Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 20, 2017
The emerging social contract in Asia

Social contract theory is about what kind of relationship a government should have with its citizens. In the academic discipline of International Relations, this is usually conveyed in Hobbesian terms, whereby citizens forego aspects of their liberty in exchange for security. In other words, it is a rational, transactional relationship. However, in his famous treatise on the social contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau described ‘government’ as an expression of the general will of the population.<1> In this telling, the social contract is an emotional bond. Governments are not only meant to fulfil material needs but also to embody the emotional character of the people.

Thus, there is a tension inherent in the concept of a social contract—governments must look after the impulsive and emotional wants of the populace (what, in the individual, Freud called the id) as well as their rational and objective needs (in Freud’s terms, the ego).

Befitting its geographical and population size, and ethnic diversity, the Asian space displays a wider spectrum of ways in which this relationship is played out. These range from the strongman approach of leaders—such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, with his death squads and boasts that he personally killed suspected criminals,<2> and Kim Jong-un in North Korea, with his staged executions and 200,000 political prisoners in re-education camps—to the more bureaucratic authoritarianism of China and its one party rule, the democratic authoritarianism of Singapore, and on to the more liberal democratic systems of Japan and India.

It would be trite even to attempt to posit a single Asian approach to this dilemma given the region’s diversity. However, there are certain trends emerging which can be identified that will have an impact on the way the social contract is managed in Asia. The four we will explore in this essay are the return of authoritarianism, the impact of technology, continuing inequality and urbanisation. Each of these is likely to challenge existing structures of governance in the region and test the prevailing notions of social contract in Asian states.

The return of authoritarianism

In the hubris of the immediate post-Cold War era, Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “end of history.”<3> Liberal democracy and economics had supposedly triumphed and faced no foreseeable challenge from rival systems. Although a few diehard autocrats remained, most states were liberalising and moving to democratic forms of government. By the mid-1990s, authoritarian structures of governance were in the minority.<4> The assumption was that this rump would quietly decline and whither. Yet, recent years have seen a resurgence in authoritarianism.

The problem was that whilst the number of electoral democracies globally increased to a high of 64% in 2006, the following eight years saw an annual decline in political rights and civil liberties.<5> Even though more countries were holding elections, the extent to which this actually amounted to a free contest was severely limited. Commentators coined the terms ‘illiberal democracies’ and ‘semi-authoritarianism’ to describe this phenomenon.<6>  Thus, despite the apparent spread of democratic governance in recent decades, according to Freedom House, more countries in the Asia-Pacific region are not free (42%) than free (38%).<7>

The false assumption of many who pushed for democratisation in the last two decades, particularly in the United States, was that this would lead to liberalisation. But the two are distinct and can even be in conflict.<8> In the Ancient world, the Romans rejected democracy as akin to mob rule, favouring liberty and the rule of law instead;<9> without respect for due process and minority rights, democracy risks being a tyranny of the majority. Today, we have the rising spectre of populist leaders achieving democratic mandates on the basis of decidedly illiberal manifestos. Military rule has returned to Thailand and its constitutional position legitimised through a referendum.<10> In Myanmar, democratic reforms have not spared the Rohingya people from oppression by their government.<11>  This poses a challenge for liberal movements in states such as India, as it undermines arguments in favour of shared liberal values that are termed ‘elitist’ and so anti-democratic.

At the same time, it emboldens nondemocratic regimes like China, who can point to the erratic decision-making of populists and suggest that such disorder is inherent to democratic governance. Amid the distraction of Brexit and US elections, Xi Jinping (already enjoying a concentration of power his predecessors lacked and looking to remove potential rivals<12>), will soon have an opportunity to further consolidate his power with the impending election of five out of the seven seats to the politburo standing committee.<13>

Authoritarians are not only emboldened at home, but are beginning to converge in their foreign policy positions. Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China is but one example. In 2014, Michael Ignatieff saw the gas deal between Russia and China as another, heralding “the emergence of an alliance of authoritarian states with a combined population of 1.6 billion in the vast Eurasian space that stretches from the Polish border to the Pacific, from the Arctic Circle to the Afghan frontier.”<14>

As a broad trend, authoritarian populist leaders are problematic because the focus on them as individuals means that when mistakes are made, or policies don’t work out, they have no one to blame but themselves, and so must look for scapegoats. In countries that are ethnically mixed or ideologically divided, the temptation is to blame a minority group to bolster the support of the majority. This can lead to internal persecution and a breakdown of the idea that the social contract applies to all citizens.

