Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 10/2008

The Political Economy of Successful Reform: Asian Stratagems

Dennis Arroyo

June 2008

Asia-Pacific Research Center


Major economic reforms are often politically difficult, causing pain to voters and provoking unrest. They may be opposed by politicians with short time horizons. They may collide with the established ideology and an entrenched ruling party. They may be resisted by bureaucrats and by vested interests. Obstacles to major economic reform can be daunting in democratic and autocratic polities alike.

And yet, somehow, past leaders of today's Asian dragons did implement vital economic reforms. The paper recounts the political maneuvers used by leaders of economic reform in Asia during these pivotal eras: China under Deng Xiaoping; India in the 1990s; Thailand under General Prem Tinsulanonda; Vietnam's Doi Moi; South Korea under Park Chung Hee; and Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew.

The last part of the paper classifies these maneuvers as responses to the main political barriers to reform. It serves as a "playbook" of tactics for economic reformers. For example, to overcome ideological baggage, the reformers packaged reforms as means to strengthen the party in power. They reformed gradually, initially seeking win-win compromises. They blessed pro-market violations as pilot projects. They even created new provinces to dilute the anti-reform vote.