Constructive Engagement with Asian Values

by Wm. Theodore de Bary


It is a question what "Constructive Engagement" and "Asian Val-ues," both relatively new terms in public discourse, really mean. Both are open to contestation and further clarification as regards to human rights issues.

"Constructive engagement," as the slogan for a new phase in the Clinton administration’s China policy, nevertheless covers a retreat to an older policy; it is virtually the same as the one pursued in the Bush years, which Bill Clinton had attacked in his 1992 campaign. Now, having failed, for predictable reasons, to deliver on his bold promise to stand up for human rights in China, Clinton has had to fall back on the Bush position, while of course claiming it as his own.

For practical purposes, "Constructive engagement" so far means doing business with China while side-lining human rights (and getting little in return from the People’s Republic for this gesture of restraint). The United States having already conceded this much to China, Secretary Madeleine Albright, when pressing Japan and the ASEAN nations to stand up for human rights in Cambodia and Burma in July 1997, was in a poor position to deal with their demurral--their excuse for not taking a stronger stand being that they were in a process of "constructive engagement" with those in power. 

What, then, is constructive about such an engagement? The true depth of the question lies in the fact that the Clinton administration as well as the Republican majority in Congress faces the same recurring problem: what usefully can be done about human rights if a "business as usual" policy has already been agreed to by all parties? Unresolved, this dilemma bedeviled the Bush administration earlier, posing the point that without any economic leverage or political room to maneuver in (given the compelling need for U.S.-China collaboration on major strategic and security matters), how else could the struggle for human rights be carried on? The only solution is to deal with it on a cultural level.

In the meantime, however, the opposition to human rights and liberal democracy in Asia has come up with the slogan of "Asian Values" as the cultural ground on which to reject liberal values. Instead, Asian societies must follow more traditional patterns stressing such aspects as strong leadership, group discipline, the work ethic, and family values. One version of this argument, now a model even for African states, is referred to as adhering to an "Asian model of development." Here it is claimed that successful modernization in East and Southeast Asia has been won precisely by emphasizing traditional conservative values, which have provided the strong political direction and social stability necessary for economic growth.

Often attached to the "Asian Values" argument is the characterization of such "Confucian" traditional values, a claim with a certain specious plausibility, since to the minds of many people in both East or West, Confucianism has only been known as a conservative authority system supportive of family, state, and status quo.

In effect, by associating itself with Confucianism, the opposition to democracy and human rights has staked out a higher cultural ground on which to stand. Here it is not just economic sense but traditional human values in Asia that seem to justify resistance to the alleged libertarian individualism of the West, as enshrined in the supposedly culture-bound "Western" conceptions of human rights. Indeed, to some people in the U.S. as well put somewhat on the defensive in the midst of the so-called "contemporary culture wars" in education, this argument appears somewhat unreasonable as well.

Certain historical facts, however, are either not well-remembered, kept out of sight, or not well understood, these days. One could easily accept the idea that economic development depends on authoritarian rule and the limitation of human rights. Yet, the earliest success stories in East Asia did not depend on such--effective leadership, the security of law and due process, yes; but, dictatorship and repression, no. True, in some cases the implementation of democracy was slow in coming, but in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and even Hong Kong before 1997 the commitment to democratization held firm and eventually found substantial implementation. Yet, despite their difficulties en route, and especially the military dangers they were exposed to, South Korea and Taiwan remained committed to democratization, arguing for law and order as necessary to the achievement of democracy in due time. In contrast, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never made such a commitment to democratization, instead defending the one-party rule (as in the so-called "dictatorship of the peoples’ democracy")

as the only realistic alternative to the endemic threat of an archy—an argument effectively foreclosing any democratic development. Indeed, hard-liners in Beijing have even ruled out "peaceful evolution" to multi-party democracy, and this obdurate stand goes unchallenged in the PRC.

The second fallacy in the "Asian values" argument lies in the belief that human rights are Western, culture-bound concepts, incompatible with Confucian values (as the supposed substantive content of "Asian values"). However, Asian representatives participated in the international conventions that produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and its supplementary codicils, affirming these rights, sometimes from their own cultural vantage points, as supported by a consensus of underlying human values expressible in diverse cultural terms. Indeed, the language of the Confucian Analects found its way into the Preamble and First Article of the original 1948 Declaration. This was done through the active agency of Chinese delegates, abetted by other Asian and Western delegates’ ready recognition of common ground in the humanistic and humanitarian sentiments therein expressed.