In ethnically or ideologically homogenous states, the focus has to be on an external threat. Here, the government will focus on the security aspects of the social contract—at the inevitable expense of health and social care. Thus is set in train a vicious cycle of declining standards of governance and increasing needs to evoke nationalism and identity, and internal or external threats, to mask personal failures.

In other words, the domestic governance arrangements of states have an impact on state behaviour at home and abroad. That may seem self-evident, but the five principles of co-existence that are regularly evoked as a proto-charter of Asian international norms explicitly reject taking domestic governance into consideration in favour of non-interference in internal affairs. In an increasingly authoritarian world, that stance may become problematic as states begin to converge according to their domestic political systems. There is also the risk that the apparent efficiency of autocracies will be compared unfavourably with the messy compromises and delays of liberal democracy. The result may be a slide towards authoritarianism to respond to global trends—leaving the remaining liberal democracies isolated in the region.


Beyond the governmental challenges of global politics, Asia’s development means that it is increasingly being affected by technological changes. The number of people with access to the internet has risen dramatically in recent years. China now has 680 million internet users and an internet penetration of 52.2% of the population. India is second in the region in terms of total numbers of users with 375 million but its penetration lags behind at 34.8% (Japan has the highest penetration at over 91%). A number of countries in Asia have high rates of internet penetration, with Vietnam, Malaysia, Macau, Brunei, Singapore and South Korea all registering over 50%.<15> The proliferation of internet lives, lived online rather than in the physical world, is likely to have profound social implications. In the digital world, traditional communities fragment, old social bonds are frayed and people can live a more atomised and individualistic existence.<16>

That is not to say they are entirely antisocial. New networked communities emerge and connect people in ways that were not possible before. The negative aspects of such potential, in the form of transnational terrorism, are evident, but it also brings benefits, such as more efficient and adaptive supply lines in the economic realm, as well as the greater opportunities for social activism and community organisation.<17>

On the one hand, digital technology empowers governments by increasing their powers of surveillance. Countries in the Asian region have been singled out as particularly vociferous in this regard, with high profile cases of people being punished for their internet use in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.<18> In its 2016 “Freedom on the Net” report, Freedom House described China as “the year’s worst abuser of internet freedom,” noting the seven-year prison term facing those accused of “spreading rumours on social media.”<19>

On the other hand, the internet also undermines governments’ capacity to dominate the public discourse with official narratives of events or cover up corruption and malpractice.<20> This can be useful for accountability but has its downsides. In the West, there has been much talk of ‘post-truth politics’ and fake news. The latter has long been a feature of Asian popular discourse due to governmental restrictions on information flows. Now, the glut of information has paradoxically led to the same result, with rumour and moral panic able to spread beyond the control of government.<21>

For the social contract between citizens and government to work effectively, the populace must have some basic trust that government statements are accurate—or at least not intentionally misleading—and that bureaucratic institutions are acting in the service of the public good. In turn, the government has a duty to correct misinformation in the public domain and devise policy according to national, rather than sectional, interests. Social media offer a chance to hold governments accountable by increasing awareness of issues as they arise; but the potential for false news to proliferate before governments can respond is a real challenge to the health of public discourse. As internet use increases, so does the problem of how citizens obtain accurate information and how governments maintain public trust.  Policymakers are increasingly concerned that digitisation might lead to a “growing sense of political disempowerment” with consequent effects on civic engagement, activism and political unrest.<22>


Asian development has rightly been lauded as having an important impact on the length and quality of people’s lives in the region. In China alone, over 600 million people have been taken out of poverty. Even excluding China, over 400 million people globally have been lifted out of extreme poverty.<23> Global average life expectancy increased by five years between 2000 and 2015, the fastest growth since the 1960s.<24> Asian citizens have on average a higher life expectancy than people from most other regions, though there are marked disparities between countries, ranging from a life expectancy of 60 in Afghanistan and 66 in Pakistan to 84 in Japan.<25> Adult literacy rates have improved but there are significant gender differences. For instance, in India the overall literacy rate according to the 2010 census was 64.8%, but the male literacy rate was 75.3% compared 53.7% among females.<26>

