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Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies

Civil Society versus the State? Emergent Trajectories of Civic Agency in East Asia in Comparative and Transnational Perspective

International Conference, September 13 - 15, 2017

Outline and Background

East Asian economies have been characterized by a remarkable and rapid industrialization process, which has transformed East Asia into a new core region of the world system besides the West. In contrast to a liberal economic model, this growth and transformation in the region has been guided by  strong developmentel states that successfully activated and integrated private interests and the population into national projects of developmentalism and shared growth. As part of this economic growth, large middle classes and mass consumerism have emerged and Japan,
South Korea and Taiwan have developed into stable democracies. Despite significant differences in their respective economic structures, social institutions and political systems, recent sociopolitical changes are mirrored in citizens’ claims for more political participation throughout these nations.

In Taiwan for instance, recent civic mobilizations under the previous KMT administration related to what citizens perceived as an increasingly “cross-strait friendly” mode of administration, which had started with the  promotion of direct links in 2008 and culminated in the enactment of a series of trade agreements between the two sides. From 2008 onward, civic groups with different aims have experienced a “cross-pollination” of interests and have unified under the banner of opposing the previous government’s non-transparent behavior, as seen in the three-weeks long
occupation of the Legislative and Executive Yuan in March-April 2014, and in the Kuomintang (the China-friendly party) loosing the presidency in January 2016 to the opposition party.

In the case of Hong Kong, the 2003 free trade agreement with the PRC significantly increased cross-border economic cooperation and provided a platform for Beijing to co-opt local economic elites in the city. Less obvious
was the parallel process, which has been pointed out by observers and researchers, to induce political, cultural and educational integration of Hong Kong through closer links with Mainland China. These developments have led to mass protest and clashes of social movements demanding true universal suffrage, the preservation of civil liberties and of Hong Kong’s distinctiveness versus authorities operating under Beijing’s control like the Umbrella Movement of 2014 or the recent riots of February 2016.

In view of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear disaster of 2011, both established and new social movements in Japan have started to question the strong links between the state and private industries. Moreover, the current Abe
administration is facing strong opposition in view of its plan to change the postwar peace constitution, to introduce a more patriotic curriculum, and further constrain the freedom of press. While a majority of Japanese still support the administration due to its promise to relaunch shared growth through its economic policies – called “Abenomics”, a growing proportion of citizens is standing up against its increasingly authoritarian political reform agenda.

Labor market and education issues are in the centre of political conflicts and large mass demonstration in South Korea. The current Park administration is criticized by a large collation of civic society actors, including labor unions
and peasant organizations, for its business-friendly policy of labor-market deregulation, leading to deteriorating labor conditions and rising social inequalities. Moreover, the government’s plan to introduce state-issued history schoolbooks is heavily criticized as attempt to whitewash South Korea’s past dictatorships, triggering public protest.

In Mainland China, several steps by the authorities to regain control over the population (e.g. the much heralded war on corruption) reflect the government’s awareness that the population has gradually lost faith in the ability (and in the willingness) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to address China’s most pressing issues. These include environmental degradation, privileges of party cadres and a sluggish economic growth, and has prompted a spike of protests over labor disputes and strikes since 2010. Strict state repression show that the governing elites increasingly recognize civic actors and social movements as political forces that could undermine CCP’s dominance despite economic development and growth.

With this conference we aim to consolidate research on recent interactions and conflicts between the states, who try to exert more influence across several fields (e.g. the environment, the labor market, freedom of expression, education) and newly emerging social movements as a counter-reaction to what is perceived by many as an “illiberal turn” on part of the authorities. By bringing together different theoretical positions from a variety of disciplines, the relationship between civic awareness and different forms of agency, including resistance against what is perceived as
authoritarian decision-making, shall be re-examined. We hope to increase our understanding of these recent developments in comparative and transnational perspective by widening the lens on East Asia, seeking to explore both similarities and differences behind these new protest movements. Questions we will raise include: How are the recent protest and conflicts shaped by country-specific institutions and contexts? How the protest movements are transnationally connected? Do they mark the beginning of a transnational civic society – or even the beginning of a regional integration process from below?


Prof. Dr. David Chiavacci (Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, Japanese Studies: Social Sciences, University of Zurich)

Dr. Simona Grano (Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, Chinese Studies, University of Zurich)

Dr. Julia Obinger (Japan Research Center, SOAS, University of London)


Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies – Japanese Studies: Social Sciences

Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies - Chinese Studies


University of Zurich, RAA G 15, Rämistrasse 59, 8001 Zürich


September 13, 2017, 3 pm - 7 pm

Septemer 14, 2017, 09:30 am - 7 pm

September 15, 2017, 09:30 am - 12:30 pm

Weiterführende Informationen