The State in Asia: Power, Citizenship and the Rule of Law

On December 12 - 14, the Leiden research profile area Asian Modernities and Traditions (AMT) will host an international conference on the theme of "The State in Asia: Power, Citizenship and the Rule of Law".

Visit the conference website.

Tom Ginsburg from the University of Chicago Law School will be the conference keynote speaker.

Each of the four conference themes will be introduced by a keynote as well: 'Building the state in Asia' by Anthony Reid from the Australian National University, 'Developmental Asian state' by Andrew MacIntyre, also from the Australian National University, 'Citizenship in Asia' by Steven Wilkinson from Yale University, and 'Developing the rule of law' by Patrick Glenn from McGill University.

The State in Asia: Power, Citizenship and the Rule of Law

The nation and the modern state in Asia are ongoing projects informed by a quest for cultural, religious and political identities that are new and modern, yet simultaneously rooted in indigenous culture and tradition and emphatically different from templates imported from the West. The formation and the functioning of Asia’s systems of law and governance reflect strong developmental ambitions as well as deep heterogeneity and insecurity. At the same time, the concepts of state and nation do not remain static. They have developed in the Asian context such that for instance Singapore or Japan now serve as model of successful nation-states that other Asian states aspire to emulate.

However, the reach of the Asian state quite often extends only tentatively across the full territory of the nation. Being governed or, conversely, freedom from being governed is in many places anything but secure, and violence from and against the state is very common. The state, in other words, is in many places only a partial, negotiated, and sometimes even ephemeral presence. Even in core areas firmly under the control of the state, endemic corruption, factionalism, and violence associated with elections or coups d’état make rule anything but stable and predictable.

Differences of religion, ethnicity, caste, uneven development, or generation are flashpoints needing political and judicial conflict-resolving mechanisms. Likewise, local and national authorities struggle with disputes over natural resources, land appropriation, pollution, and environmental protection that are emerging everywhere. Long-term demographic trends will produce a whole new set of national and international policy challenges. The population of East Asia (including China) will age increasingly rapidly and ultimately shrink, while a similar demographic transition will take much longer in most of South and Southeast Asia.

The conference will consist of up to eight panels grouped into four themes:

  • Building the state in Asia
  • Developmental Asian states
  • Citizenship in Asia
  • Developing the rule of law in Asia

Theme 1: Building the state in Asia

Coordinators: Frank Pieke and Nira Wickramasinghe

This theme locates the state in contemporary Asia as an historically specific institution. We will explore the continuities and discontinuities with pre-modern states in Asia and the impact of modernity and decolonialization in the twentieth century. Although we cannot fully disentangle state-building from nation-building, our focus under this theme will be on the former. In part this theme thus sets the scene for the other three themes on citizenship, the rule of law and the developmental state.

Under this theme we anticipate to organize two panels on topics that approach Asian state building from two opposite directions. The first one will be on aspects of strengthening, rationalizing and modernizing the institutions of governance. The second panel will focus on its counterparts, the limits and challenges to a modernized, unified  and centralized state. Here we will address issues such as migration and diversity, religious and political movements, corruption, the capture of the state by special interests, borderlands, insurgency and the formation of new nations. At this panel we will pay especial attention to the relevance of possible (and often contradictory) answers commonly proposed to tackle these challenges: strengthening multi-level governance; centralization; multi-party democracy; authoritarianism; the rule of law; secularization; Islamization; regional international cooperation; national autarky.

Theme 2: Developmental Asian States

Coordinator: David Henley

Everybody agrees that most developmental states, and almost all of the really successful developmental states, have been found in Asia. But there is much disagreement regarding what exactly constitutes a developmental state, what makes such a state successful in bringing about development, and under what social and political conditions developmental states are likely to emerge. This panel investigates, on an interdisciplinary basis, the nature, methods, and origins of developmental states in Asia.

