Tigers, tigers spurning rights

April 21, 1995

The West may believe that its concept of democracy should be applied universally but many in East Asia insist on an alternative model. Michael Leifer reports.

When the Cold War ended the ideological debate over the merits of communism and free market democracy was resolved. But in the 1990s a new version of that debate has emerged. In promoting a global doctrine of enlarging free market democracy, the United States, under the Clinton administration, has run up against East Asian states upholding very different values - values which, they argue, underpin an economic performance described by the World Bank as a "miracle".

At issue in the debate is the appropriate balance between the rights of the individual and those of the state. The political tradition of the West has placed emphasis on individual worth - the argument for democracy rooted in the belief that all men and women are created equal in the sight of God. An alternative view, which would shift the balance of rights away from the individual in favour of the state, has been attributed to the East Asian social tradition.

For the sake of convenience, I will refer to this alternative view as "shared values" - the title of a white paper introduced into Singapore's parliament in January 1990. The justification for taking Singapore as an example is that its protagonists have been the most vocal and vigorous in challenging the suitability of western values for East Asian societies.

Singapore's white paper identified five shared values, of which the most important was the axiom "Nation before community and society before self". They are significant because a number of governments in East Asia have found it politic to endorse them for reasons of foreign and domestic policy. Indeed, there has been a signal attempt to invest these values with a philosophical robustness and an international legitimacy which can withstand ideological challenges posed by the West.

Asian governments that challenge western values are responding in part to the transformation of international politics which has left the US as the sole superpower. They have sought to define the terms of their international relationships to fend off imposition of aid and trade conditions. They also want to be free to manage their domestic affairs to counter the consequences of rapid economic change, including political challenge, by means which include detention without trial, corporal and capital punishment and the restriction of trade unions.

The argument employed by these East Asian states has illuminated a tension between values as the prerogative of states and values as the common expression of an embryonic international community registered in human rights legislation. The East Asian case is based paradoxically on a claim to recognition of both equality and diversity between and among states. Governments which demand an equality of sovereign jurisdiction insist also that each state exhibits economic, social and cultural diversities which should be acknowledged and respected.

Underpinning the arguments employed against the universal merits of western values has been the success of a model of political economy described as developmental authoritarianism, in which the state intervenes to dampen political opposition in the declared interest of social order and economic development. It is that model which has been given credit for generating amazing growth rates and which has now been adopted by China and Vietnam in place of discarded Marxist dogma.

What has given these values added significance is the corresponding bankruptcy of international communism and the sluggish performance of the western economies. Reginald Dale, writing last May in the International Herald Tribune, pointed out that "After years in which the West has talked down to them, many Asians feel they have finally tipped the scales of history in their favour". Such a view seemed to be confirmed by Kishore Mabhubani, permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs speaking earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He pointed out that "All human rights covenants were created when the West was in power. In the future, these agreements will assert the rights of society over the rights of individuals."

East Asian societies, it has been argued, exhibit values conducive to civic discipline and stable political order. These conditions have been judged to have an underlying responsibility for the astounding economic achievements of recent decades. Unlike the West, where the individual is the centrepiece of a democracy that is intended to disempower government, in East Asia the tradition is one of respect for authority with the individual under strong obligation to the group.

Post-Cold War attempts by the West to export their values, so the argument goes, constitute a political impertinence. Such attempts are not only resented as intrusions into domestic jurisdiction but also, because of the social pathology of the West as reflected in urban decay, drug abuse, family disintegration and high crime rates, hardly constitute a basis for a new civilising mission. Moreover, the model advanced by the West does not take into account the condition of those countries beset by ethnic and other social tensions where statehood may have preceded an unrealised nationhood and where there is still only a fragile sense of political community.

Western values are deemed to be both inappropriate and premature in circumstances where it would seem better to foster strong and good government in order to create a firm economic base as a foundation for gradual and orderly political change. Indeed, Kishore Mabhubani has taken particular delight in quoting from John Stuart Mill to support his argument that the West has muddled its priorities in placing the promotion of democracy before that of economic development.

