The notion of civil society has in recent years become a pervasive theme in the contemporary discourse on international relations. It has also come to occupy a prominent place in discussions of Canadian foreign and aid policy. I was recently asked to comment on Canada's efforts to promote civil society in Asia, and on reflection realized, with some discomfort, that I would first have to refine and focus my own thinking.
For starters, what does `civil society' mean? I had always conceived of it in somewhat ambiguous terms as the intermediating space between the state, the private sector, and the individual. Universities, labour unions, church groups... I attached to civil society vaguely admirable affiliations and connotations, as a kind of measure of the general health of a society. That was fine as far as it went - not very. To get a better handle on the literature and current research, I went to the Institute's John Holmes library and conducted a keyword search cross-referencing civil society and Asia Pacific.
I was astonished at the results. Not unlike other catch-all terms - such as human security and sustainable development, both of which, by the way, are thought to be elements of civil society - I discovered that civil society has been associated with a staggering variety of political, economic, social, and other qualities: these include democratic development, pluralism, the protection of human rights and minorities, rule of law, public safety, basic freedoms, citizenship rights, institutional integrity and legitimacy, an absence of conflict and violence; plus environmental stewardship, welfare programmes, cultural inclusion, social mobility, religious tolerance; liberal economy, marketization, and free enterprise.
Clearly, a widely shared and precise definition of civil society has proven elusive. If we were to choose among the attributes set out above as selection criteria, only unabashedly authoritarian, military, or totalitarian states, or countries dominated utterly by special interests would fail to meet at least some of the requirements. Few countries, however, emerge unscathed when their performance is measured up against the complete set. Moreover, the overall fit of these civil society indicators, especially when sized against reality in much of the developing world, is far from comfortable.
In addition to significant problems in conceptualization and application, it is not necessary to wade into the debate over universality to note how profoundly Western many of these qualities appear, in terms of both historical, cultural, and intellectual origin and of their contemporary currency. I do not subscribe to the self-serving `Asian values' arguments popularized by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, elements of the Singaporean and Chinese leadership, and others. Yet many of these ideas run counter to certain cultural characteristics which, it is fair to say, seem demonstrably more evident on the other side of the pond. Though none is uniquely Asian, I am thinking particularly of the prominence of community over the individual, the primacy of social stability and public order, the paramountcy of notions of duty and responsibility, and a deeply rooted disinclination to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.
In short, you don't need to buy into arguments for cultural or economic rights, or the right to develop, or to accuse non-Western political leaders of duplicity to observe that civil society is going to be a tough sell in many Third World markets even on a good day ... and there have not been a lot of those, especially in Asia, over the past eight months. Many, even most of Canada's partners outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) qualify to varying degrees as uncivil by this calculation.
Looking across Asia, for example - with Japan, Taiwan, and, to some extent, Korea excepted - real evidence of civil society process or progress is scant. …