Political Science Civil Society and Social Movements in East Asia
Mary Alice Haddad
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0322


Civil society in East Asia emerged from two community-generated needs: Rural villages relying primarily on rice farming had to work together to manage collective water supplies, and urban residents in densely packed housing similarly required neighborhood-based associations to fight fire, promote public health, and alleviate intense poverty. Mutual aid organizations rooted in these premodern traditions have not died off and continue to thrive across the region in the form of neighborhood associations, volunteer fire departments, and the like. With the introduction of Christian churches, democratic thought, and the increasingly diverse and complex lifestyles associated with capitalist development, the region has also seen the introduction of other forms of civil society organizations emerge, such as charity groups, reading circles, hobby groups, nonprofit welfare service organizations, ethnic and identity-based mutual aid groups, and advocacy organizations. Because East Asia did not experience the European Enlightenment, with its ideas of separating the public sphere from private interests, and has continued to be strongly influenced by Confucian traditions that emphasize the importance of self-cultivation and social order, civil society in East Asia has tended to be less confrontational toward the state than in other parts of the world. Laws across the region often require that nonprofit organizations register with a “supervising” government ministry, there are strict limits on political lobbying, and personal and corporate donations are often not tax-free. As with other parts of the world, individual citizens and communities do organize and engage in protests, demanding government accountability after corruption scandals, cleaner air and water, and increased protection for ethnic and social minorities, as well as organizing to promote specific policy outcomes. These grassroots movements have sometimes been successful, and both South Korea and Taiwan experienced peaceful transitions to democracy directly as a result of democratic social movements. In East Asia today, we find the same range of civil society organizations that exist across all advanced capitalist societies. As with counterparts elsewhere, civil society in the region is constantly evolving, combining the unique culture of the place in which it operates with influences from abroad.

Comparative Works about Civil Society in East Asia

Citizens in East Asia are governed by a wide range of political systems—Japan has been democratic since the end of World War II, South Korea and Taiwan democratized in the late 1980s, while the mainland of China is governed by a “democratic dictatorship” according to its constitution. Because of this political diversity across the region, it has been difficult for single books to cover civil society in the whole region. To the extent that books on civil society in the region have been written, they generally take the form of edited volumes and tend to focus on social movements. Alagappa 2004, Broadbent and Brockman 2010, Compton 2002, and Hsiao 2018 all examine different ways that social movements in East Asia contributed to democratization in the region. Jones 2017 and Ho 2019 both compare Taiwan’s Sunflower movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement, which occurred in democratic politics reacting to the political expansion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chiavacci, et al. 2020 discusses recent pro- and anti-democracy trends in civil society engagement in the region. Read and Pekkanen 2009 focuses on local organizations and urban governance in East and Southeast Asia.

  • Alagappa, Muthiah, ed. Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

    This edited volume examines civil society’s relations with the states across the region. It begins with entries about how civil society organizations in Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, India, and Japan have competing ideas of democracy. The remaining sections discuss state-supporting civil society (Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore) and civil society repressed by governments (Pakistan, Burma, and China).

  • Broadbent, Jeffrey, and Vicky Brockman. East Asian Social Movements: Power, Protest, and Change in a Dynamic Region. New York: Springer, 2010.

    This volume covers a wide range of social movements across Northeast Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), including student, environmental, labor, pro-democracy, women’s, and ethnic minority movements.

  • Chiavacci, David, Simona Grano, and Julia Obinger, eds. Civil Society and the State in Democratic East Asia: Between Entanglement and Contention in Post High Growth. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.

    This volume covers civic engagement and social movements in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in the post-growth era, covering citizen activism in issues ranging from environment, to social inclusion and nationalism.

  • Compton, Robert W., Jr. East Asian Democratization: Impact of Globalization, Culture, and Economy. London: Praeger, 2002.

    Unlike the other entries in this section, Compton’s book is not an edited volume, with different authors for each case-study chapter, but offers a more coherent argument and theoretical structure than the others. The book seeks to understand how Confucian cultural traditions as well as legacies of developmental state politics have influenced democratic development. After several theoretical chapters, the book examines democratic development in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand.

  • Ho, Ming-Sho. Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019.

    Ho’s book examines the Taiwan and Hong Kong movements as two manifestations of a similar public response to increasing dependence on and pressure from the Chinese mainland. The student-generated movements elicited different government responses and resulted in divergent outcomes. The book discusses not just the dynamics of the two movements, but also how activist networks linked organizations in both places, and how the movements fit into a global context.

  • Hsiao, Hsin-Huang Michael, ed. Middle Class, Civil Society and Democracy in Asia. London: Routledge, 2018.

    This volume examines the connections between the middle class, civil society, and democratization. It offers a complex view of how these factors interact with one another through case studies demonstrating that while in some countries there are positive linkages between the three (Taiwan and South Korea), in other cases (Philippines and Indonesia) the links are more mixed, and in Thailand they are actually negative.

  • Jones, Brian Christopher. Law and Politics of the Taiwan Sunflower and Hong Kong Umbrella Movements. London: Routledge, 2017.

    This volume focuses specifically on the question of how law is viewed and used by protesters and the state in the Sunflower and Umbrella protest movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong, respectively. The volume includes chapters that examine concepts of the right of free assembly, ideas of civic constitutionalism and civil disobedience, and how closer economic integration with the Chinese mainland affected the movements.

  • Read, Benjamin, and Robert Pekkanen, eds. Local Organizations and Urban Governance in East and Southeast Asia: Straddling State and Society. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Rather than focusing on headline-grabbing social movements, this volume studies the form of civil society organization that is by far the most prevalent across the region—neighborhood-based groups. With chapters on Japan, mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore, the volume reveals the complexity of state-society and central-local relations in diverse political systems across the region.

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