The False Promise of Asian Values.

The country that I live in is a major exponent of the so-called “Asian Values” school. This school of thought argues that Western notions of liberal democracy are not applicable to Asia because Asian values are different than those of the Anglo-Saxon world and therefore attempts to impose Western-stye democracy are ill-suited to local conditions and, what is worse, a form of cultural imperialism.

So what do Asians value? According to the official line, they value the primacy of collective rights over those of the individual, order above freedom, material security over political voice, and economic efficiency over egalitarianism. The private sphere is reified while the public sphere is circumscribed. Family and community take precedence over the individual or narrow social group interests. These are held to derive from traditional “Confucian” values. Hence civil society is not a spontaneous expression of variegated social interests but a state-structured (and state-supportive) amalgam of overlapped sectorial agents in which “volunteerism” is imposed as a social obligation rather than freely given. Conformity is enforced as the means by which to achieve upward mobility, and although meritocracy is given rhetorical championing by the state, in practice it is often subordinated to the requirements of playing along, following orders and not challenging the status quo as given. Needless to say, this reverses most of the priorities of Western liberalism.

Asian values exponents will argue that the proof of the superiority of their system is in the pudding: individually and collectively Asia is a region of rising economic powers, with their growth only checked by foolhardy attempts to impose western-style democracy on immature populations not yet ready to accept the fact that with expanded political rights come an equal amount of social and political responsibilities. They point out the “chaos” of democratic society in the West and where democracy has been attempted in Asia, as opposed to the order found in the “traditional” East. They see social hierarchies as natural and exploitation as inevitable, with attempts to ameliorate this “natural” order of things contributing to social unrest and instability. The latter are considered to be primordial dangers to “good” society, and to be avoided or suppressed at all costs. 

What I find interesting about these claims is that they mirror claims made about Latin American societies in the 1950s through the 1980s–that they operated under a different (Catholic) social code that was authoritarian, patriarchal, racially and economically stratified, state-centric, community- and family-oriented, and was therefore more naturally amenable to authoritarian forms of rule. And yet Latin America has by and large democratised with no ill-effect other than to give space to populist demagogues along with sincere politicians (as happens virtually anywhere political competition is opened up to mass appeal). But in terms of social stability, economic growth, etc., Latin America has not been discernibly hurt (or improved) by the move towards social and political freedom. It has simply evolved in a more open direction.

So what to make of the Asian values argument? Well, living in the epicenter of its practical implementation it would appear that “Asian Values” are no more and no less than the philosophical justification for developmental authoritarianism. These values are no more natural in the East than they are anywhere else–all societies put value on family, kinship, order, efficiency and stability. It is in the imposed and contrived ways in which “Asian Values” are reproduced–from the top-down, through the State and its agents, rather than spontaneously welling up from the cultural grassroots of society at large–that we see its real purpose. The Asian values argument is in reality just a cover for the maintenance of an authoritarian status quo that otherwise would be susceptible to challenge from those that it purports to represent.

13 thoughts on “The False Promise of Asian Values.

  1. Will,

    I seem to recall Soviet leaders living quite lavishly. power comes with its perks — never more so than in authoritarian states.


  2. Having lived in one of these countries, I’m not so sure it is wholly a bad thing. The almost complete absence of public rudeness is refreshing, as is the notion that humiliating another person brings greater shame on the humiliator. You can add to that a dearth of the lawless behaviour often seen in Anglo countries.

    I’m not surprised some of these people look at Western societies with horror and contempt.

    I’m not sure the Latin American comparison is accurate, since violence and criminality are much more common there than in Asia.

  3. Ag: what I am trying to say here is that “Asian Values” is a state constructed artifice and not a “natural” trait, one that responds to the imperitives of authoritarian regime maintenance rather than some inherent social attributes.

    As for the comparison with Latin America, I am afraid that you have over-generalised with regards to both regions. LATAM is, like Asia, a heterogenous region covering a wide array of socio-economic and political forms. Some Latin countries like Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica are relatively crime-free, whereas some Asian countries are remarkably crime-ridden (e.g. the Philippines, Malaysia and China). In neither case does it have to do with Asian (or Latin) values.

  4. One should distinguish between Asian values as practiced by the community and Asian values as preached by those in authority so as to maintain their order of rule.

    In the latter, authoritarians are trying to build up a parochialism in support of their preferred form of government. Thus those who seek open and accountable government are marginalised as operating to some foreign concept of society (western liberalism) – here being portrayed as the West did the “Internationale” of the left.

    I suppose those on the left of “western liberalism” could simply note that Asian authoritarians are simply following on the path of right wing politicians in the West.

