I think that you are right. If I remember correctly, Paul Krugman told me a decade ago that his view was that Japan and East Asia were going to get into real trouble when circumstances changed, because their societies and their governments would be too authoritarian and rigid to adapt when things went wrong. Capitalist democracy at least gives you some circulation of elites--and concentrates the minds of political elites on fixing whatever is wrong with economic growth.
That said, I think there is some cause for optimism (even if only of the "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" variety) for the northern half of East Asia. South Korea and Taiwan continue to slowly but steadily advance toward democracy. There is a chance that Japan will break out of its version of machine politics, and find a government that will carry out the equivalent of the New Deal. The Philippines just had a real election in which elites definitely circulated: a president whose inability to speak "proper" English is one of his big selling points.
But I can't even summon up optimism of the will with respect to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Too many of their exports go to depressed Japan. And their political systems have too many authoritarian and military elements in them...
(On the other hand, Latin America is a positive surprise. I wish that the main opposition to PRI in Mexico came from Cuahtemoc Cardenas and company rather than from PAN, and I wish the Brazilian police didn't massacre homeless children, and I wish that Pinochet were not senator-for-life in Chile. But in the end the Mexican financial crisis did *not* spillover to the south. And the potential military dictators have gone back to their barracks for a while, at least...)