New appreciation of old 'Asian values'
Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, came up with the 'Asian values' argument to justify legitimate but non-democratic regimes. More recently, the Communist Party of China, having jettisoned communism in all but name, is trying to revive Confucianism for the same purpose.
Critics are right to point out that both approaches are self-serving. But they also tend to miss a key point because most tend to dismiss the possibility of legitimate governments that are not constituted through the ballot box. Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia, a new book by Doh Chull Shin, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, has recast the terms of this debate and will, hopefully, set a new and more fruitful context for future discussions. Shin does not argue from an armchair but uses two surveys: a 57-country study by the World Values Survey Association and a 13-nation study by the Asian Barometer Survey. Some of the findings will surprise people on both sides of the debate.
Some so-called Confucian or Asian values such as group loyalty, respect for authority, a preference for harmony over conflict and the placing of family over self are less widely shared among East Asians than others in Africa, the Muslim world and Latin America. In other words, Asian values are less Asian but more universal.
While most of those surveyed in China embrace 'democracy' in the abstract, far fewer believe it entails criticising or removing those in power.
Asian values clearly do not predispose Asians to authoritarian or democratic government; culture does not determine a regime. But such values probably did constrain their rulers more than the ruled. Just think of China's Deng Xiaoping , Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang in Taiwan, Lee's Singapore, or even the one-party democracy of Japan's once-dominant Liberal Democratic Party.
It is not an accident that these places all have a strong Confucian tradition in leadership, which prevented them from becoming parasitic dictatorships. Some have become fully democratic, but not all of them will.