What Asian values?

April 02, 1996|By Thi Lam

AS THE WORLD economic balance shifts to the fast-growing Asia-Pacific rim, Western nations are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a culture clash between the two regions. They fear not just a rejection of Western political values but the loss of economic opportunities in the booming Pacific market.

The recent economic summit of 25 Europe and Asian leaders in Bangkok fueled those fears. Asian hosts openly questioned Western beliefs that democracy, human rights and environmental protection are necessary for sustained economic growth. Western-style democracy, they insisted, is not applicable for East Asian nations. The only alternative is the ''Asian way,'' based on Chinese culture, which puts group interests and economic development before individual rights and Confucian teachings that emphasize learning, social hierarchy, respect for elders and loyalty to authority.

That Asian leaders would refuse to embrace the social and political values of Western countries strikes me as reasonable given the social evils that plague the West. What concerns me as an Asian intellectual and one-time military leader is just what these so-called ''Asian values'' are. To me the notion of ''Asian values'' is a myth, one that Asian states all too easily invoke to justify crackdowns on dissidents.

For one thing, Chinese culture is so vast and so complex that one can use it to justify either authoritarianism or democracy. Kim Dae Jung, a South Korean human-rights activist and former presidential candidate, for example, relies on Chinese culture to rebut the authoritarian capitalism of Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew. Just when dictatorial regimes in Asia are looking to Singapore as the ''Asian model'' to substitute for defunct hard-core Marxism, Mr. Kim condemns it as an ''Orwellian extreme of social engineering'' and argues that democratic practices are more in keeping with Asian tradition.

The famous Chinese philosopher Meng-tzu preached that the people had the right to rise up and overthrow the Emperor if he violated his ''mandate of Heaven'' to provide good and righteous government. And ancient China's selection of high government officials through stringent civil-service examinations provided for equal opportunity and social mobility -- crucial to the practice of democracy.

A diverse region

Further, the concept of ''shared Asian values'' flies in the face of a region as culturally and politically diverse as East Asia. Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance, are Muslim countries with no historic connection to Chinese culture or, for that matter, to Confucianism. The Philippines, essentially a Roman Catholic country and a former Spanish and American colony, has received strong Western influence and can hardly be considered a member of the predominantly Buddhist East Asian community.

Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, on the other hand, are culturally closer to India and their branch of Buddhism, coming directly from India, is more austere than Chinese Buddhism, which is strongly tempered by Confucian optimism. While Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have attained the status of democratic and industrialized nations, Indonesia and Singapore are still under authoritarian regimes and China, Vietnam and North Korea are struggling to remain communist states.

In contrast to a united European community that shares the same Western values of democracy and individual freedom, the East Asian countries are torn by ideological conflicts and territorial disputes. The explosive situation on the Korean peninsula, the tension between Japan and South Korea in the Sea of Japan, China's military maneuvers and missile firings in the Taiwan Strait, the conflict between China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines in the oil-rich Spratly Islands, and the Thailand-Malaysia fishing-right dispute in the Gulf of Siam, have transformed this Asia-Pacific region into a flash point that could ignite a major regional conflict.

Dictatorial regimes pose the greatest war-making risks. In this respect, Western nations would do well to let Asia's increasingly affluent middle class push for democratic reforms rather than relying on their campaign for human rights and democracy. In the meantime, the West can take comfort from East Asia's arms race. The sale of expensive American F-16s and French Mirages not only offsets the disappointing export of cars to Japan and computers to Taiwan, but provides a powerful leverage on recipient countries that depend on the West for maintenance and spare parts.

In the end, capitalist entrepreneurship has become the one Western value Asian nations cannot afford to ignore -- and that in itself will prove more subversive than any overt culture clash.

Thi Lam was a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He is the author of ''Autopsy: The Death of South Vietnam.''

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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