In other words, there are unequal gains and some losers as well as winners behind Asia’s development story. There remain a substantial number of people left behind by the Asian economic miracle. In Bangladesh, 40.3% of young people between the ages of 15-24 are not engaged in employment, education or training.<27> In Nepal, 37.4% of children aged 5-17 are engaged in child labour. India hit the headlines last year when the annual Human Development Report revealed it was one of the most unequal societies in the world.<28> According to Credit Suisse, the richest 1% of India’s population own 53% of the country’s wealth whilst the poorer half owns just 4.1%.<29>

These fissures beg the question: who is the current configuration of social contract designed to serve? Liberalising trade may enrich capitalist entrepreneurs and middle class professionals, but it also increases pressure on the poorer classes by widening the availability of labour and hence potentially driving down working standards and pay. A rising Asian middle class was expected to challenge traditional structures of authority, both religious and secular, across the region in ways that were assumed would bring improvement in civil liberties. Instead, polling in China suggests that it is this very class that is the most supportive of authoritarian measures to curb dissent.

That said, a simple focus on reducing inequality will not necessarily help the situation of the poor in absolute terms. The Asian Development Bank notes the strange fact that “countries with the highest average income growth (but higher levels of inequality) saw some of the largest reductions in poverty” between 1990 and the present day.<30> Even if this is an empirical fact, the reality of substantial numbers of people getting richer alongside continuing poverty risks social unrest. The World Economic Forum in its 2016 Global Risks report noted that income inequality “could leave societies deeply unsettled” in the coming decade and had listed it as the number one global risk between 2012 and 2014 before reclassifying it with other factors. <31>


Underlying the rapid economic growth of many Asian economies has been a substantial shift in populations from rural to urban areas. A 2015 World Migration Report suggests that the level of urbanisation in ASEAN countries is set to increase from 15 to over 60% by 2050. <32> In China, urbanisation is likely to reach the levels of developed countries by 2050. <33> One striking example offered in the report is the Chinese city of Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, which was home to a population of 20,000 in 1980 but “will have reached 12 million and megacity status within 40 years.” <34> This level of urbanisation has the potential to create huge problems in the future.

According to Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada, “developing Asian cities simply do not have the administrative, management, institutional and financial capacities to manage urbanization and resulting socio-economic upheaval within such short periods.” <35> An analyst for Zurich bank has suggested that “rapid, often unplanned urbanization brings risks of profound social instability, risks to critical infrastructure, potential water crises and the potential for devastating spread of disease.” <36> Although it is difficult to predict urbanisation trends—or even arrive at an agreed definition of the process―most analysts agree that more people are moving to towns and cities, and this is creating pressures on infrastructure and social cohesion.

If the social contract is defined in terms of providing for people’s material needs, there is a substantive difference in the provision of economic wealth between rural and urban areas. This is particularly evident in China, which has one of the highest disparities in the world. Despite an apparent narrowing in recent years, in 2015 the China Daily reported that annual average per capita disposable income in rural China was at 10,489 yuan ($1,693) compared to 29,381 yuan ($4,739) in urban areas. <37> In India in 2011-12, the per capita income in urban areas was calculated as INR 1,01,313 ($1,483), compared to INR 40,772 ($597) in rural areas. <38> These differences are likely to exacerbate migration, but also increase a sense of disconnection between urban political elites and their rural citizens.

Further to this, processes of urbanisation can lead to cultural and normative clashes between citizens from traditional societies, often with patriarchal or religiously conservative views, and more liberal urban communities. Such a stereotype does not apply across the region but is a noticeable pattern underlying instances of sexual assault, extrajudicial killing and kidnapping in some parts of Asia. Governments across the region are having to manage calls for greater political freedom and autonomy in rural areas whilst at the same time responding to the desire for more social freedom in urban towns and cities.


Although this essay has drawn attention to the positive and negative aspects of these trends, it does not wish to conclude with ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ equivocation. In the opinion of this author, a stable social contract is best served by governments and peoples acknowledging the importance of liberty and the rule of law as well as democracy; social justice as well as development; and social harmony as well as technological advances and urbanisation.

The purpose of government is to unify its citizens wherever possible, and to offset the costs of public goods, like free trade, free movement and free speech, so that those who are negatively affected by them still feel valued. There are no easy answers to these challenges but increasing authoritarianism is clearly not a sustainable response. It is arguably not an accident that economic, social and political liberalisation, however flawed, have coincided with unprecedented levels of people rising out of poverty, both globally and in the region. Even as the social contract will continue to manifest itself in different forms in different states across Asia, it is likely to be most effective when governments are accountable to their citizens and responsive to their material and emotional needs―without pandering to narrow nationalism or identity politics. Above all, governments will have to manage the reflexive emotional responses (the id of these communities) brought forth by the uncertainty of new technologies, economic change and urbanisation, whilst serving their rational, egoistic needs.

