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.


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." 

Lee's vision, and others similar to it, became known as the Asian values hypothesis. In this view, not only do Asian values clash with Western liberal democracy, but those values were also the main factor behind the economic growth enjoyed by Asian countries during the 1990s. But this hypothesis has never been universally accepted, even in the region. As Kim Dae-jung, a South Korean dissident who later became South Korea's president, argued in a subsequent issue of Foreign Affairs ("Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia's Anti-Democratic Values," November/December 1994), the biggest obstacle to democratization in Asia was not the region's culture, which Kim said "has a rich heritage of democracy-oriented philosophies and traditions," but rather "the resistance of authoritarian rulers and their apologists." Kim charged Lee with promoting a view of Asian culture that was "not only unsupportable but self-serving." 

The debate has raged ever since. In the process, however, it has been defined by so many vague and contradictory ideas about what Asians actually believe that the first challenge of any data-driven inquiry is to specify what "Asian values" plausibly entail. 


Shin goes about that task by looking to the history of Confucianism: reviewing the philosophy's classic texts, charting its evolution over time, and chronicling its spread from China to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam, the six places that he classifies as belonging to "Confucian Asia," based on the philosopher's lasting influence there. He identifies five values that continue to shape the culture of these societies today: hierarchical collectivism (loyalty to group leaders), paternalistic meritocracy (benevolent rule by a moral elite), interpersonal reciprocity and accommodation (avoiding conflict with others), communal interest and harmony (sacrificing personal interest for the community), and Confucian familism (placing family above self). The presumed effect of these shared traits is a regionwide tendency to value the collective over the individual and harmony over self-assertion. 

Shin sets out to measure how strongly each value is held in different Asian countries by analyzing data from two opinion research projects conducted in 2005-8: a 57-country survey conducted by the World Values Survey Association and a 13-nation Asian Barometer Survey. (I am a member of the Asian Barometer Survey's steering committee, and I co-edited a book with Shin and others based on findings from the survey's previous wave.) 

Critics view the survey-based study of culture as flawed in three ways. First, if culture is something shared by all members of a society, treating it as a distribution of values and attitudes among individuals ignores the way it works as a shared experience. Second, by reducing culture to a series of questionnaire items, the survey method oversimplifies complex, multilayered attitudes. Third, the questionnaire format forces respondents to choose among rigid response categories that cannot adequately reflect their beliefs. 

For all that, the survey method remains indispensable. No other approach does as good a job of finding out what large numbers of people actually believe. And it is less reductive than the older method of gesturing in the direction of an entire nation and claiming that all its members share some vaguely defined set of norms. Shin's use of the data is particularly adept. For example, he measures the strength of paternalism in each country on the basis of how many Asian Barometer Survey respondents agreed with two statements: "The relationship between the government and the people should be like that between parents and children" and "Government leaders are like the head of a family; we should all follow their decisions." Shin combines those data with responses to two statements about meritocracy: "If we have political leaders who are morally upright, we can let them decide everything " and "If possible, I don't want to get involved in political matters." He uses the four questions to generate a scale of adherence to paternalistic meritocracy -- a value to which, he finds, the citizens of authoritarian China, Singapore, and Vietnam are the most highly attached and the citizens of democratic Japan and Taiwan are the least attached, just as the Asian values hypothesis would predict.

But Shin's data produce quite a few findings that contradict the hypothesis. To begin with, the values of people in Confucian Asia are no more Confucian than those of people elsewhere; indeed, they are often less so. Smaller proportions of citizens in the region are devoted to paternalistic meritocracy than in non-Confucian Asia, which Shin defines as Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Compared with six other regions studied in the World Values Survey, Confucian Asia is only the fourth-most hierarchical, after the Muslim world, Africa, and Latin America. A plausible interpretation of such findings is that so-called Confucian values are not distinctively Asian at all; instead, they belong to a more universal category of traditional values. That interpretation gains support from the fact that the countries of Confucian Asia are far from monolithic in their norms and beliefs. Fewer than seven percent of Japanese adhere to hierarchical values, compared with more than 40 percent of Vietnamese; more than half of South Koreans are egalitarians, compared with only 30 percent of Chinese. 


