If you’re reading this in English, I assume at some point you’ve heard the phrase “Christian values”, a phrase that sounds good—seeming to imply service, compassion, peace, fellowship, etc., but is often used to justify bigotry and small-mindedness. “Oh, but I couldn’t possibly play a peripheral role in your day of joy. If I baked the cake for your big gay wedding, and there were gay people there, acting all gay, well the thought of all that gayness makes me feel so icky, and, and, uh,… oh yeah,… goes against my Christian values.” [And Jesus wept]. It’s a handy get out-of-jail-free card used to excuse all manner of bad behavior.
Not to be outdone, Asia has its own equivalent in the concept of “Asian values”. A phrase that on the surface also sounds good, inferring collectivism, familialism, a strong work and educational ethic, etc., but has been used to validate the dickiest of dick moves. The concept of Asian values is inherently a political concept. The phrase was coined at a meeting of Asian ministers held in Bangkok in 1993 to discuss human rights. The phrase was used to try to dispute the universality of human rights and justify a lesser version of human dignity suitable for Asians. It is cultural relativism aimed at limiting free speech and human rights, and was created by Asia’s authoritarian-leaning governments for Asia’s authoritarian-leaning governments.
In North-East Asia, where I’ve spent most my time, Confucianism is given primacy, and when governments speak of Asian values they mean Confucian values. A lot of negative aspects of Asian society end up being justified by referencing Confucianism. Authoritarian Asian governments try to appropriate Confucianism to legitimize their own heavy-handed centralized governance. There is nothing new in this, two classic Confucian texts, the Record of Rites and the Rites of Zhou, were probably compiled during the Han dynasty, long after Confucius died, and reflect Han sensibilities favorable to the unified central [authoritarian] state current at the time. That remains the appeal today.
Through the 1990s and 2000s I’d hear the term “Asian values” bandied about to justify many government policies. Here in Taiwan the Kuomingdang (KMT), the ruling party during the Martial Law period, has maintained—even in the current democratic era—a bit of an authoritarian mindset that harkens back to those times. During the anti-government protests during President Ma Ying-jeou second term the familiar refrain from the KMT and its supporters was: “What about social order?!?” [an Asian value]. Don’t protest our policies, you’re Asian—it’s all about social harmony. Now just go home; respect your betters, enjoy the paternalism, maintain the communal calm, and forget about what your government is doing.
I’ve seen Asian values used as a pretext for all manner of unhumanitarian policies. “No. The government will not make any effort towards providing reasonable levels of state funding for elder care. Respect for elders and the central role of family are core Asian values. The children can do it.” With the Asian demographic collapse—no they can’t. The smallest generation is on the verge of finding itself tasked with caring for aged grandparents, retired parents, and somehow also raising the next generation, while working God knows how many jobs to try to get enough cash to pull it off. It is one of the factors making it infeasible for many young adults to contemplate starting their own families. The UN, WHO, and some international NGOs noted the coming crunch decades ago, and warned Asian governments, but were poo-pooed as not understanding Asian values. Too late Asian governments are beginning to understand their own error.
On a more personal note Asian values are often pointed to as a rationalization for closed immigration policy. “We could not possibly allow you citizenship, despite international norms regarding reciprocity, as, well, you know—you’re white. Cultural homogeneity is a core Asian value that helps promote the social cohesion necessary for social stability and harmony.” Yada, yada, yada. Upon first hearing such things, my younger, more naïve, expat self, reacted by thinking: “What monkey flung this?” After 25+ years in Asia, I now understand that most Asians have the concepts of race, culture, ethnicity, and nationality all muddled together in their minds, making immigration difficult to accept, and xenophobia an Asian value. Asian governments are just beginning to become aware that in times of demographic decline this is not wise policy, but how do you change?
The examples of how the concept of Asian values has been employed by government are innumerable, but as democracy has grown, recourse to Asian values has decreased. It still rears its head on a policy-by-policy basis, but has less of a role in general political discourse. Despite a general decrease in governmental dickiness, Asian values are still part of authoritarian propaganda—one giant flaming priapism constantly spouting off about Asian values leaps to mind. Three guesses.