mobilized communities"), development agencies began creating programs for community-based organizations, such as USAID's Community Development Activity in Azerbaijan, which ran from September 2005 to May 2009. International NGOs and agencies often viewed nationally-based NGOs as lacking connection to the communities they intended to work for, and as being run by a professional class rather than interested local actors. The agencies imagined that the national NGO professionals were using the international funding to expand further financial opportunities, rather than participating in an authentic civil society.

By 2007, the Azerbaijani government committed to funding their own NGOs, either through the NGO Support Council, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and grants from Ministries, but many of the NGOs funded were a step removed from the government, some independent or government leaning -- and rarely, if ever, oppositionist -- but they were not the GONGOs like in today's Uzbekistan.

In Uzbekistan, according to some observers, the government itself initiated its own NGOs with the purpose of pushing out independent civil society organizations. Over the past few years, following the closing of most independent NGOs, those organizations continuing to work in the country were forced to join the National Association of Nongovernmental Noncommercial Organizations, which has the effect of controlling their activities.

Understanding the varied experiences in authoritarian countries through time and across borders provides a clearer view of how to support democracy development initiatives. If, instead, we ignore the "foreign" or "Western" concepts, and -- as Kendzior suggests in her article -- challenge authoritarian states, "literally and figuratively, on their own terms," we are implying that authoritarian governments are wholly outside international processes, accepting the rhetoric of authoritarian governments, and missing the fact that the cultural hegemony of Western Europe and the United States does have an influence, for better or worse. If there were no effect on these countries, publications like the Uzbek From a Strong State to Strong Civil Society, or On the Path to Civil Society, by the head of Azerbaijan's Presidential Cabinet, Ramiz Mehdiyev, would never have been written.

Both books respond to international dialogue and argue in defense of heavy-handed rule. While the authors do recognize the need to move toward democracy and civil society, they reject the concept as poorly suited to the present situation. Despite these illiberal stances, the authors are still forced to couch their arguments within the discourse of democracy and civil society, which suggests that the concept of "civil society" has played some role in authoritarian states. And as such, good governance and democracy development programs are not doomed by foreign terms like "civil society" -- but rather by the lack of consideration for the authoritarian country's own history, and cultural and contextual filters. Simply throwing out the concept solves nothing. To take Kendzior's argument a little further, wouldn't we also need to throw out the concept of "human rights" since it, too, is foreign, and seems to have no bearing on the authoritarian context?

Instead of going down this road, terms like "civil society," "leadership," "community," and "democracy" should be viewed through their changes in meaning between the development agencies and the local actors -- and these should inform our attempts to support democracy development. 

Photo by JILDIZ BEKBAEVA/AFP/Getty Images