All Confucian phooey?

April 14, 1995

Asia continues its quest to find its own soul. For centuries, Asia has been at the receiving end of aggressive Western expansion which reached its height during the high period of colonial expansion at the beginning of the century. The response of Asia to the retreat of its former rulers has been felt in the sphere of trade. Europe, even the United States of America, is at the wrong end of a huge deficit at first with Japan, and now with China.

Yet traces of the old arrogance remain. In December 1994, when a US helicopter strayed across the North Korean border, President Clinton sent a special envoy to secure the release of the surviving pilots. A grudging apology was extracted from the Americans, but there were traces, in the American approach, of the old peremptory style in the handling of an albeit prickly communist state.

The Asia of the 1990s is scornful of much of what the West, especially the US, has to offer. The West is seen, often justifiably, as a poor model for modern living. The condition of American cities, the crime wave, the declining educational standards in schools, and the breakup of the family, all these things have led Asian leaders to repudiate Western criticisms of Asian societies.

Some of this thinking is portrayed in The Asia That Can Say No by the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Muhammad and the well-known Japanese writer Ishihara Shintaro, who had already set out the model for this approach in The Japan That Can Say No.

The essential message of these books is far from new. Put simply, the argument is that Western values are fundamentally at odds with Asian values. Sometimes the point is made in very moderate and reasonable terms, but at other times arguments are strongly, even violently expressed. The intellectual argument can be traced to the 19th century, when imperial China, reeling under the impact of predatory Western imperialism, held that the tools of the West could be of benefit to the Chinese, but the values of the West were to be rejected.

The current position of many Asian leaders takes up certain strands in this thinking. The West, it is argued should mind its own business and should not set itself up as a moral authority on social matters. In particular, the West should refrain from criticising Asian approaches to crime and punishment, at the core of which is the concern of so-called human rights organisations for a more humane penal policy. The latest recipient of such moralising is Indonesia, especially regarding its policies in East Timor.

Not all Asian states are of one mind on these matters. Very broadly, they fall under two headings, the strong-minded on Asian values, and the more flexible. Among the former are Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, all Southeast Asia; and amongst the latter, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. In Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew has been the most uncompromising. On numerous platforms and in many television appearances, as well in print, he has berated the West, singling out its soft penal system, its failing educational standards and its nanny welfare statism.

Mahathir Muhammad has taken up this theme and has directed a proportion of his wrath towards Britain. Leaders in South Korea, for example, think that these viewpoints are overdrawn. Kim Dae Jung, a strong advocate of Asian democracy believes strongly that democracy is a universally applicable goal. In Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand, there is much less antipathy towards the importation of Western political structures.

Lee Kwan Yew's thinking does not hold out much sympathy for the Western model of democracy, just as he has little time for the antics of Western social practices. He disapproves of men with hair which is over-long, and opposes the use of chewing gum. He is sometimes accused of wishing to muzzle the press.

The truly serious aspect of Mr Lee's case against the West is that it lacks the intellectual integrity of the cultures of Asia. The best values are to be found in the works of Confucius, whose present-day followers, even though they are not aware of it, have transformed Asian economies into the growth areas of the world.

Mr Lee's enthusiasm for Confucian values may be misplaced at least in some measure. Confucius, (551-479), set out a series of precepts which amounted to an obligation to obey a code of decorous behaviour. Confucian practices were designed to develop moral discipline, which may have certain resonances with customary norms in those countries whose traditions stem from China itself. There is, however no supernatural basis to Confucianism, and it is not a religion.

There are certain aspects to the Confucian tradition which are less positive, and which need to be mentioned as a counterweight to the modern Confucian. For example, Confucianism, with its highly deferential code, was a largely ceremonial system, with no possibility for change. And indeed, moral discipline, worthy though it might be, was only one of its elements. For Confucius called for absolute obedience within the family and the state. The place of women was one of complete subservience. Modern Asian managers are not subservient, as the case of southern China today shows, and they live in a modern, fast-changing world. Moreover, the prevalence of corruption demonstrates clearly that moral standards frequently belong to the realm of rhetoric. We should not deny the fact that Asian managers and even politicians are far more self-disciplined than their Western counterparts, but it may be going too far to ascribe economic success rates in East Asia to a sublime philosopher who lived some 2,500 years ago.

The whole question of values in Asia is complex. For 25 years after World War Two, Asia was a battlefield of ideologies. On the one side were hard-line communist dictatorships, the possible prime example of which was that of Mao Zedong. On the other side were right-wing military dictatorships. Apart, perhaps from the possible case of the People's Republic of China, these regimes have largely been swept away. It might not be going too far to argue that there has come to exist an ideological vacuum as a result. But there is a need to explain somehow the rapid growth of Asian and Pacific Rim economies, which happened to coincide with the seeming lethargy of Western economies. The argument (or is it myth?), of the moral superiority of the Confucian tradition as exemplified by Lee Kwan Yew seems to fill the void.

The sceptics may say that the Confucian "myth" has been resurrected in order to cover up the denial of human rights and "demo-cracy" in the region. The phenomenon of "people power", has emerged to challenge the Confucianists.

Asia is moving forward towards its own democracy, but it is a version far removed from the model of the French Revolution. Equality is less important than "face", and fraternity can only be the brotherhood of the family rather than a worldwide concept. Democracy, at least in much of Asia, is still an exotic phenomenon, while for the West it is an end in itself.

Peter Harris is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hong Kong.

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