Two Cheers for 'Asian Values'

September 1, 1999 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaBaltic SeaSociology

Two Cheers for 'Asian Values'

Mini Teaser: First used to explain the East Asian economic miracle, then blamed for the region's economic collapse, Asia's famous values are subjected to a cool appraisal.

by Author(s): Nathan Glazer

Questions about "Asian values"--whether they justify authoritarianism, or have contributed to the remarkable economic ascent of East Asia, or to the region's subsequent and almost equally startling descent--have been the subject of wide and controversial discussion over recent years. But there is another question that has not been as widely considered: Will Asian values--can they--survive the homogenizing effects of globalization?

"Globalization" is a protean word, capable of taking on many meanings. I shall use it here to mean the worldwide spread of Western-dominated information and entertainment media, with their presumed effects on values in the places they reach. V‡clav Havel has offered the image of "a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel's back." Perhaps the jeans and the Coca-Cola are, so to speak, only skin-deep; but the transistor radio, the television set and Hollywood movies: do they not undermine Bedouin values, whatever those may be?

The issue of the future of Asian values is rather more serious than that of the survival of Bedouin ones. For it is in East Asia that we find together the fullest developed version of a cultural or civilizational ethos that successfully nurtures rapid economic growth, and that in some key respects (or so it is generally believed and widely asserted) contrasts with what we find in "the West."
The most dynamic branch of Western civilization is that rooted in Western Europe, the United States and a few overseas societies of British origin. When we think of the "globalization of culture", what we have in mind is the influence of this branch of Western civilization, and in particular of America, on the other civilizations of the world. Will this influence lead to the homogenization of world culture as societies, cultures and civilizations seek economic development and material advancement? Or will deep cultural features, very different from those of the West, shape the impact of modernization and industrialization and ultimately survive these forces? Does the spread of the common technology-based economy, to which all societies and cultures seem to aspire, mean that their underlying distinctive cultural differences are destined to disappear?

Early Days

The key area for the consideration of this problem is East Asia. It is there, in Japan, that a non-Western country first became a major and independent industrial-economic power, fully equivalent in its economic capacities to Western Europe and the United States. Clearly, the industrial, technical and organizational features of Western civilization that took root in Japan were initially borrowed from the West. But to what extent are the culture and values that accompanied these technical and organizational features so organically bound up with them that borrowing the latter also means adopting the former?

In the Seventies and Eighties we were surprised to see other East Asian countries--the "four little dragons" of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore--join Japan in taking the path to successful industrialization and competition with the industrialized countries of the West, and as they did so, the same questions assumed a wider significance. And then, when mainland China, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia also joined the procession, the questions became urgent.

This series of developments can be interpreted in purely economic terms, and that is for the most part the way we have understood it. But why did we see this economic development first in poor East Asia, and not elsewhere? In the 1940s, according to The Economist, India and Ghana were expected to do better in economic performance than Japan and South Korea. In 1955 Simon Kuznets, later to win the Nobel Prize in economics, along with two distinguished collaborators, Wilbert E. Moore and Joseph J. Spengler, published a book entitled Economic Growth: Brazil, India, Japan. The grouping of these three countries together suggests that leading economists and social scientists at the time saw some equivalence in their economic situation, a notion that now seems outlandish.

The remarkable rise of Japan and its rapid postwar recovery and economic expansion led early on to consideration of whether a distinctive ethic or set of values played a key role in this then-unique case of non-Western industrialization. As long ago as 1957, Robert Bellah, in his Tokugawa Religion, sought an equivalent to the Protestant ethic, which in Max Weber's enormously influential interpretation played a key role in the rise of Western capitalism. In 1970 Herman Kahn, in his remarkably prophetic book, The Emerging Japanese Superstate: Challenge and Response, pointed to Japanese values, and perhaps Confucian values, to help explain the economic ascent of Japan, which he expected would in a few decades reach and surpass the United States in per capita GDP (which indeed it did, according to some ways of measuring). In the early 1970s, Henry Rosovsky and Hugh Patrick launched a project at the Brookings Institution to explain Japan's remarkable postwar economic growth (it eventually became a book edited by them, Asia's New Giant: How the Japanese Economy Works, 1976), and I considered for this project the role of "social and cultural" features in Japan's economic growth. Indeed, one could not but be deeply impressed by the distinctive values and effectiveness evident in Japanese education and the Japanese workplace.