The fact that traditionalism varies across and within societies is hardly surprising: some version of that finding is cooked into the survey method with its agglomeration of micro-level data. What is significant about Shin's finding is that it confirms a dominant theory about one of the main reasons individuals' values -- and hence the values of major population segments -- change over time. Traditional values are more prevalent among Asians who are older, are less educated, and have lower incomes -- in other words, those with less exposure to the ideas, technologies, and economic activities that increasingly define modern life in both the developed and the developing world. As scholars working with survey data have long shown, traditional attitudes melt away when people move to cities, gain literacy, experience formal education, work in modern enterprises, and engage with modern media. Shin therefore argues that value diversity across Asia stems from the uneven effects of modernization. 

But regimes are not helpless in the face of these forces. Authoritarian governments can use their educational and propaganda systems to persuade citizens that their existing practices are democratic enough. Shin finds that most Asians say they prefer to live in a democracy, but that support level drops when they are queried about the basic principles on which genuine democracy depends. What is striking is that the gap between support for democracy as a brand name and support for democracy as a set of procedures is more pronounced in authoritarian than in nonauthoritarian systems. For example, in China, 65 percent of respondents endorsed democracy in principle, but only 28 percent considered the opportunity to change governments through elections to be essential to democracy, and fewer than four percent said that the freedom to criticize people in power is essential. By cultivating nonliberal values among their citizens, some Asian regimes that outsiders classify as authoritarian, such as those in China and Vietnam, are able to portray themselves to their citizens as democratic. That they are more successful in doing so than most authoritarian regimes elsewhere probably has less to do with their citizens' values than with their vibrant economic performance and sophisticated propaganda systems.

Democracies, too, can influence or exploit culture to their own advantage. In fact, Shin finds that living in a democracy has an even greater impact than modernization on moving people away from traditional values. He shows that a person of a given age, gender, educational level, and income is significantly more likely to have given up his or her commitment to traditional values if he or she lives in a democratic country than if he or she lives in an authoritarian system. This reflects the fact that a democratic system, once in place, promotes values among its citizens that help it function. 

Some forms of Asian traditionalism can even be helpful to democracies. According to Shin, Confucian support for strong families helps undergird trust and tolerance in the broader society, contradicting the widespread belief that particularistic loyalties are incompatible with democratic norms. Nor is paternalistic meritocracy an obstacle to democratization: in fact, it seems to be capable of promoting deference to democratic regimes as much as to authoritarian ones.

The Asian values hypothesis fails to account for the ability of regimes to shape culture, which is best seen as a resource exploited by regimes and their opponents on both sides of the democracy-authoritarianism divide. The values of citizens do not alone determine the kind of government a society will have. 


Since culture is not an iron cage, one must look to other factors to predict the future of governance in Asia. An important indicator is performance. Ultimately, the stability of a given regime depends to a great extent on its capacity to meet its citizens' needs. Economic stagnation, income inequality, and corruption undermine the legitimacy of any government.

Shin's findings imply, however, that authoritarian systems are more vulnerable to crises of legitimacy than democratic systems. In authoritarian Asia, high proportions of citizens consider democracy both desirable and suitable for their countries, with percentages ranging from in the 60s in China to in the 90s in Vietnam. By contrast, in countries where democracy has replaced discredited authoritarian regimes -- for example, military rule in South Korea, one-party rule in Taiwan, and imperial rule in Japan -- support for authoritarian alternatives ranges from four to 17 percent. Asian democracies have proved resilient to the impact of poor performance owing to the fact that their citizens continue to see their form of government as legitimate even when it struggles. Their authoritarian neighbors, meanwhile, can avoid legitimacy crises only by hiding corruption and keeping their economies growing. When their economies or social welfare systems falter, their citizens tend to demand governments more like their neighbors'. 

Culture interacts with socioeconomic forces, political institutions, regime performance, and leadership to determine the fate of regimes, with no single factor serving as the master cause. The Asian values hypothesis is wrong in its claim that democracy cannot work in Asia. So, too, however, is the counterargument that modernization will automatically doom the region's authoritarian regimes. They may survive for a long time to come. But the cultural odds are stacked against them.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ANDREW J. NATHAN is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a co-author, with Andrew Scobell, of the forthcoming book China’s Search for Security
  • More By Andrew J. Nathan