Beyond that, some Asians maintain that the motives of the West are less than pure and that part of that objective has been to subvert the comparative economic advantage of newly industrialising East Asia. For example, Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamamd, who is the co-author of a book entitled The Asia That Can Say No, has castigated the West for its short working hours, its high wages and luxurious life-styles. He has even denounced the West for being bent on recolonisation and has charged it with being highly selective and hypocritical after the end of the Cold War with the mixed examples of Bosnia and Algeria cited in support.

The plausibility of such arguments may give the impression that the debate over the universality of values has been one exclusively between governments. In effect, a debate over values has taken place both within and between East Asian states. For example, in May 1993 representatives of some 170 Asian non-governmental organisations were present in Bangkok at a meeting of regional governments in preparation for the World Conference for Human Rights which convened in Vienna in the following month. The NGO representatives challenged the consensus of their governments by asserting their unqualified support for the principles of universality and indivisibility of human rights and argued also that international solidarity for human rights transcended national sovereignty.

It is important to take cognisance of the NGO phenomenon. Their advent may have been inspired by western example but their appearance, expansion and activism over a range of issues has been a product of the social changes induced by rapid economic development. And they constitute a rising source of challenge for their governments.

In addition, East Asian governments do not speak as one. The Japanese, despite their cultural tradition, have not been vocal in support of developmental authoritarianism. President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines has registered the view that "authoritarianism is a receding tide we Filipinos cannot ride to development, even if we wanted to", while the government of Thailand, which also bases its legitimacy on democratic virtues, has not sought to hide behind the cloak of "shared values".

At one level, the debate has become increasingly academic since the Clinton administration first espoused the virtues of free market enlargement in September 1993. Indeed, within weeks of its promulgation, President Clinton had failed to make any impact on China's President Jiang Zemin when they met in Seattle during the first summit meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In the event, in May 1994, under pressure from business interests, the American government set aside China's record on human rights and an election pledge in deciding to renew its Most Favoured Nation privileges. Since then intellectual property rights would seem to have taken priority in Washington over the human variety.

The Clinton administration has visibly drawn back from open confrontation over human rights in East Asia. Its revision of policy followed, coincidentally or not, a significant act of remonstration by the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Winston Lord, which was communicated to Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, shortly before China's MFN privileges were renewed. Lord warned of the "emerging malaise" in America's relations in Asia and pointed out the extent to which it had become entangled in unnecessary quarrels with regional states with which it had an interest in pursuing constructive relations.

The general trend of American policy since last May has been to revise the practical application of the doctrine of enlargement in line with the critique advanced by Winston Lord. The current rationale is that the best way to promote democracy is through trade and investment which will generate economic growth and middle classes who will have an interest in enlarging free market democracy within their own societies. That conclusion may be drawn from President Clinton's presence and conduct at the second APEC summit in Indonesia last November where he engaged in only a perfunctory dialogue with President Suharto over human rights violations in East Timor, whose annexation in 1975 has not been recognised by the United Nations.

American policy may have been compromised but the issue of democratic values will remain on the international agenda if only because such diverse bodies as Amnesty International, the European Parliament, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions will continue to press for their inclusion. More significantly, the issue of universal values will also remain a matter of contention within East Asia as sustained economic development induces political challenges to developmental authoritarianism.

The debate with the West over the universality of democratic values has not been artificial but it has always possessed a clear domestic function in East Asia: to neutralise political opposition. Governments in Washington press the case for the primacy of individual human rights as circumstances permit. But those authoritarian governments that are an enthusiastic party to "the East Asian miracle" may find it more problematic to enjoy such a latitude within sovereign domains which they seek to protect from the contagion of alien values.

Michael Leifer is professor of international relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. This article is an abbreviated version of a public lecture delivered at the LSE in February.

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