What kind of political commitment to what kinds of policies is the hallmark of developmentalism? Did the success of East Asia begin with industrialization, or with an earlier revolution in agricultural productivity? Is the protection of infant industries and the selective restriction of market forces central to Asian economic success, as opponents of neoliberal growth prescriptions have insisted? Or was it precisely the openness of the East Asian economies to foreign trade and investment, combined with public investment in transport, health, and education, that enabled them to outperform those of other developing countries? Are the developmental states of Northeast and Southeast Asia fundamentally different from each other in this - or any other - respect? Why have East Asian developing countries tended to display less income inequality than their counterparts elsewhere, and how central has this been to their greater success? How exacting were the historical and cultural preconditions for the emergence of developmental states in East Asia? Did it depend critically on ecologies, institutions and political dynamics specific to that region, such as wet rice farming, Confucianism, or intense competition between communist and non-communist states and ideologies?

These and related questions  are not only vital for a correct understanding of the recent history of East Asia; they also have momentous practical implications for the future of the still poor nations elsewhere in the world, notably in Africa.

Theme 3: Citizenship

Coordinator: Henk Schulte Nordholt

Why do democratization processes so rarely manage to restrict predatory and clientelistic practices of political elites? The persistence of political clientelism throughout Asia cannot be attributed solely to institutional shortcomings or selfish behaviour of elites, but is also part of the way citizenship is practised and perceived by ordinary citizens. While democratic citizenship is a considered a vital correlate of democratization and the rule of law, its western-oriented literature rarely studies whether and how democratic citizenship can emerge in the context of a weak state and a largely clientelistic political system.

Under this theme we will focus on two specific topics. The first is the evolution of clientelistic politics in Asia. Clientelism was long seen as an exploitative, undemocratic practice arising from of hierarchical social relations. A new wave of research, however, suggests that democratization processes might make patron-clients relations less asymmetrical but not necessarily less pervasive. Clientelistic practices can be observed in both established democracies (India, Japan) and democratizing countries (Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka) and as autocratic polities (Singapore). Political clientelism can no longer be considered a pre-modern, traditional artifact destined to be swept away by economic development and democratization. How can we understand and explain the different forms and intensity of clientelistic practices across Asia? To what extent impacts the nature of economic development on clientelistic practices? Is political clientelism likely to remain a key feature of Asian politics in the future?

The second topic is digital citizenship and new forms of public action and accountability. This topic explores the ways in which digital/social media are deployed in internet-based campaigns against corruption and judicial failure. All across Asia people have enthusiastically embraced new communication technologies and social media. New forms of public action are shaping the way the public sphere is evolving outside the conventional domain of political parties or civil society organizations, and might be promoting forms of civic engagement that weaken the importance of primordial affiliations and clientelistic relations. How does the avid and often creative use of digitalized media in anti-corruption campaigns contribute to the consolidation of a viable public sphere, the fostering and conceptualization of new forms of citizenship and collective action? Does this challenge elite-driven politics and perhaps even offer alternative forms of political action?

Theme 4: Developing the Rule of Law and Legal Transplants

Coordinator: Adriaan Bedner

One of the central objectives in building nation-states is to introduce the rule of law. However, what this should mean is ambiguous, as the rule of law is an ‘essentially’ contested concept that may connote very different kinds of legal systems. In building up their legal systems states moreover borrow paradigms, ideas and laws from elsewhere which may take on completely different meanings in their new surroundings. These issues have acquired particular relevance in the current political context of Asia, where western concepts and models seem to be losing some of their appeal and alternative models of ‘rule of law’ and legal systems are becoming more attractive. This process is reinforced by the fact that national legal systems worldwide are under pressure from the rise of ‘alternative’ global and regional legal regimes and have increasing difficulty in maintaining their integrity.

So far scholarly interest has been mainly concerned with the question how such legal transplants are accommodated in their new environment and then in particular across civil and common law jurisdictions. These studies typically concern western jurisdictions or western examples adopted by non-western states. The question is whether now there is a tendency for Asian countries to select legal examples other than the common western ones. To what extent, for instance, has Singapore come to serve as a model for other countries in Southeast Asia? And what about Japan, India and China? This question is not limited to lawmaking but extends to legal reasoning by courts as well as to legal education. What the consequences of such a process – if indeed it is taking place – are for the conception of the rule of law in the region? Is a convergence of Asian legal systems taking place that may ultimately lead us to speak of new legal family?


The research profile Asian Modernities and Traditions (AMT) aims to raise the strength and visibility of research, teaching and dissemination of Asian Studies at Leiden University.

Last Modified: 11-12-2012