The economic misfortunes of Europe and America have inspired glee among some Asian leaders and commentators, especially those who champion “Asian values.” Exhorting Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi to learn from resurgent Asia rather than decrepit Europe, Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean diplomat-turned-pundit, pointed out recently how “quiet Asian pragmatism continues to deliver steady economic growth while Europe languishes.”
Recalling how the International Monetary Fund prescribed austerity to East Asia after the financial crisis of 1997, Mahbubani wrote that many Asians feel “the time has come for you [the West] to administer the same bitter medicine you prescribed to us: stop living beyond your means.”
Mahathir Mohamad, who was Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003, has also renewed his assault on the “double standards” of Westerners whom “centuries of hegemony” have convinced “they know best what is good for the world: their values are to be accepted as universal; Asian values are deemed irrelevant.”
Mahathir rebuffed the IMF’s prescriptions in 1997, riding out criticism from Western leaders and media; and, for all his transparent schadenfreude, he has a point. In 1997, Western nations, represented by the IMF, told East Asian countries to let their banks go out of business. Faced with a financial crisis in their own backyard, Western politicians have used taxpayers’ money to bail out lavishly remunerated bankers.
Mahathir is also right to deplore “the days of Eurocentricism,” which he claims, a bit too confidently, “are practically over.” Many of Asia’s leaders and intellectuals have long chafed at the ignorant vanity and systematic misrepresentations -- from the white man’s burden to oriental despotism -- that made Asians seem no more than people waiting to be made over in the West’s preferred self-image.
The Malaysian sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas and the Japanese philosopher Takeuchi Yoshimi in the past; the novelist Amitav Ghosh and the economist Amartya Sen in the present; or the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami calling for a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” and Mahathir’s former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, speaking of a necessary synthesis between East and West -- all these Asians have stressed the need to move beyond intellectual visions and assumptions bred by Western power.
Even so, Mahathir errs when he invokes Asian values against the apparently universal tyranny of Western values. For one, he echoes the culturalist rhetoric that accompanied the economic success of East Asia in the 1980s and 1990s -- what Anwar termed, a year before he was thrown into prison on false charges by his boss Mahathir, “an excuse for autocratic practices and denial of basic rights and civil liberties.”
As Anwar clarified, the Asian values invoked by Mahathir and former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and many intellectuals associated with their regimes, were explicitly ideological and self-flattering. The oppositions they proposed were stark: Asia’s Confucius-sanctioned communal harmony against the West’s amoral individualism; collective welfare versus human rights; respect for authority and discipline versus messy democracy; hard work and thriftiness versus rash consumption; and collaboration between government and business against reckless laissez-faire.
As though reversing a Eurocentric view of Confucius -- who German sociologist Max Weber contended was responsible for China’s backwardness -- these proponents of Asian values now credited the sage of ancient China with the postwar success of Japan and Singapore. The nominally communist Chinese regime of Jiang Zemin, too, signed up to the Asian Renaissance under Confucian auspices, promoting a “socialist spiritual civilization.”
The talk of Asian values often tipped into outright chauvinism, as in the notorious tract “The Japan That Can Say No” by the Japanese politician Shintaro Ishihara. Mahathir, who co-wrote another book with Ishihara, proposed many disturbing racial theories in his 1970 book “The Malay Dilemma.”
More damagingly, Mahathir’s and Lee’s ideas of Asian values failed to escape the trap of Eurocentricism. As the writer Ian Buruma caustically pointed out once, “what the likes of Lee Kuan Yew call Asian values are more or less the values they were taught by their colonial schoolmasters in the days when Kuan Yew was still called Harry. The white man’s burden has been covered with a Confucian sauce.”
Of course, more than public-school-style caning has shaped the political postures of East Asian leaders. Lee, as well as Mahathir, grew up in the colonial era when nonwhites routinely suffered racial humiliation; and it became almost mandatory for their generation of politicians to present themselves as anti-West revolutionaries committed to a higher idea of Asia. Furthermore, these men, trying to exert control over fractiously multi-ethnic societies in the postcolonial era, found that anti-Westernism was the best way to galvanize the masses around the ideal of national unity.
Over the years, however, their rhetoric of Asian values and neo-Confucianism has seemed more and more hollow -- no more than a cover for authoritarian regimes that fervently embrace global capitalism and snuggle up to powerful local businessmen while denying political rights to the majority. This phenomenon is particularly egregious in China, where the ruling elite, struggling for a coherent ideology amid successive crises of legitimacy, has plumped for a warmed-over Confucianism.
Does all this maneuvering sound oddly familiar? It is because European leaders in recent years have been going on about their national or civilizational values even as they immerse local economies into global flows of capital and trade, empower new elites, and open up wide inequalities. In India, too, a strident Hindu nationalism accompanied the emergence of a narrowly prosperous and deeply iniquitous society.
Politicians in the West, as well as the East, have increasingly reached for the rhetoric of cultural nationalism, especially as they surrender economic sovereignty to the transnational forces of globalization.
This is not to say that the traditions of Chinese Confucianism or European Enlightenment are a depleted cultural and political resource; and it is too easy to dismiss Asian critiques of Western political and economic arrangements as manifestations of a frustrated nativism. But any talk of values by powerful Asians ought to make us suspicious. As Anwar has written, Asia “is in the process of coming into being. The long and intense process of self-definition and self-understanding is just beginning.”
And the bracing revelations yet to come will take us far from any instrumentalist or crudely triumphalist notion of “Asian values.”
(Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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