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.Â
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.