Is there a distinctly East Asian understanding of human rights and democracy? Daniel Bell's elegant and provocative book explores this question through fictional dialogues between "Demo", a representative of an American body dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy, and three ethnic Chinese critics. In his dialogues, Bell explores many of the questions that have been at the heart of the debate about whether there are specific Asian cultural values that shape the region's politics. He concludes that while democratic values must be encouraged in East Asia, it is important to incorporate local understanding of what human rights and democracy mean.
Bell writes wittily. The fictional organisation for which "Demo" works is named the National Endowment for Human Rights and Democracy, the acronym Nehrd implying that its representative is both earnest and clueless. This links to Bell's major point - the need for critics of East Asian societies to obtain detailed local knowledge. Generalised attacks from the safety of offices in Washington DC are likely to make Asian politicians resentful of western arrogance. This may seem obvious, but it is sobering to read a footnote quoting former US senator Alfonse D'Amato, blaming the fall in the Hong Kong stock market in 1997 on "the Communist Chinese". If a senior American politician could still be terrified of the Red hordes in Beijing (most of whom are now embracing capitalism) four years ago, then the lessons of this book are worthwhile.
Bell also articulates one of the most powerful counter-arguments to the need for democracy in East Asia, constructing a dialogue with Lee Kuan Yew, the senior minister who turned Singapore into an economically successful statelet while crushing dissent. Since Singapore has done so well without a free press and open elections, Bell's "Lee" asks, what would democracy add to its wellbeing? He goes on to have his interlocutors suggest original and distinct East Asian additions to the international repertoire of human rights. Filial piety is a traditional and still potent Confucian value. Why should the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights not include a "right to filial care" for parents? Scholars have traditionally enjoyed respect in East Asian societies that far exceeds anything seen in the West. Therefore, why not set up a parliament for China with a lower house of elected members and an upper house of scholars, chosen, in traditional Chinese style, by taking rigorous examinations?
Bell's book sets up many stimulating ways to think about these controversial issues. Occasionally, the need to construct a smooth argument means that complications are glossed over. Bell makes much of Asian "communitarian" values, which stress the wellbeing of the group over that of the individual, a reversal of the position stated to hold true in "the West". Yet there have been many Chinese in the past century who would challenge that view. In the 1930s, the sociologist Fei Xiaotong questioned the extent to which ordinary Chinese subscribed to an idea of the common good. Furthermore, writers of the "May Fourth" cultural renewal movement of the 1920s condemned Chinese alienation and over-individualism, not collectivism, and the work of their successors in the 1980s (such as the television series River Elegy , which set the tone for the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989) strongly reflected the same concerns.
Overall, however, Bell's book can be recommended as an accessible and well-constructed discussion point for students of political science and of philosophy.
Rana Mitter is lecturer in the history and politics of China, University of Oxford.
East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia
Author - Daniel A. Bell
ISBN - 0 691 00508 7 and 00507 9
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £43.00 and £12.95
Pages - 369