Back in the 1990s many of the Asian economies were riding high. People were talking about the “Asian tiger” economies, if that gives you some idea. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea were all enjoying remarkable success at manufacturing and selling things. In particular, they seemed to have mastered the industrial production of actual things that people all over the world would want to own: cars, computer hardware, televisions, and the music systems of the day. Moreover, the other Asian economies all seemed to be taking off on remarkably similar and promising flight paths to prosperity. Since all of these places had been late to adopt the Western economic model and because they had been leveled in the Second World War, this performance amounted to an extraordinary achievement that called out for explanation. Moreover, the “Asian tigers” were generally out-performing the Western economies. The Soviet Union had fallen flat on its face in 1989, so it was discredited. Neither the United States nor Western Europe, however, showed a comparable dynamism. The European economies were all growing slowly, thanks to what would later come to be labeled “Euro-sclerosis.” The United States had already begun the habit of living beyond its means that continues to plague it to this day.
Under these conditions the Asian countries took a justifiable pride in their performance. In discussions of the differences between Western and Asian economic performance, attention naturally turned to asking whether cultural differences might not make as much difference as did specific economic policies. Ultimately, various people began to suggest that “Asian values” offered the best explanation.
What were the “values” which purportedly gave the Asian economies the bulge over the Western ones? According to the proponents of the idea the Asian societies were the product of unique historical circumstances. Confucian values had become deeply entrenched in the culture and could not be rooted out by any transient or imported political regime. The key Confucian values were subordination of the desires of the individual to the welfare of the community (conformity); a preference for strong leadership over political competition; a commitment to excellence in academic and scientific pursuits; hard work; and thrift.
In essence, this doctrine is a denial of the ideal of universal human equality and universal human rights. (“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal…”) The West had argued that “free markets and free people” were the twin keys to human progress. Lots of people in Asian countries had been attracted by this doctrine because it promised to improve their situation. Others had reacted against what they saw as just another face of Western imperialism or which unsettled their own lives. (Thus, kids having rights is fine if you’re a kid; it is more problematic if you’re a parent.) In any event, the rising relative power of the Asian economies seemed to justify an assertion of cultural independence. Hence, the 1990s witnessed much discussion of “Asian values.”
Then the Asian financial crisis of July 1997 put a stop to all the big talk. The bugs scuttled back into the woodwork. But does that mean that there are no distinct Asian values? Are universal values more credible? Watch “To Live” and decide.
For more on the financial crisis, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_financial_crisis
For criticism of the Asian values movement, see: http://www.brainsnchips.org/hr/sen.htm and http://academic2.american.edu/~dfagel/Markets&democracyfukuyama.html