Confucius and the Ballot Box

Why “Asian Values” Do Not Stymie Democracy

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the so-called third wave of democratization swept through Asia, bringing vibrant multiparty politics to former autocracies such as South Korea and Taiwan. Yet today, by Doh Chull Shin's count, the 16 countries of East and Southeast Asia now include only six functioning democracies -- a ratio worse than the worldwide average of six democracies for every ten countries. The region hosts some of the world's most resilient authoritarian regimes; meanwhile, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand have toggled between elected and unelected governments, and China's economic success and political stability have made the country a model studied enviously by strongmen around the world. What is it about Asia that makes it so hard for democracy to take root?

Part of the explanation may lie with culture. Yet discussions of culture can sometimes distort, rather than illuminate, the relationship between values and governance. That has certainly been the case during the long-running dispute over whether traditional Asian values are compatible with democracy -- a debate Shin's book attempts to settle by separating myths from facts and assumptions from evidence.

FAMILY VALUES

The so-called Asian values debate was launched in the 1990s by the leaders of Malaysia and Singapore, who feared that the end of the Cold War and American pressure on China over human rights and democracy in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident would destabilize the region. In a 1994 Foreign Affairs interview with Fareed Zakaria ("Culture Is Destiny," March/April 1994), Singapore's then ruler, Lee Kuan Yew, warned Western countries "not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work." Lee claimed that Western-style democracy, with its emphasis on individual rights, was not suited to the more family-oriented cultures of East Asia. In a speech given a few years earlier, Lee had argued that Asian societies would thrive not by adopting Western economic models, social norms, and governing strategies but by preserving what he described as the five relationships that are most important to Confucianism: "Love between father and son, one; two, duty between ruler and subject; three, distinction between husband and wife; four, precedence of the old over the young; and five, faith between friends." 

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