In 1980 Roderick McFarquhar published a much discussed article in The Economist on the role of Asian values in the economic explosion of the "little dragons." (Only ten years before, Herman Kahn had expected that the role of countries like South Korea and Hong Kong would be restricted to providing cheap raw materials and labor for the emerging Japanese superstate. Even his prophetic powers did not extend to foreseeing how rapidly they would emerge from that subsidiary economic status.) Another relatively early speculator on the role of Confucian values in the economic success of the little dragons was Peter Berger, who in 1985 organized a conference with Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, which led to an interesting volume, In Search of an East Asian Development Model (1988).

By the 1980s the role of Confucian values in the rise of East Asia had become a growth industry, and nowhere more so than in Singapore, which was then exploring the possibility of introducing them into its school curricula. Tu Wei-Ming of Harvard became one of Singapore's chief consultants, and a fascinating book, Confucian Ethics Today: The Singapore Challenge (1984), records his consultations with Singapore educators on this enterprise. He later edited The Triadic Chord: Confucian Ethics, Industrial East Asia, and Max Weber (1991). The American Academy of Arts launched a seminar on the issue, one product of which was another volume edited by Tu Wei-Ming, Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity (1996).

In the Eighties and Nineties the challenge of identifying a link between Asian values and economic growth became more complicated as other East and South Asian countries with very little or no connection to Confucianism--Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia--began showing remarkably high rates of economic growth. In an effort to redeem the Confucian hypothesis, its proponents emphasized the central role that populations of Chinese origin played in these economies. And, of course, the economic boom was most marked in mainland China itself.

The People's Republic, however, had purportedly cut off all ties with its Confucian past with the communist victory in 1949. Indeed, Confucianism had been denounced as the source of China's backwardness long before by Sun Yat-sen and other Chinese intellectuals and reformers. Were they wrong? Could we still see surviving fragments of the Confucian ethic in China after half a century of totalitarian communism? And would we need to take into account a Buddhist ethic and an Islamic ethic as well as a presumed Confucian ethic in order to accommodate the success of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia? Or perhaps a relabeling with the vaguer term "Asian values", to accommodate the countries without a Confucian past, would do the trick.

While the dominant reason for the investigation of a distinctive East Asian set of values has been the need to explain the dramatic economic success of the area, there is another equally important question concerning them: regardless of what role they play in explaining the economic rise of East Asian countries, can the distinctiveness of East Asian values survive that rise? We call the kind of change we have seen in East Asia "modernization", which encompasses not only the economic aspect of development--factories, money and credit, banks, commercial relations, cities and skyscrapers, a consumer economy--but also the social and value changes that seem inevitably to accompany that economic aspect. Indeed, we so take for granted that economic and cultural changes occur in tandem, as they did in the West, that we sometimes call the larger change "Westernization." But this may be a misnomer: for so far in East Asia, economic change has in fact not been accompanied to the same extent by the social and value transformations that characterized modernization in the West--that is, secularism, the nuclear family, individualism, hedonism and the like.

We have then in East Asia the unique case in which (1) a distinctive non-Western value tradition existed, and still appears to exist, and (2) there has been a successful establishment and spread of a modern industrial culture. But if Asian values survive and even flourish, the expectation of the homogenization of culture through globalization is belied, and globalization may therefore be compatible with different values and cultures. Economic growth may lead to the extinction of species of flora and fauna, but the varieties of human culture may survive, perhaps even flourish, as a result of it.
Second Guessing

The economic collapse of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea, the collapse of the speculative boom in Hong Kong, and the prolonged economic depression in Japan have prompted a gleeful response in the West, which we might describe as "good-bye--and good riddance--to Asian values." Either the presence of those values was an illusion, it is now claimed, or they did not possess the virtues ascribed to them by observers, Western and Eastern, who were blinded by Confucian homilies. With the stress now on cronyism and corruption, perhaps Asian values were always quite the opposite of what we had thought they were.

A process of second-guessing quickly got under way. The Economist, which had done so much to advance the Asian values thesis over the years, now checked in with "Asian Values Revisited: What Would Confucius Say Now?", asserting that, "Asian values did not explain the tigers' astonishing economic success, and they do not explain their astonishing economic failures." The New York Times Magazine ran an article by Walter Russell Mead, "Asia Devalued: The financial crisis has exposed the 'Asian Values' of hard work, thrift, and family for what they always were: bunk." In the Wall Street Journal, a review of Christopher Patton's East and West by William McGurn informed us: "If there is a theme that unites the chapters it is a liberal democratic contempt for 'Asian values', which Mr. Patton describes as 'shorthand for the justification of authoritarianism, bossiness, and closed collusion.'"