  5. Pablo, can this ‘Asian values’ thing be applied to Taiwan to any extent? I ask as I recall hearing a few years ago while at uni (not sure what the source was), a large – if not the biggest – stumbling block to reunification with China was apparently *not* so much ‘democracy’ as how the economy would integrate / how much control Beijing would have. Didn’t sound especially plausible when Taiwan appears to have a pretty vigorous sort of a democracy, but curious as to whether you’ve heard about this before…

  6. I tend to see the issue of “asian values” as yet another variation of laconophilia (love or admiration of Sparta) versus Athenian democracy. Sparta was/is admired for stable order, self restraint and disciplined character of their citizens. Athenians on the other hand were democratic, noisey, commercial etc.

    For the purpose of debate it is worthwhile to note that non/semi democratic states can be quite successful for periods of time. What seems to be teh advantage of democratic states is their ability during periods of crisis to mobilise a greater portion of resources (financial, manpower, allies) for a sustained period of time and to try different policy/strategic paths until funding one that is successful. Non/semi democratic states tend to have less ability to do so and therefore are more likely to have an adverse outcome that causes a sufficient body of the public to seek regime change. Sometimes this is just change in the elite/ruling class, at other times it is a drive from a wider group to limit the powers of the rulers and increase public participation on decisions that effects daily lives.

    To some extent this is almost mirroring the debate between Fukoyama (the last man) and Huntingdon (clash of civilisations). The optimist in me wants to support the last man (evolution of liberal democratic states) but the realist acknowledges the clash of civilisations as groups compete for prestige and resources within a tribal framework.

  7. Stephen R – As far as I know the KMT has been in power in Taiwan for all but a very few years of its existence. It was a single party state until the late 70s, and under martial law until the early 90s. So yes, they’ve had elections which I understand are generally free & fair for the last decade or two, but that hardly makes for a strong democratic tradition.

  8. Conventional wisdom says that authoritarian states that don’t allow criticism of government policies tend to also be incredibly corrupt, but the epicenter of Asian values has bucked the trend and is one of the least corrupt states in the world. So I’m wondering: is the massive renumeration of politicians a way of combatting corruption or am I way off-base in my assumptions?

    Ag: You’ve obviously never tried to cross the road in Mainland China…

  9. Price paid to ministers/govt officials is a red herring per se. What may matter more is whether pay is a sufficient incentive to encourage meritocracy and reduce the probability of corruption through the taking of bribes. There is reasonable arguments that you want to have your regulators well remunerated so that you can attract the best. In singapore given its one party nature (and even then one family dimension) there maybe an argument that ministers are simply govt officals/civil servants and pay could be a reflection of performance. Whether this is true in reality is different story.

    Re Taiwan – the KMT and DPP may not be perfect, but Taiwan is a fascinating story of how an elite voluntarily relinquished power and moved to a multi-party system. Ignoring the democratic issues for mainland china, a potentially bigger reunification issue for mainland China is the potential for Taiwanese business to have a significant influence on the mainland (to a large extent they already do). Taiwan’s economy and direct investment in the mainland has been an important aspect in the rapid growth of Shanghai and coastal China. This could/does represent a challenge for central controllers based in Beijing.

  10. There was an interesting article in New Scientist a couple of months ago ( which described an experiment which compared Asian and non-Asian attitudes to community. There were distinct differences, with Asians valuing community more and non-Asians valuing individual freedom more. But the fascinating thing was that these differences disappeared if, prior to the relevant question, a biased prompt was introduced. The researchers thought that this implies that there is little real difference between the groups, and it is likely that the perceived difference is just from habit – ie Asians’ default value is “Is this good for my community ?” cf “What’s in it for me ?”. (Sorry I cannot be more specific, I read it a couple of months ago, so can remember the gist of it, but not the specific details)

  11. Ag: what I am trying to say here is that “Asian Values” is a state constructed artifice and not a “natural” trait, one that responds to the imperitives of authoritarian regime maintenance rather than some inherent social attributes.

    Ah, I see what you are getting at. I don’t disagree that much, although I think that the liberal defence against authoritarianism is often wanting, since we aren’t prepared to critically examine our own deeply held political beliefs.


    I tend to see the issue of “asian values” as yet another variation of laconophilia (love or admiration of Sparta) versus Athenian democracy. Sparta was/is admired for stable order, self restraint and disciplined character of their citizens. Athenians on the other hand were democratic, noisey, commercial etc.

    Except the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War and the Spartan alliance won. A number of Athenians took this failure to ponder whether their democracy was all it was cracked up to be. Moreover, the Athenians didn’t let their democracy get in the way of subjugating other people, which is a depressingly familiar story.

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