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Book review

October 20, 2000

The East is East, silly

Democracy and Human Rights in Asia
Daniel A. Bell, Princeton University Press 2000, 369 pp



When Edward Said identified Orientalism, he also noted the invention of an “Islam” by Middle Easterners themselves, the imagining of “an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche.” There is an East Asian parallel to “Orientalism-in-reverse.” Among us Asians, many claim uniform Asian character traits, which are said to make us unique or superior to Westerners, who are presumed to be individualistic, autonomy-seeking, legalistic and who alone are suited for “Western” concepts such as human rights and democracy. It is said that we Asians place social harmony above litigious antagonism and prosperity above freedom.

Said may want to consider yet another incarnation of Orientalism. This one reverses the old Orientalist’s negative, condescending and humiliating view of Orientals. Its positive profiling of the Orient is nonetheless also based on stereotypes. This neo-Orientalism describes the way in which Western pundits and experts in Asian affairs, often with the good intention of reversing arrogant cultural imperialism, bend over backwards to admire the Orient.

In East Meets West, Daniel A. Bell tries to make a case for a different order of human rights priorities in Asia. Among other propositions, Bell argues for an autocratic meritocracy in China on the basis that such arrangements are more suited to societies with “East Asian political values” or “Chinese characteristics.” In the voice of “Mr. Lo,” an imaginary Princeton-educated Asian NGO organizer, who chats with “Mr. Demo” (an insulting portrayal of a program officer from the US foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy), Bell insists in Part I of the book that East Asian “values of normative importance” (i.e., “the meanings and priorities East Asians typically attach to a set of political standards”) are simply better than “West-centric” or “American-style” human rights and democracy.

While it is hard to pin down Bell’s own voice in this book, one can clearly hear him talking when the views he advances in the Introduction come out of Mr. Lo’s mouth. This book’s dialogue format allows both sides of the issues to be heard more than philosophical essays normally do. However, it also allows Bell to speak in the voice of “Asians” and then to conveniently refer to this as Asian ideas or proposals sensitive to Asian cultural and moral traditions.

It is certainly important to try to ascertain what constitutes the “East Asian perspective” and the alternatives to Western-style human rights and democracy. And Bell promises to do just that. He sensibly differentiates the perspective of East Asian leaders from “unofficial East Asian [intellectual] viewpoints.” In the book, however, these perspectives are often conflated. For instance, Bell suggests that most of the educated elite in Singapore agree with their former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In the end, Bell’s “East Asian perspective” amounts to no more than a selective array of views made in academic papers by intellectuals of Asian origin, personal impressions and oft-repeated stereotypes.

We are told that the East Asian perspective is holistic and covers an array of regulative norms ranging from eating dogs to accepting gifts, from giving preference to prosperity and stability over democracy, to prioritizing social-economic rights over civil-political liberties. We are told that the “habits and politically influential traditions” in Singapore (more precisely, those promoted by Lee Kuan Yew) are “‘communitarian’ commitments to the family and the nation.” In China, “the Confucian value of respect for rule by an intellectual elite” is presumed to be widespread and influential. The only support for this notion, however, is found in the commentary of a philosopher “king,” a fictive Professor “Wang.” (Bell notes that “wang” means “king” in Chinese and this guided his naming of this figure.) The general willingness of Asian intellectual elites merely to discuss Bell’s proposal for installing an intellectual meritocracy to select the leadership in China is also cited as support for this idea.

Having called for “taking culture less seriously” at the outset, Bell subsequently reinstalls an equally unsubstantiated “East Asian perspective” of suspicious origins. In depicting a specific “East Asianness,” Bell must be congratulated for his seemingly effortless skill in vividly conveying stereotypes through his Asian characters’ self-perceptions, preferences and strong distaste for things Western, particularly American.

Professor Bell’s preferred “East Asian perspective” bears little resemblance to the real East Asian intellectual landscape, animated as it is by diverse perspectives and contentious ideas, particularly in the area of human rights and democracy. For instance, in Bell’s book we hear very little about those who, like the mainland political theorist, Liu Junning, defend liberal democracy with much sensitivity to local particularities. The specific “Asian” view of Professor Bell’s choosing, which places order, stability, harmony and prosperity above civil-political liberties and competitive democratic politics, is highly contested in academic debates in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Singapore. Furthermore, voices of non-official, non-academic Asians, such as women, minorities, farmers, migrants, downsized or laid-off workers, or sweatshop laborers are totally missing from Bell’s view. It is perhaps too much to ask that a philosophy professor provide a picture of the complex, diverse (often clashing) and changing political values and perspectives in the Asian region. However, Bell does not have to pretend his fictional intellectuals speak for the “local cultural and political concerns.” Bell’s neo-Orientalism proves to be no less mystifying, ahistorical and anti-human than Orientalism itself.

Bell sets out to target two foes. First, a “blind faith” in the West “in the universal potential of liberal democracy and human rights,” which lurks behind US government policies promoting human rights and democracy abroad “regardless of local needs, habits and traditions.” Bell promises to “fix” this problem by defending the “importance of local knowledge” about East Asia, of which (we are constantly reminded) Bell has accumulated a vast store during his years teaching philosophy in Singapore and Hong Kong. Who could really quarrel with that? Brian Barry, one example of “blind faith,” would never deny “local knowledge” even though he was quoted as saying that he believes in “the possibility of putting forward a universally valid case in favor of liberal egalitarian principles.” Where is the contradiction between such a belief and an appreciation of the importance of “local knowledge”?

