The Propaganda Way

A great deal has been made of the World Bank's announcement that the high rates of economic growth in the East Asian miracle economies stem from getting the fundamentals right. While that observation emphasized astute macroeconomics, various commentators have asserted that these fundamentals relate to unique Asian values. Kishore Mahbubani ("The Pacific Way," January/February 1995) implies that a fusion of Western and Asian cultures defines what he terms the "Pacific way."

Despite this presumed fusion, Mahbubani's essay points almost exclusively to the beneficial consequences of these Asian values. Beyond satisfying the self-serving political considerations of apologists for ruling regimes, this one-sided approach reflects an important trait arising out of Asian customs. The values said to promote prosperity stifle self-critical introspection. Wondering aloud about the cultural and political order is too often treated as an unacceptable sign of weakness in leaders. In others, it is an unacceptable heresy.

Commentary not unconditionally full of praise for the Asian political status quo provokes a strong response from the powers that be. Authoritarian East Asian regimes take a variety of steps against ordinary citizens, academics, journalists, opposition politicians, and even outsiders. The treatment might involve a mild rebuke, citation for criminal defamation or libel, and perhaps detention without trial.

In light of severe restrictions on freedom of speech, citizens have few opportunities to communicate with leaders. Similarly, for critics to air their views is difficult. The rules governing civic discourse in East Asia limit discussions of the Pacific way to its promoters and foreign critics. Communication between rulers and ruled tends to be a one-way, top-down procedure. And rather than the glue that holds Asian societies together, Asian values may be an illusion concealing the iron grip of petty despots.

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