This dumping on Asian values deserves four comments. First, not all East Asian countries followed Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia into an economic abyss. Japan, despite its difficulties, remains an economic powerhouse, with great exporting power, low unemployment by international standards, and a populace that seems not much affected by the economic downturn. Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore have escaped the troubles of the badly afflicted countries, and South Korea and Hong Kong are recovering from their economic difficulties sooner than Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Second, note that the countries that are least affected by the East Asian economic collapse and that are most likely to recover soon are those located within the presumed zone of influence of Chinese and Confucian culture. Perhaps, then, so-called Asian values, if we limit them to the Chinese-Confucian sphere, are working at least to moderate the economic downslide.

Third, it is worth noting that the setback experienced by the region in 1997-98 was of a kind and dimension that had occurred repeatedly in the West in earlier years. But no one then drew the conclusion that Western values were thus proved to be incompatible with, or irrelevant to, the West's economic development, and there seems to be no reason for drawing such a conclusion about Asian values.

Finally, glee over the Asian economic collapse has tended to concentrate on only one aspect of Asian values--namely, the aspect promoted by the rulers of Malaysia and Singapore to defend the authoritarianism of their regimes. But when we come to what most people have understood by Asian values--not necessarily the versions promoted by the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore--I think this general dismissal is facile and overstated. As the reviewer of Christopher Patton's book goes on to say:
"Clearly many of those in power did equate Asian values with authoritarianism. Yet readership surveys by the Far Eastern Economic Review suggest that Asians themselves thought of Asian values as having to do more with strong families, education and hard work than with autocratic government."

Asian or Confucian values have generally been presented to us as a single package, in which the virtues of hierarchy and discipline and the obligations of obedience form a single ladder, reaching from the ruler down to the humblest. Hence the obedience of the son to the father, the wife to the husband, the younger to the elder brother is mirrored in the submission of all to the state. The promotion of this single package of relationships, binding families together and to the state, is naturally in the interests of ruling elites. But in fact, we find today no distinctive conception of the state as respected teacher and father in the countries of former Confucian culture. That aspect of Confucianism is quite dead, notwithstanding the efforts of the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore. Instead, we find riots in South Korea, governments voted out of power in Japan, electoral competition in Taiwan, and grumbling at authoritarian government in communist China and in Singapore.

We also find in various countries of the Confucian sphere the immoral cronyism and self-aggrandizement that have been so sharply evident in the economic setbacks of a number of Asian countries. (Singapore, rated by businessmen as among the cleanest of societies, being the exception.) In none of these countries, though, do we find a pronounced ethos of subservience to the state. True, the state may be powerful and may sustain itself through force and brutal means, but that is different from a distinctive value orientation: anyone is prone to submit to threat and force.

At the family level, and in the commitment to education and work motivated by the interests of the family, we do find a distinctive pattern that is clearly not based on any external force. Anyone reading through the research on Asian values is likely to be astonished by the evidence of strong family connections and of the commitment to education and work. A few scattered items from this research make the point: in Korea, the divorce rate was reported to be 1.16 percent in 1980. While it had indeed increased four times since 1965 from a mere 0.28 percent, the tide of Westernization still seemed remote. Divorce figures from other East Asian societies may be slightly larger, but compared with Western societies they are minuscule. So are rates of illegitimacy. Again from Korea: a 1967 survey asked, "If you had sufficient economic means to live on for the rest of your life, what would you do?" An overwhelming 97.7 percent of respondents said they would continue working. An item from Taiwan: "The majority of Taiwanese parents are living with at least one of the married sons."

The research by Harold Stevenson and his colleagues comparing schools in Japan and Taiwan with those in the United States finds that classes in Japan and Taiwan are larger, expenditure is less, achievement is greater, and the obligation of children to perform well for the sake of their families is overwhelming. Failure to do well is routinely attributed by parents not to the school, the teacher, the curriculum or the genes, but to insufficient effort by their children. We find the same in Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China. "The most outstanding feature of the learning environment in Hong Kong", one report asserts, "is the pressure put on the student, both by parents and teachers, to study for examinations." American teachers regularly see these characteristics in the children of Asian immigrants.

The Survival Question

We could multiply such items. But the question remains: Do such features--can they--survive under the impact of industrialization, urbanization, the new consumer society, the new means of communication, the universal appeal of Titanic and McDonald's, the "globalization" of culture?

