Europeans behind the Confucian Throne

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?

6 thoughts on “Europeans behind the Confucian Throne

  1. Sorry Raven, but circumstances being what they are it is preferable that we talk about hypotheticals rather than real places. Anyone can read into the post whatever reality they wish. I hope that you will understand the need for caution. Cheers.

  2. Got it Pablo. I think everyone will guess what country you’re talking about. Maids – such a thing would be quite unseemly here, but that’s oddly what made me realise exactly where you were talking about.

  3. Raven: I will have a separate post about maids in the future. For the time being (as a tease), lets just say “indentured servants.”

  4. Having spent a few years as one of these foreign expert expats in Asia (though not in one of the more authoritarian countries there), this is an interesting post to me. I have a few observations.

    In such postings, there’s an understanding that you’re there for a purpose and that your involvement and opinions beyond that purpose are neither required nor wanted. This is sort of a global extension of the usual employment relationships we have in NZ, where in most cases the contentious and forthright airing of one’s political or social or religious or whatever beliefs is inappropriate in a work setting. Work being as it is less separable from other aspects of life in most of Asia than in NZ, the `when in Rome’ principle holds more broadly.

    Without a proper and thorough understanding of a culture or a social structure (which most foreigners don’t have), it’s often not appropriate (even outside a work context) to challenge the ways of a foreign country. Most of Asia has a tense relationship with the West – crudely, in many cases they want to be rich like us, but they don’t want to be like us, and even when disadvantaged by their social or political structures, they remain loyal to them because that’s their way. Is it our place to try to change them?

    Almost all expats in Asia are there for the opportunities they might enjoy – financial, experiential, etc. So to an extent they’re not there for altruistic reasons. Some (I won’t say many) are there for power or celebrity in one form or another – whether this is the power and celebrity of being a comparably big intellectual fish in a small pond (as an English-speaking specialist in one’s high-tech field, for instance), while others are there for the fact that they’re suddenly richer than 99% of the people around them, with all the social and cultural and, yes, sexual power that brings. This power can go to one’s head, and the danger is that one begins to believe that because they now have a maid and a doorman and a driver, and can afford to eat out every night and send their kid to an elite school that they’re a Big-Shot.

    Rationalisations for complicity in social structures one would never countenance at home are legion: we need a maid because my wife (who can’t work for lack of a visa) is under such stress bringing up children in an alien country, and hey, they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t worthwhile to them; I must haggle every cent down because they’re always ripping me off because I’m a rich foreigner; I need a chauffer because the traffic is so dangerous and so what if my driver is on-call 24 hours a day, that’s the convenience I pay for; my children need to go to an elite school so they won’t be disadvantaged by mixing it with the natives or fall behind on their mother tongue, etc. Part of it is simply experiential curiosity: so this is what it’s like to be a big-shot.

    It’s not all an ugly business, however. Many countries in which foreign expat experts are treated in this way genuinely do need their expertise, their language skills or connections, or at least their presence to grant legitimacy to otherwise perfectly capable local industry. To an extent there is a sense of moral rectitude in driving forward industry in the developing world. However this sense of rectitude is often used as a foil for self-indulgence – a sort of `well, I’m doing good just by being here, so what if I do a few less-good things on the side?’ rationale. It’s this which is destructive, and blindness bred of comfort – the failure to reflect on the true nature of the situations one finds oneself in: that safety often comes from the brutal repression of dissent; or that political stability comes from brutal repression of discourse, or that wealth for some rests on the backs of many others. It’s easy, while `toeing the authoritarian line’ as one is expected to do, to treat people as others in their society might treat them, to do only the minimum necessary when doing a little more would cost little and could change a lot; or to fall into authoritaran modes of thinking as though they’re only natural. It’s easy to do, but ultimately, does that make you any better?


  5. Lew: Accepting a foreign post does not imply accepting the local authoritarian culture, particularly in the treatment of others (be it employees or maids). One can “toe the line” without believing in it. Accepting a foreign post knowing in advance that the local regime is despotic and social relations are authoritarian means, in the case of NZ nationals, putting individual ambition before social conscience. The point of the post is that it is bad enough that these “Europeans” whole-heartedly embrace justifications for the authoritarian hierarchy while on-station; it is even worse when they return home and use their “experience” as a model for socio-economic and political reform.

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