The debate on Asian values gets a revival

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2007, 12:00am

Region's economic growth puts an issue of culture back on the agenda

China is taking the lead in re-energising the 'Asian values' debate if last weekend's Boao Forum sessions are any indication.

In a variety of panels and seminars on Asian co-operation and growth, mainland officials and academics repeatedly stressed the importance of better defining and harnessing shared Asian values.

The debate has ebbed and flowed across the region in recent years, taking a marked knock in the wake of the Asian economic crisis 10 years ago. Reflecting on sustained economic growth across the region since, the issue was back to the fore during the weekend's debates, however.

Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, captured the trend when he spoke of the need for greater regional co-operation, whether on security, technology or environmental issues.

'Since the ancient times, different civilizations have developed in Asia through mutual influence and integration and formed a tradition that values harmony,' he said.

'Under the changed circumstances of today we should carry forward this fine tradition.'

This meant respecting diversity, fostering dialogue among societies, finding common ground to shelve differences and 'promote democracy in international relations'.

'The right of a country to choose independently its path of development and follow its domestic and foreign policies ... should be respected,' he said. 'Big countries should respect small ones, the strong should support the weak and the rich should help the poor.'

Respected Peking University economist Lin Yifu told one session of the need for countries such as China and India to solve economic problems internally rather than court or risk foreign intervention.

'When there is trouble we need to solve the issues by ourselves,' he said. 'We shouldn't rely on the outside world to fix our problems.'

Boao secretary-general Long Yongtu, former lead mainland trade negotiator, has recently been active in promoting Asian values in meetings in Japan.

A more engaged, unified and economically secure region meant so-called Asian values would spread compared with the traditionally dominant western culture.

'I believe that the Asian culture and Asian values will become more and more important in this world,' he writes in one Boao study. 'Asian culture and values are not trying to dominate the world. No culture, no value should dominate this world.'

One western envoy at the forum welcomed the return of the discussion. 'It is very interesting to see it come back into fashion,' he said.

'What we are not seeing is the fierce Asian-values hubris that was around a decade ago, before the crash. Instead, China is making it part of its soft-power plays across the region ... it suits their foreign policy, and we see it carefully couched in terms of humility and understanding.

'China is clearly using the debate to reach out to Japan as well.'