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"Asian Values"
The Asian abuse excuse

Do "Asian values" exist as something definably different from "Western values"? Or is there one kind of human value, or human rights ideology, that supercedes country or race?

As I discussed in the last article, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has recently admitted Myanmar, known for its repressive military regime, into its economic midst. The United States, which has called for a worldwide economic boycott of Myanmar, predictably disapproved, and sent Secretary of State Madeline Albright to Southeast Asia to voice official disappointment.

What followed was an equally predictable charge from Southeast Asian leaders: that the United States doesn't understand "Asian values." Leading the charge, as usual, was Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who pointedly reminded America to mind its own business. Other Asian leaders, notably Singapore's former Prime Minister, Lew Kwan Yew, and current Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, China's President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, and Indonesia's President Suharto and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, have made similar accusations. They claim that in the Asian paradigm, values such as consensus and stability trump individual rights and freedom, and they argue that the United States has no right to judge the humanitarian affairs of other nations.

The US typically dismisses claims of "Asian values" out of hand as a convenient excuse to continue the maintenance of an overly powerful state, in the case of Malaysia and Singapore, or outright human rights abuses, in the case of China and Indonesia. Albright harshly criticized the tactic during her recent visit. A recent editorial in the New York Times called the claims of Asian values "hollow" and "self-serving" (Aug. 2), and the subtler Washington Post called the argument "baloney" (Aug. 1).

But when Asian leaders stake the claim that the US doesn't understand "Asian values," what exactly are they claiming for these values? On the rare occasions that Asian leaders (or their policymakers) expand on this concept, one commonly heard word is "development." They claim that in order to further development, a strong state is needed to guide, organize, and protect business, the way the Japanese government did in the 1950s and 60s, and the way the governments of Taiwan and South Korea aided developed in the 1970s and 80s. These nations, once they reached a point at which they were considered "developed," were able to further democracy by holding free and open presidential elections, as in Taiwan or South Korea, or by relaxing some bureaucratic regulations, as Japan did in the early 1980s.

For underdeveloped countries such as China, Malaysia, and Indonesia, this line of thinking makes some sense. China's GDP per person is US$2900, Indonesia's is $3500, and Malaysia's is $9800, and poverty, especially in the countrysides, is rife. But comparing these 1995 figures with 1985 or 1975 estimates show that there has been tremendous development over the past 20 years, and that development translates to a higher standard of living for the average Southeast Asian family. And in this context, "standard of living" doesn't mean trading up from a Ford Pinto to a Ford Taurus; it means the difference between starving and not. So, these leaders claim, state repression of some rights is a necessary measure to further development.

But to what end development? How much development is enough to convince a leader that his people have had enough state guidance? Although China, Indonesia, and Malaysia have less than fully developed economies, Singapore has 7%-8% GDP growth per year, a per capita GDP of $22,900, inflation at 1.7%, and an unemployment rate of 2.6%. What is Singapore's excuse for its heavy-handed style of government? Is it not yet developed enough to allow the freedom to criticize the government? If Singapore doesn't yet consider itself developed enough, what hope do Malaysia, Indonesia, or China have?

Some Western analysts argue that Asian development is for naught if the people in those nations can't enjoy it. Without the freedom to enjoy money, what good is it? But as another Asian policy analyst points out, freedom without money is India, a nation of 800 million people with relatively liberal legal freedoms, but a per capita GDP of only $1500, with as much as 40% or the nation too poor to receive an adequate diet. The developing nations of East Asia believe that without development, freedom is irrelevant, and without strong state guidance, development will never come. So, in this context, "Asian values" can be taken as a code word for a temporary repression of human rights in favor of economic development.

But further complicating the notion of Asian values is the definition of what it means to be "Asian." Malaysia is comprised of about 60% ethnic Malay and other indigenous peoples 59%, 30% ethnic Chinese, and 10% ethnic Indian. Do all of these peoples, from vastly different religious, ethnic, and financial backgrounds, share the same set of Asian values? The ethnic Chinese population of Malaysia controls a large majority of the nation's business, and is thus responsible for the lion's share of economic development. Are the ethnic Chinese "more Asian" than the Malay because they are "better" at economic development? In Indonesia, virtually all business is owned either by the minority ethnic Chinese, or by President Suharto's family. Again, we see the question of different Asian values in different ethnic Asian populations, but in Indonesia, a more important question is whether Suharto and Alatas consider nepotism to be an Asian value.

Examining other decidedly Asian nations further erodes the myth of Asian values. Japan is a democracy, and South Korea and Taiwan are slowly but surely making the transition to democracy, undermining the idea that Asian values are universally and perpetually Asian. Even more important, the Philippines enjoyed nearly 7% growth last year, under a burgeoning democracy, providing evidence that repression is not an essential component of economic development.

"Asian values" is not code for "development," but a short-hand, almost politically-correct way of saying "get your nose out of our government, but keep it in our business." From a realpolitik perspective, this makes perfect sense as a political strategy for developing Asian nations. But it completely ignores any and all issues of basic human rights, much less freedoms like suffrage and speech that Asians, whenever given the opportunity, take with alacrity -- the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987, Myanmar in 1990, Cambodia in 1993.

We can't discount the possibility that some Asian leaders honestly believe that Asian values are different, that some sort of Confucian ethic of discipline, deferred pleasure, and societal precedence over the individual exists in a discernibly different way than any sort of "Western value." But if leaders such as Mohamad, Lee, Jiang, and Suharto truly believe Asian values to be unique and genuine, and not just code for political independence through statism, they must do more to articulate their philosophies explicitly. If they fail to define what they mean by "Asian value," the rest of the world will continue to believe that it is nothing more than a smokescreen justification for the continued abuse of power. This would be a tragedy for those in an emerging Asia who are genuinely trying to define the values of an emergent Asia to a still-learning world.

Perhaps subtle evasiveness in order to maintain political fiction is yet another feature of "Asian value" that Westerners cannot possibly understand. But I seriously doubt it.

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