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July/August 2012 REVIEW ESSAY

Confucius and the Ballot Box
Why “Asian Values” Do Not Stymie Democracy Andrew J. Nathan 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

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


three. argued in a subsequent issue of Foreign Affairs ("Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia's Anti-Democratic Values. paternalistic meritocracy (benevolent rule by a moral elite). two. He identifies five values that continue to shape the culture of these societies today: hierarchical collectivism (loyalty to group leaders). however. was not suited to the more family-oriented cultures of East Asia. and China's economic success and political stability have made the country a model studied enviously by strongmen around the world. and Confucian familism (placing family above self). with its emphasis on individual rights. became known as the Asian values hypothesis. interpersonal reciprocity and accommodation (avoiding conflict with others). In a 1994 Foreign Affairs interview with Fareed Zakaria ("Culture Is Destiny." based on the philosopher's lasting influence there. duty between ruler and subject. which Kim said "has a rich heritage of democracy-oriented philosophies and traditions. In the process. In this view. and Vietnam. but those values were also the main factor behind the economic growth enjoyed by Asian countries during the 1990s.a debate Shin's book attempts to settle by separating myths from facts and assumptions from evidence. precedence of the old over the young. the six places that he classifies as belonging to "Confucian Asia." The debate has raged ever since." March/April 1994). But this hypothesis has never been universally accepted. one. FAMILY VALUES The so-called Asian values debate was launched in the 1990s by the leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Korea.Page 2 of 5 unelected governments." but rather "the resistance of authoritarian rulers and their apologists." November/December 1994). Singapore. not only do Asian values clash with Western liberal democracy. 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. Singapore's then ruler. social norms. the relationship between values and governance. communal interest and harmony (sacrificing personal interest for the community). 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. As Kim Dae-jung." Kim charged Lee with promoting a view of Asian culture that was "not only unsupportable but self-serving. the biggest obstacle to democratization in Asia was not the region's culture. and chronicling its spread from China to Japan." Lee claimed that Western-style democracy. and others similar to it. warned Western countries "not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work. Yet discussions of culture can sometimes distort. What is it about Asia that makes it so hard for democracy to take root? Part of the explanation may lie with culture. That has certainly been the case during the long-running dispute over whether traditional Asian values are compatible with democracy -. In a speech given a few years earlier. The presumed effect of these shared traits is a regionwide tendency to value the collective over the individual and harmony over self-assertion. WHAT WOULD CONFUCIUS DO? Shin goes about that task by looking to the history of Confucianism: reviewing the philosophy's classic texts. charting its evolution over time. a South Korean dissident who later became South Korea's president. Taiwan. four. faith between friends. Lee had argued that Asian societies would thrive not by adopting Western economic models. even in the region." Lee's vision. 6/19/2012 . and governing strategies but by preserving what he described as the five relationships that are most important to Confucianism: "Love between father and son. rather than illuminate. distinction between husband and wife. and five. Lee Kuan Yew.

6/19/2012 . which Shin defines as Indonesia. and Vietnam are the most highly attached and the citizens of democratic Japan and Taiwan are the least attached. Confucian Asia is only the fourth-most hierarchical. and economic activities that increasingly define modern life in both the developed and the developing world.Page 3 of 5 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. by reducing culture to a series of questionnaire items. Traditional values are more prevalent among Asians who are older. traditional attitudes melt away when people move to cities. As scholars working with survey data have long shown. they are often less so. the questionnaire format forces respondents to choose among rigid response categories that cannot adequately reflect their beliefs. more than half of South Koreans are egalitarians. technologies. Second. But Shin's data produce quite a few findings that contradict the hypothesis. and Thailand. he finds. the Philippines. just as the Asian values hypothesis would predict. For all that. after the Muslim world. Fewer than seven percent of Japanese adhere to hierarchical values. and Latin America. I don't want to get involved in political other words. First. 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. and have lower incomes -. multilayered attitudes. Malaysia. Africa. Third. Compared with six other regions studied in the World Values Survey. Shin's use of the data is particularly adept. A plausible interpretation of such findings is that so-called Confucian values are not distinctively Asian at all. they belong to a more universal category of traditional values. the survey method oversimplifies complex.) Critics view the survey-based study of culture as flawed in three ways. the values of people in Confucian Asia are no more Confucian than those of people elsewhere. Mongolia. No other approach does as good a job of finding out what large numbers of people actually believe. That interpretation gains support from the fact that the countries of Confucian Asia are far from monolithic in their norms and beliefs. USING (AND ABUSING) CULTURE 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.and hence the values of major population segments -. gain literacy. we can let them decide everything " and "If possible.a value to which. the citizens of authoritarian China. those with less exposure to the ideas. we should all follow their decisions. 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. instead. For example. To begin with. treating it as a distribution of values and attitudes among individuals ignores the way it works as a shared experience. What is significant about Shin's finding is that it confirms a dominant theory about one of the main reasons individuals' values -.change over time. compared with only 30 percent of Chinese. are less educated. if culture is something shared by all members of a society. the survey method remains indispensable. and I co-edited a book with Shin and others based on findings from the survey's previous wave." Shin combines those data with responses to two statements about meritocracy: "If we have political leaders who are morally upright. Singapore. (I am a member of the Asian Barometer Survey's steering committee. Smaller proportions of citizens in the region are devoted to paternalistic meritocracy than in non-Confucian Asia. indeed." He uses the four questions to generate a scale of adherence to paternalistic meritocracy -. compared with more than 40 percent of Vietnamese.

