Asian Values, a Fabulous Notion

By Mirsky, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), April 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Asian Values, a Fabulous Notion


Mirsky, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


The concept is a useful tool for crushing dissent and fending off criticism from democrats

As Asia's leaders head for London this week some of them may be nervous about flying on their national airlines: "Asian values" may make them unsafe. Or so recent headlines in the British press have speculated. Air safety experts are worrying (but not in public because they fear charges of un-PC racism) that pilots of Asian airlines too automatically trust their automatic pilots, and that their crews are too deferential to warn the pilots when they verge on fatal mistakes.

The articles also point out that four of the world's five most lethal airlines in the past ten years have been Asian. Hierarchical social systems, some believe, make these nations' airlines crash-prone. This is all cast into doubt, however, by the fact that Japan and Singapore, two other hierarchical societies, have unusually safe airlines.

Anyway, it's a subject to help pass the time on those long flights to London. Especially since some of the leaders like to talk about Asian values, not because they cause plane crashes, but because they are a weapon in the great human rights debate.

When I worked in Hong Kong, the chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, frequently urged westerners not to meddle with Hong Kong, whose administration and society as a whole are underpinned by "Chinese values". Sometimes he transmuted these into "Asian values" (he obviously hadn't read the documents on plane crashes). This was Tung's list: "Trust, love and respect for our family and our elders; integrity, honesty, and loyalty to all; commitment to education; a belief in order and stability; a preference for consultation rather than confrontation." Sometimes Tung added "a preference for obligation rather than individual rights". When he was specifically referring to "Asian values", Tung listed: "Hard work; respect for learning; honesty; openness to new ideas; accountability; self-discipline and self-reliance."

Tung, who spent a number of years in the United States, said that north American values are "freedom of expression; personal freedom; self-reliance; individual rights; hard work; personal achievement; thinking for one's self."

Once during an interview with Tung I suggested that all these values sounded Jewish to me. He beamed. "Yes. Some of my . . ."

I interrupted. "Some of your best friends are Jews?"

He looked pleased. "Some of my excellent friends are Jews."

Of course it's all garbage. I once wrote to Tung recommending that he stop telling foreign reporters, as he sometimes did when cross-questioned at news conferences: "You don't understand this - you are not Chinese."

I noted that in covering four governors, from Lord Maclehose to Chris Patten, I had never heard them or their officials say to a Chinese reporter: "You don't understand - you're not British."

It would immediately have been condemned as racism.

Tung was not alone, however, in his interchangeable evocation of Asian or Chinese values. Other champions, some of whom will soon be in London, come from Indonesia, Burma, China and Singapore. In Asia's democracies, such as India, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, these concepts are rarely invoked. Last year, when I interviewed Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui - the first and still the only Chinese head of state elected democratically - he said the concept of Asian values is nonsense and is used only to divide people.

The Asian valuers fear what they usually call "instability". They emphasise that their citizens value order and consensus. Like Tung, they disparage the west's immorality, and they gloomily point to the chaos of those countries that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union as an example of what happens when stability collapses. This worship of stability justifies much: Tung, as I recently pointed out in these pages, says that while he values a free press, the media should present government policies "positively", and that he was considering whether criticism of the government on the radio might constitute subversion. …

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