Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

The Case against Asian Authoritarianism: A Libertarian Reading of Liu E's the Travels of Laocan

Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

The Case against Asian Authoritarianism: A Libertarian Reading of Liu E's the Travels of Laocan

Article excerpt

The chessboard is broken. We are getting old. How can we not weep? I know that within the four seas and among the world there are many bright-colored and beautiful flowers, some of which will surely weep with me and be sad with me! (1)

I. Introduction

IN AN ARTICLE PUBLISHED shortly before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, Edward Friedman reflected on the perils of accepting "the notion that Asian Authoritarianism is the unique source of economic success and communalist harmony" in the Far East. (2) The legitimation of Asian values as a source for Asian authoritarianism has become an important mechanism for those who dismiss freedom in all its forms and advocate government interventionism and liberticidal policies. However, Asian cultures and Eastern philosophies also offer a rich tradition of thought focusing on ideas such as minarchism, private entrepreneurship, and armed resistance to authority, corrupted officials, and governments. The present paper offers a libertarian reading of one of the most important Chinese novels of the twentieth century, The Travels of Laocan, written between 1903 and 1906 by a Chinese entrepreneur named Liu E. We start with an exposition of the ideas associated with the concept of "Asian values," the evident cultural unviability of this notion, and how Asian authoritarianism has been rationalized and justified on the basis of a Hobbesian conception of human nature. Next, we examine Liu E's life and his career as an entrepreneur in a highly interventionist society. Finally, we focus on his opus magnum, The Travels of Laocan, a fictionalized autobiography that records his philosophical and libertarian ideas.

II. Asian Authoritarianism or Asian Libertarianism?

The concept of "Asian values" acquired its popularity among Asian politicians in the 1990s, when Singapore's prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad spoke of "a Confucian-flavored Asian identity compatible but different from that of the West," and criticized Western claims to universal values as a form of cultural or ethical imperialism. (3) Although the validity of the "Asian values" was questioned after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the concept has since regained popularity. This is partly due to the growing impact of Asian economies and the presence of authoritarian regimes such as the People's Republic of China in foreign policy and international trade, but also to the increasing influence of state-sponsored organizations such as Confucius Institutes in non-Chinese academic institutions. (4) These institutes and the scholars related to them advocate--either actively or passively--an indigenous model of development based on the traditional values of these societies, which are still often identified with Confucianism or, as one scholar has put it recently, "left Confucianism." (5) According to the proponents of this idea, there are two different models of liberty: a Western model centered on individualism (or the private sphere), democracy, and human rights, and an Asian model identified with the community (or the public sphere), authority, and repression, which are behind the rapid development of Asian "Tigerism." (6)

It is, however, very difficult if not impossible to provide a coherent description of what these "Asian values" consist of. (7) For instance, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore share Confucian-related values, but they also have important Buddhist and Daoist communities, which are anything but monolithic; Japan also has Confucian and Buddhist influence, but is predominantly Shintoist; South Korea combines Buddhism, Protestantism, and Shamanism; the People's Republic of China is nominally atheist, but there are important Buddhist and Christian groups; India, where Buddhism originated, is now mainly Hindu, while Thailand is Buddhist and Indonesia is mainly a Muslim country. The PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Singapore share some linguistic heritage through the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, but the Japanese and Korean languages belong to the Altaic language family, and the words spoken in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, or the Philippines are mutually unintelligible. …

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