Two of the major enterprises that attempt to trace the changing values of a range of contemporary societies argue that they do not and cannot. This is the position of Alex Inkeles, in his studies of modernization across nations, and of Ronald Inglehart, in his extensive inquiries into the rise of post-materialist values. For our purposes, one serious problem with relying on these studies is that they include very few Asian countries. Inkeles, in his original research on modernization, includes India but no East Asian country. Inglehart, among his forty-three societies, includes from Asia only Japan and South Korea, and on many survey items he has no reports from the latter (Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies, 1997).
But even in this research, whose main thrust is to support the globalization thesis, we find some revealing items that run counter to it. In Inglehart's Modernization and Postmodernization, for example, we note some interesting East Asian variations. On the item, "A woman has to have children in order to be fulfilled", we find a very low level of agreement from the usual Western advanced countries but high positive response from Japan and South Korea (along with such unlikely company as Argentina, South Africa and Hungary). On whether one approves of a woman having a child as a single person, Japan comes out lowest. On whether one has a duty to love and respect one's parents, regardless of their faults, Korea scores at the very top.

Then, too, Inkeles reports in a round-up of recent research: "Between 1963 and 1991, the proportion of Taiwanese who claimed to have attended an ancestor worship ceremony increased from 39 percent to 75 percent." For Japan we have one of the longest series of values studies anywhere available, national surveys that have been conducted every five years since 1953. Preference for filial piety has been rising: 61 percent in 1963, rising to 73 percent in 1983. Inkeles reports that despite forty years of communist rule in Shanghai, in a 1990 survey the value of "diligence and frugality" scored first. And 72 percent "considered that failure in life was due to 'not working hard enough'", which is similar to the attitudes of Japanese and Taiwanese parents in judging their children's academic performance. In Baoding, on the mainland, 95 percent of elders and their children stress the importance of filial piety, while in Hong Kong, "a strikingly large proportion of 88 percent agreed with the idea that 'government should punish the unfilial.'"

And yet, of course, there is change. Inkeles reports that on the important tradition of maintaining the family line through a son, the proportion in Taiwan considering this "very important" dropped from 70 percent in 1963 to 32 percent in 1991. Arranged marriage in Taiwan has fallen sharply. And in the Japanese surveys, support for some traditional values has fallen.

The Family is Universal

Tu Wei-Ming, in Confucian Ethics Today, tells the story of a plaque that Taipei sent as a gift to its sister city, Houston, bearing the Confucian sentiment, "Men have their careers, women have their families." Houston's feminists protested, the matter was put to a vote, and eventually a modified translation was accepted. Ko Byong-Ik, a Korean sociologist, writing in Tu Wei-Ming's Confucian Traditions, tells us that most Koreans continue to adhere to Confucian beliefs and Confucian practices, despite their adherence to other religions. "Statistically, 90 percent of Korean Catholics and 76.4 percent of Korean Protestants . . . can be said to be Confucian according to their convictions and practices." And he concludes, "All men are Confucian."

Are we speaking, then, of Confucianism, or post-Confucianism, or vulgar Confucianism, or popular Confucianism--all terms which have been used in discussions of Asian values--when we report such findings? In none of these countries is there an official Confucianism, either in government or in education. Are we speaking of anything more than a strong family ethic, not very different from that which prevailed in the United States until recent decades (and that still prevails among many recent immigrants)? How different are Asian values, as revealed in this research, from the family ethic that has been the almost uniform brick and mortar of all traditional societies before the outset of Westernization, modernization, industrialization, mass communication and their corrosive influences?

When we speak of Asian values, it seems to me that we have something in mind that extends beyond the specific tradition of Confucianism, something that needed no great tradition, great books or classic philosophers to codify. This is the role that family, extended or nuclear, plays in almost all societies that have not reached the level of industrialization, urbanization and state welfare provisions typical of the economically developed nations of Western Europe and North America. In other words, when we say "Asian values", are we not really thinking of--one must excuse the banality of the expression--what American politicians have in mind when they extol "family values" and mourn their demise?

The family is universal. Some particular degree of closeness and responsibility and trust binding family members is also near universal. Mothers are expected to rear children, and do. Fathers are expected to help. Brothers and sisters have certain relationships and responsibilities they are expected to maintain. Heads of families deserve respect and deference from children, and get it. And so on. Admittedly the definition of who is to be included in the family may differ--in one society, the father's relatives but not the mother's, in another, more or less of the relatives outside the nuclear family are included. But the nuclear family remains the basis of society. Its scope and significance become markedly reduced in advanced modern society, where various functions are taken over by extra-familial institutions. While we still count on the family, for the most part, to raise, socialize and educate children, advanced Western societies have also developed substitutes for the family. Day-care centers, schools and old-age pensions gradually became essential, owing to the weakening of the family under the strains of industrialization and urbanization. Perhaps the existence of these family-replacing functions weakens the family structure further. That is, of course, a subject of permanent dispute between liberals and conservatives.