Bell’s other foe is “West-centric outlooks.” The question, however, is whether Asia’s different perspective has the sort of regional, ethnic and cultural identity and unity of which Bell speaks so matter-of-factly and authoritatively based on his exclusive “local knowledge” about “the Singapore context” or “things Chinese.” Another question is whether the East Asian perspective Professor Bell reveals is not really something avidly advocated in the West dressed up in different clothes. As it turns out, East Asian values are nothing but “communitarian values,” where “the interests of society take precedence over that of the individual.” That is, they are precisely the sort of values that Bell’s Western communitarian comrade Amitai Etzioni has so eloquently defended in America. Indeed, these values have long been articulated by many Western thinkers, including Aristotle, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Hegel and, more lately, Alastair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel.

What Bell does well in this book is to move the battle front between liberalism and communitarianism eastward. He uses the political rhetoric and academic debate on democracy, human rights and community, local particularity and culture in East Asia to supply ammunition to communitarian comrades back home. Bell’s most forceful theoretical moment comes in Part II, when he presents (now in the clothes of “Mr. Demo”) “communitarian justification for democracy” in Singapore. This certainly is useful in aiding democrats in Singapore by handing them the logic to counter Lee’s communitarian rhetoric against democracy. But Bell’s “communitarian justification” for democracy, which is literally airlifted from its American context (and rooted moreover in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America), may leave Mr. Lee unmoved. His “Confucian communitarianism” has little to do with the American communitarian project of strengthening communities and civil society for restoring trust in democratic government to the level of the once smaller, more homogenous America.

Bell is aware of the limits of his consequentialist argument - if your opponent has made no prior commitment to democracy, how can you convince him of the instrumental value of a tool for promoting democracy? This, however, is not really where Bell’s theoretical ambition ends. He is not out to persuade East Asians of the value of Western democracy. Nor is he interested in the strategic value of Asian culture in promoting democracy and human rights in Asia. What he tries to achieve (and thinks he has) in Part III, is to find in Asia’s own cultural tradition a moral foundation for alternative political practices and institutions - liberal democracy, for instance. This would be a powerful argument against the claims of universalists: Westerners have their moral foundation in their culture for practicing politics and governance in their way. East Asians surely have different moral foundations in their cultures for practicing them differently. That Asian (or Chinese) “moral foundation” which is said to justify autocratic meritocracy is presumably provided by the 17th century neo-Confucian, Huang Zongxi. The alternative to “Western-style” democracy is “a bicameral legislature, with a democratically elected lower house and an upper house composed of representatives selected on the basis of competitive examinations.”

The pieces of the puzzle all seem to fall into place at this point. The neo-Orientalist invention of East Asianness is only a stepping stone toward a political proposal for a ruling intellectual elite. Intellectuals with a particular Confucian bent (such as the fictive “Professor Wang”) are made the spokespeople in this book for “East Asian” meanings and values because they are its direct beneficiaries.

The feasibility of such a proposal is difficult to assess given so many unspecified variables. For example, will the democratic elections be “Western-style” (as in American Congressional elections) or “Chinese-style” (as in elections for delegates to the National People’s Congress)? If the upper “House of Scholars” is to be constitutionally subordinate to the Lower House (which will have the final say on legislation), how is such an arrangement to substantially improve upon the current system where some of China’s most brilliant intellectuals serve in a consultative capacity in various government offices and at the Academies of Social Sciences? Indeed, many intellectuals already contribute significantly to governance in China. Legal scholars, for instance, were called upon to help draft the various Chinese Constitutions! While one purpose of the proposed system is to constrain the type of democratic populism found in the American legislature, the power of a Chinese Lower House with ultimate authority in legislation would be less constrained than in the American system, where a bill only becomes law upon clear majorities in both the House and Senate.

What about the cultural authenticity of this “democracy with Chinese characteristics”? Bell executes a skillful sleight of hand by repackaging an idea that he himself has concocted and, indeed, has tabled at a number of academic conferences. It is highly ironic that Bell’s own proposal magically becomes culturally authentic through its attribution to the fictive Professor Wang. Moreover, Bell’s original model turns out to be based, not so much on Confucian scholar-officials serving as ministers for the Emperor, but on the British House of Lords! Where is the alternative to “Western-style” democracy and what are its “Chinese characteristics”? Did Bell really come to his encounters with East Asians with an open mind? Some Westerners of particular ideological persuasions in this book do “meet” and instruct the East. Surely, they find some Asians all ears.

Not all Asians will agree, though. Popular democratic movements throughout East Asia have so far left designs for “philosopher kings” where they belong - safely tucked away in dusty filing cabinets. Those Asians who suffer from torture, brutality, injustice, repression, exploitation and discrimination, as well as those who fight on their behalf, have not been and will not be deterred by the cultural barriers dividing East and West. Such distinctions seem to concern, for the most part, academics and political guardians of the status quo. As long as human rights violations continue in Asia, demands by Asians for human rights, and the irrelevance of professors, will too.

Xiaorong Li is a faculty member of the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland, and a member of Human Rights in China’s board of directors.