65 percent of respondents endorsed democracy in principle. income inequality. This reflects the fact that a democratic system. Authoritarian governments can use their educational and propaganda systems to persuade citizens that their existing practices are democratic enough. high proportions of citizens consider democracy both desirable and suitable for their countries. Nor is paternalistic meritocracy an obstacle to democratization: in fact. The Asian values hypothesis fails to account for the ability of regimes to shape culture. but only 28 percent considered the opportunity to change governments through elections to be essential to democracy. Ultimately. but that support level drops when they are queried about the basic principles on which genuine democracy depends.for example. some Asian regimes that outsiders classify as authoritarian. 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. contradicting the widespread belief that particularistic loyalties are incompatible with democratic norms. 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. the stability of a given regime depends to a great extent on its capacity to meet its citizens' needs. once in place. A FAILED HYPOTHESIS Since culture is not an iron cage. Confucian support for strong families helps undergird trust and tolerance in the broader society. In authoritarian Asia. In fact. According to Shin. Shin therefore argues that value diversity across Asia stems from the uneven effects of modernization. with percentages ranging from in the 60s in China to in the 90s in Vietnam. which is best seen as a resource exploited by regimes and their opponents on both sides of the democracy-authoritarianism for authoritarian alternatives ranges from four 6/19/2012 . For example. Shin finds that living in a democracy has an even greater impact than modernization on moving people away from traditional values. An important indicator is performance. Economic stagnation. are able to portray themselves to their citizens as democratic. Democracies. in China. and corruption undermine the legitimacy of any government. He shows that a person of a given age. Some forms of Asian traditionalism can even be helpful to democracies. too. The values of citizens do not alone determine the kind of government a society will have. Shin finds that most Asians say they prefer to live in a democracy. however. Shin's findings imply. military rule in South Korea. By contrast. that authoritarian systems are more vulnerable to crises of legitimacy than democratic systems. and fewer than four percent said that the freedom to criticize people in power is essential. and engage with modern media. educational level.Page 4 of 5 experience formal education. can influence or exploit culture to their own advantage. one must look to other factors to predict the future of governance in Asia. By cultivating nonliberal values among their citizens. one-party rule in Taiwan. 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. work in modern enterprises. such as those in China and Vietnam. in countries where democracy has replaced discredited authoritarian regimes -. it seems to be capable of promoting deference to democratic regimes as much as to authoritarian ones. gender. But regimes are not helpless in the face of these forces. promotes values among its citizens that help it function. and imperial rule in Japan -.

Copyright © 2002-2012 by the Council on Foreign Home > Review Essay > Confucius and the Ballot Box Published on Foreign Affairs (http://www. political institutions. But the cultural odds are stacked against them. Culture interacts with socioeconomic forces.foreignaffairs. To request permission to distribute or reprint this article. Return to Article: 6/19/2012 . They may survive for a long time to come. If you plan to use this article in a coursepack or academic website. however. visit Copyright Clearance Center to clear permission. Inc. too. their citizens tend to demand governments more like their neighbors'. regime performance. can avoid legitimacy crises only by hiding corruption and keeping their economies growing.foreignaffairs. So. Their authoritarian neighbors.Page 5 of 5 to 17 percent. When their economies or social welfare systems falter. and leadership to determine the fate of regimes. 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. with no single factor serving as the master cause. All rights reserved. meanwhile. is the counterargument that modernization will automatically doom the region's authoritarian regimes. please fill out and submit a Permissions Request Form. The Asian values hypothesis is wrong in its claim that democracy cannot work in Asia.

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