Clearly these family bonds are important for economic effectiveness. Children are spurred to work harder in school and to achieve, not only for the honor of the family but because they are expected in time to support aged parents. Businesses often find their most trustworthy employees among family or quasi-family members, their most dependable subordinates and successors in children and nephews. Superiors demand and expect respect and deference the way fathers do, and inferiors give it. This is the way the world has run for millennia. And this is what social scientists find in the East Asian countries.

But, helpful as it may be, this cannot be the sole or key ingredient in economic success and achievement. For if it were, we would be at a loss to explain why the Indian subcontinent lags behind. India, after all, has no family values problem. Indians viewing American films often ask, where is the family? In Indian films the hero has a family, the heroine has a family, even the villain has a family--fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, with duties, demands and obligations, populate these films, as they do Indian reality.

The question of, why some familism contributes to economic success (as in the East Asian countries), and some fails to (as in India and Africa) should lead us to contemplate the differences in conceptions of family ties among societies and cultures. It is commonly reported that in Africa a family connection means not that family members will assist the entrepreneur by providing willing and loyal employees, which seems to be a key function in East Asia, but that they will use up his resources by moving in and insisting they have a right to be supported. Family connection and closeness can also mean inefficient nepotism.

Not Starting, But Spurring

The values that we now think support economic development were once thought to restrain it, and the economist John Wong of Singapore, in his contribution to Tu Wei-Ming's Confucian Traditions, is still skeptical about the economic benefits of Confucian values:

It is not enough to argue in general terms that the Confucian ethos is conducive to increased personal savings and hence higher capital formation. It must also be demonstrated forcefully and specifically whether such savings have been productively invested in business or industry or have been squandered in noneconomic spending, such as the fulfillment of social obligations, which is also a part of the Confucian social system. It must also be shown how Confucian values have actually resulted in effective manpower development in terms of promoting the upgrading of skills and not in encouraging merely intellectual self-cultivation or self-serving literary pursuits. A typical Confucian gentleman in the past would have shown open disdain for menial labor.

One concludes that the family features described by social scientists as a central part of the great tradition of Confucianism can serve a variety of ends. In East Asia, in combination with effective economic policies, they seem to have served to strengthen economic development, despite earlier expectations that they would only hamper it. Perhaps, as the quotation from John Wong suggests, it was only after Confucianism was sharply reduced, stripped of its ceremonial elements, and restricted to the realm of the family that it could facilitate and speed economic growth.

In resorting to the concept of Asian values, we seem to be referring to features we find in all traditional societies. The East Asian experience suggests to us that these values may not help to initiate rapid economic development, but can be extremely helpful--in combination with other key factors such as political stability and the right economic policies--in spurring on economic development once it gets started. Then the family loyalties, the commitment to aid family members, the commitment to education, the saving for family advancement all come into play. It is precisely these features that we fear are undermined by economic development in the West, where we have been alerted by Joseph Schumpeter to the destructive effects of capitalism on bourgeois values, and have been taught about "the cultural contradictions of capitalism" by Daniel Bell.

With rapid economic development well under way, we see rising concern in the countries of East Asia that the traditional values they took for granted before economic development are now being undermined. It is at this point that "Confucian values" come into their own and leaders, such as those in Singapore, typically begin to worry about how long they can shore them up. None of the leaders of East Asia thought Asian--or Confucian, or traditional--values would be helpful in getting their countries started on the road to economic development. Those same leaders now worry about the threat to these values from Westernization--because, in retrospect, those values seem to have been important in spurring their surprising take-offs.

But by Western standards, Asian values are still surprisingly firm. It is this continuing firmness that has not been taken into account in the recent trashing of their significance. Globalization undoubtedly affects social and cultural features, and, yes, undermines them. But the rate of undermining is surprisingly slow, and the difference in the rates of change in these key social and cultural characteristics between East and West still gives the East an advantage.

In the early 1970s, my economist colleagues in the Brookings study of the causes of Japan's economic success seemed convinced that we would see a slowdown there because of the huge increase in the price of oil, as Japan possessed no oil and had no alternative energy sources. It stood to reason, but it didn't happen. Again, with the economic troubles of the late 1990s in East Asia, we see the widespread assumption that the Asian economic surge has passed its peak. I am skeptical, as I was about the expectations of the American economists in 1973. The main reason for my skepticism is that values do undergird economic growth, and the values in East Asia that serve to maintain family stability, a commitment to education and high savings rates still show a surprising steadiness compared to developments in the West. Tradition maintains itself even in the face of so many aspects of globalization. It is much too early to count out Asian values.

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