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Photo: “Palace of Nations and the Flagpole, Dushanbe, Tajikistan“, by Rjruiziii licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Hue modified from the original

Weiss, Meredith L. “Can Civil Society Safeguard Rights in Asia?.” Asian Studies Review (2020): 1-15.


As the Cold War waned, civil society came to be regarded as the domain that made democracy work. Optimism and attention nevertheless faded as new democracies failed to thrive. Now, once again we find regimes in flux globally, amidst what seems to be a “democratic recession”. Heightened political angst has prompted renewed attention to civil society, as a possible antidote to institutional malaise. A sequence of incomplete or reversing transitions from forms of authoritarianism across Asia since the 1980s makes these concerns especially germane. Opening the public sphere allows for full-throated rights claims, but also for demands for exclusivity in conferring those rights. Similarly, economic globalisation fosters mobility and far-flung community, but also deference to business interests in policy processes. Even so, I argue that the nature and confluence of Asian states’ transitions, situated amidst structural changes to media and markets, increase transparency and information flows, and nurture creativity born of urgency. Civil society remains heterogeneous across the region, but even where weakly organised and embattled, it can still support effective, if oblique, efforts at shaping norms and contesting violations. The current balance warrants tempered expectations, but also cautious optimism for a civil-societal role in claiming and maintaining human rights.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.