This article was originally published in 'Raisina Files: Debating the world in the Asian Century

<1> Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762).

<2> Oliver Holmes and agencies, “Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte says he personally killed criminals,” The Guardian, December 14, 2016,

<3> Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

<4> Arch Puddington and Tyler Roylance, “Overview Essay: Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies” in Freedom of the World 2016, Freedom House,

<5> David Clark, The Forward March of Democracy Halted? World Politics and the Rise of Authoritarianism (London: The Henry Jackson Society, 2015).

<6> Fareed Zakaria, “Illiberal Democracies,” Foreign Affairs, 1997; Marina Ottaway, Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism, (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003).

<7> Freedom in the World 2016, Freedom House,

<8> Zakaria, “Illiberal Democracies.”

<9> Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (London: Profile Books, 2016): 189.

<10> “Thailand referendum: New constitution wins approval,” Al Jazeera, August 7, 2016,

<11> Scott Edwards and Moch Faisal Karim, “South-East Asia takes stock after a year of alarming democratic decline,” The Conversation, December 16, 2016,

<12> Lingling Wei and Jeremy Page, “China Ousts Finance Minister as Xi Jinping Turns to Allies,” The Wall Street Journal, November 8. 2016,

<13> Jeremy Page and Lingling Wei, “Xi’s Power Play Foreshadows Historic Transformation of How China Is Ruled,” The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2016,

<14> Michael Ignatieff, “Are the Authoritarians Winning?,” New York Review of Books, July 2014.

<15> This data is from:;

<16> “How healthy behaviour supports children’s wellbeing,” Public Health England, August 2013,; M. D. Holder, B. Coleman, and Z. L. Sehn ZL, “The contribution of active and passive leisure to children’s wellbeing,” Journal of Health Psychology 14, no. 3 (2009): 378-386. It is worth noting that the effects of internet use are still a matter of debate. V. Bell et al. “The debate over digital technology and young people,” BMJ (2015): 351; Susan Greenfield, “The Impact of Screen Technologies: The debate should focus on determining the boundaries between harmless use and misuse,” BMJ, September 14, 2015,

<17> Nyan Chanda, “Globalization and International Politics in Asia,” in International Relations of Asia eds. David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 307; Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (London: Penguin, 2011).

<18> Erin Hale, “The 5 Worst Places To Be An Internet User In Southeast Asia,” Forbes, November 22, 2016,

<19> “Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps Under Pressure,” in Freedom on the Net 2016, Freedom House,

<20> Brendan Howe, The Protection and Promotion of Human Security in East Asia (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013).

<21> Madanmohan Rao, “e-Government in Asia,” in The Internet and Governance in Asia ed. Indrajit Banerjee (Singapore: Asian Media and Information Centre, 2007), 110; “China’s internet police crack down on ‘panic mongering,’” Financial Times, March 7, 3014,

<22> “The Global Risks Report 2016, 11th Edition,” WEF, 38,

<23> Stephen Radelet, “The Rise of the World’s Poorest Countries,” Journal of Democracy (October 2015):, 26,4, p.6.

<24> “Life expectancy,” Global Health Observatory data, WHO,

<25> “Life expectancy at birth, total (years), World Bank data,

<26> “Literacy and Level of Education,” Census 2011, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India,

<27> “Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2016,” ADB, 61,

<28> Nisha Agarwal, “Inequality in India: what’s the real story?,” WEF, October 4, 2016,

<29> Ibid.

<30> “Key indicators for Asia,” 57.

<31> “The Global Risks,” 38.

<32> Graeme Hugo, “Urban Migration Trends, Challenges,

Responses and Policy in the Asia–Pacific,” World Migration Report 2015, International Organisation for Migration, 8,

<33> Ibid., 7.

<34> Ibid., 11.

<35> Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada, “Urbanization and Migration in Developing Asia,” The Diplomat, September 11, 2015,

<36> Steve Wilson, “The risks of rapid urbanization in developing countries,”

<37> Yang Wanli, “Rural-urban income gap narrows,” China Daily, April 22, 2015,

<38> PTI, “Big gap in per capita income in urban and rural areas,” The Times of India, May 10, 2016,

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