Europeans behind the Confucian Throne
Posted on 22:06, January 11th, 2009 by Pablo
There is state in Asia that is a remarkable story of modern economic-political success. From its origins as a post-colonial, post-war, disease-ridden ethnic enclave in swampland fronted by a primitive deep water port ringed by brothels and opium dens, its has transformed itself, under the tutelage of one imaginative (albeit authoritarian) political genius into a paragon of Asian developmentalism. In its socio-economic scope and depth, it rivals the conquest of the American West, minus the ethnic cleansing. In its self-conscious championing of its alternative to liberal democracy, it stands unequaled.
But there is a dirty secret to this country’s success, one that even national leaders will not admit. It is European complicity in fostering its one-party regime’s rise and continuity. Without Europeans (mostly British and Germans, but including Australians, New Zealanders, US, Dutch and French nationals amongst majority contributors), this Asian dragon would collapse in a week. That is because, at around 10% of the population, Europeans are the skilled labour that staff upper management in private and state enterprises, ministries and other cultural-educational institutions that are the foundation upon which the national “miracle” rests. They are, in other words, the silent partners in this story of authoritarian success, because while the local elite keeps the political order in check, the Europeans supply the brain power to grow the economic base. The local skilled labour force is too small to do so by themselves.
For their troubles, these Europeans live extremely well. Most make six or seven figure salaries, with full subsidies of their (exorbitant) rents, cars, maids and school tuitions at private foreign curriculum schools (there are over two dozen foreign schools offering American, Australian, French, German Japanese and Chinese curricula, among others) . They shop in Western-oriented supermarkets and malls, and they socialize with the most Westernized elements of native society. They need not learn any of the local dialects, because the language of the powerful is English. Many middle aged European men display a penchant for young(er) Asian wimin, so as far as they are concerned their cultural “immersion” is complete. As far as the government is concerned, the more such immersion, the better. Put another way, these Europeans individually and collectively benefit from their participation in the authoritarian project.
The irony of this arrangement at least twofold: Expat Europeans accept the regime’s argument that liberal democracy is unsuitable for the country given its conditions, and that in fact liberal democracy is a decadent political form that has been surpassed by the more efficient local model, which is based on purported Confucian values. Given that almost 30 percent of those native to the country have no cultural affinity with Confucianism, that is debatable even at home. The irony extends to the fact that this new Asian alternative to liberal democracy structurally depends on expats from the very countries that it considers “decadent” and chaotic. What is not debatable is that Europeans come to this place to enrich themselves, remains silent in the face of a host of undemocratic indignities visited upon the locals, and even dare to talk about how “safe” the place is in contrast to their home countries (at least if you do not talk politics). They accept the regime’s logic that stability, efficiency and steadiness of governmental purpose trumps open voice and unfettered grassroots participation in the political process.
A number of prominent New Zealanders have transited through this Asian success story on their way to greater things at home. Upon their return to NZ some have entered politics, with others prominent in business. What does it say about these people that they would choose such a place as a launching platform or stepping stone for subsequent careers in NZ? Why should they purport to speak for all New Zealanders in either private or public life, given their active complicity in an authoritarian project that rejects the fundamentals of New Zealand’s socio-political order? What does it say about average New Zealanders that they would allow themselves to be led by such people?
At the very least we should hope that these repatriated opportunists are mere hypocrites that toed the authoritarian line while in Asia, rather than their having accepted the argument that liberal democracy is less preferable than a developmental dictatorship when it comes to political efficiency and social stability (to say nothing of crime). If the latter were to be true (that these returning expats actually believe in the Confucian developmental alternative to liberal democracy) and we add to this the influx of Asian immigrants who retain belief systems rooted in the Confucian values extolled by the authoritarian developmentalist model, that combination of views could signal a change in the terms of political debate in a “harder” direction, or at least could arguably signal a retreat from the egalitarian ethos that is at the heart of NZ social and political culture.
To be sure: Many, if not most Asian immigrants to NZ seek to embrace the NZ socio-political ideal rather than reject or modify it. Moreover, they are not the only ones who may have legitimate reasons to see a need for more efficiency in government, safety on the streets and stability in the social order. The point here is that the returning expats from Asian developmentalist states and others may see utility in a “harder” approach to the NZ conundrum. Phrased differently: the imposition of market steerage of the NZ economy was done in a “hard” way (at least for a mature democracy). Is social and political retrogression in pursuit of the Confucian ideal at the hands of these repatriated expats and their internal allies not that far off?