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Dispatch from Hong Kong: Asian Values?

December 17, 2012

This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes. Jarrod is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. He received his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2009. From 2009 to 2010, he was the ConocoPhillips Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Oklahoma, a joint appointment between the Department of Political Science and the School of International and Area Studies.

Last week, my wife and I were hiking with a local day hiking group in Hong Kong.  We were discussing Hong Kong’s pollution and the surprising fact that recycling does not appear to be a priority here.  One of the women, an Australian expat who has been in Hong Kong for a number of years, made the observation that it is difficult to get the citizens of Hong Kong and Chinese generally to act for the sake of the community.  I was immediately struck by the comment.  Specifically, it brought to mind the ‘Asian Values’ argument—part of which argues that Asian societies value the community over the individual—that had a high profile in the 1990s and continues to pop up with varying degrees of frequency.

Usually (almost always?) the argument is deployed by China and other authoritarian states in the region to justify the denial of individual rights.  I had always assumed there was probably something to the argument, if for no other reason than I did not want to be guilty of cultural imperialism.  But the expat’s comment gave me reason to reflect on the last six months or so that my wife and I have spent in East and Southeast Asia.  In doing so I have found there does not seem to be much evidence to support the ‘Asian Values’ claim.  Certainly economic norms are as individualistic as they are in the West, perhaps even more so.  It seems to me that the major cities of East and Southeast Asia have come close to perfecting consumerist capitalism  (or are working hard at it), with its emphasis on the needs and wants of the individual.  The social safety nets (i.e. community oriented economic provisions) here are also minimal, as the widespread and active panhandling in Chinese cities suggests.  In terms of economic norms, individualism rules the day.

These are economic values, however, and they may not translate into other areas of political or social practice.  But as I look back there are hints that the elevation of the individual extends into other areas of social life.  I’ll use an example of crossing a street in China.  In both Shanghai and Hong Kong (less so in Hong Kong), crossing a street with the crossing signal is no assurance that the vehicular traffic will yield right of way.  In fact, it will not.  In the month I spent in Shanghai, I could not count the number to times cars came within inches of hitting pedestrians.  Something similar happens on metros (and in elevators too).  Rarely do the waiting passengers allow those arriving to debark, making the metro stop something of a gamble: will I be able to get off at my stop, or not?  I would argue this kind of behavior does not suggest an overwhelming concern with the wellbeing of the order, rules, and stability that the Asian Values argument posits.*  Instead, it suggests that people are primarily concerned with themselves and use whatever power advantage they have in pursuit of their ends.  None of this comes by way of criticism of these societies.  There is much to be admired here, and Americans in particular have a lot to learn from the places I have seen.  The point I want to communicate is that I have not observed much in the way of social behavior that would suggest that in practice the welfare of the community is weighted dramatically more than the welfare of individuals.

I will close this brief commentary with two exceptions and some caveats.  First, Singapore (PDF)  and Japan do seem to manifest something of the Asian Values concern with ‘community over individual.’  The case of Singapore is a remarkable one of breakneck development in the context of a multiethnic society without much of the interethnic trauma one might expect.  However, I suspect if one were to scratch the surface, one would find that individualism rather than community spirit explains much of the success of Singapore.  In effect, I think the Singapore government made the same sort of deal as the PRC government: political acquiescence in exchange for economic development.  But this is not an appeal to the broader welfare of the community.  Instead it is an appeal to the individual because, if you look at the type of economic development, it is hyper-individualistic and consumerist in nature.  Of the countries I have spent time in over the last six months or so, only Japan really seems to have something of the Asian Values emphasis on community.  There is a strong although often unspoken emphasis on order and proper behavior.  Ironically, Japan is also one of the oldest democracies in the region, and I do not recall hearing Japanese leaders invoke the Asian Values argument.  Some caveats: I am not an East Asia expert, so I make these claims only for the sake of discussion rather than out of an effort to be authoritative.  I only visited major cities, so I have no idea what the political and social fabric outside the cities looks like.  My observations are based on time spent in Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei, Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong.  That said, next time I hear an East Asian leader refer to Asian Values to ward off political criticism, I am now much more inclined to call BS.


* Amartya Sen critiques the very concept of “Asian Values” as a distinct set of normative and ethical commitments.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.