A double irony attaches to this historic development. The only challenge ever mounted to these Confucian sentiments in favor of human rights came later when representatives of the People’s Republic of China, after its admission to the United Nations while still feeling the effects of the anti-Confucian, Great Proletarian, Cultural Revolution, attacked these Confucian sentiments on the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist grounds that there were no such things as universal, humanistic, or classless Confucian values.

The other irony is this case where one of the Chinese delegates instrumental in this original human rights enactment was a Confucian/Christian /Chinese, Dr. Wu Teh-yao, subsequently the founding director of the Institute for East Asian Philosophies in Singapore, which became the fountainhead of the movement to return of Confucianism, a movement eventually extending its influence even to the PRC.

In the view of these ironies and contradictions, it may seem less apposite to point out the further fallacy in speaking of these Confucian concepts as "Asian values." Asia has been the home of several major cultural traditions, but until recently, and mostly as a modern response to the Western challenge, these traditions achieved their own maturity, distinctiveness and refinement through largely self-contained processes of internal development. In their own way it is true, some of these distinct traditions had incorporated elements of other cultures (especially religious) in this process. Yet, except for Japan, Korea, and more recently Vietnam, none of the other major traditions of the middle East or South Asia had historically claimed common ancestry or common ground with Confucianism. Only in the twentieth century has such an inclusive pan-Asianism been advanced, most often in resistance to the West.

To this modern development one might add an even more recent one in reaction to the West. As propounded today Confucianism is put forward in a revisionist, rather idealized form, as the great promise for everyone’s future in Asia. As revolutionary expectations of Marxism-Leninism promising the millennium in the twentieth century, Confucianism, freed of the burdens of past history, will carry Asia forward into the twenty-first century. In other words, the claim is made less to a common cultural past, than to a shared stake in the future.  For this very reason, however, the new trend toward finding common cultural ground among nations must be guided by an authentic multiculturalism, and especially by a better understanding of Confucianism itself.

Aside from Confucian contributions to the original human rights declaration, most of the same human rights provisions have been incorporated into the constitutions of those East Asian countries whose cultures were actually influenced by Confucianism. Their Confucian culture has not barred their acceptance of international human rights standards in constitutional law. Moreover their acceptance has held firm over the year; no serious challenge has been mounted to these rights on Confucian grounds—even in the People’s Republic of China. If nothing else, this absence of any overt challenge demonstrates how little can be found in stated values, whether in Confucian teachings or in international human rights concepts, that renders the two incompatible.

Nevertheless, there is indeed a well known problem regarding the actual observance and proactive of human rights, however "recognized" they may be in nominal terms. One way of looking at human rights professions in such cases is to see them as mere window dressing, or better perhaps as garnish on one’s dinner plate—like parsley that one is not expected to eat, even though, or perhaps because doing so in sufficient quantities might generate a taste for more.

More seriously however we come to the heart of the problem: despite all outward professions, there are traditional practices, social institutions or even habits of the mind and heart that stand as obstacles against the practical observance of human rights in certain cultures. In both the East and West, these obstacles can be addressed once we recognize both their existence and more importantly, the fact that these can be addressed substantially within the terms of their own culture, once we take the trouble to understand these terms. This latter point is crucial, and it is the main burden of this essay: human rights issues can only be resolved in the long run by genuine multicultural dialogue—whether conducted people-to-people, through intellectual engagement or by diplomacy—based on mutual understanding, not cultural separatism. No amount of pressure, economic or political, can do the same. On the other hand, do not infer that perfect mutual understanding is in prospect, or that everything else should await such an unlikely consummation—understand, however, the effort to understand is where the process must start.

First, one must note the incompatibility between the libertarian individualism of the East and the communitarianism of Asia as alleged by spokesmen for "Asian Values." Since the latter is usually couched in Chinese and Confucian terms, we shall deal with it as such. But to do this one must dispel some widespread misconceptions. Supporters of the "Asian values" position are not wrong in supposing that the concept of a radically free-standing individual is foreign to Confucianism, but the contrast is more with the modern age than it is with some earlier Western traditions, themselves more communitarian, as well as with contemporary communitarianism movements in the West that react against the recent trend. Modern libertarian individualism, as a product of rapid economic development and social change, presents the individual with a new abundance of "choices" to be made, while the extraordinary power of modern technology, inspires and inflates the dream of unlimited expansiveness and liberation from all constraints. Today however, these are phenomena of both East and West, wherever industrialization takes place; it is not a case of East versus West. Moreover, advocates of an "Asian communitarianism" should not suppose—as Western writers themselves have often done—that in Confucianism the worth of the individual is to be found only in association with the group, that he is no more than the sum of the social roles he is expected to perform, or that he is to be content with subordination to the state and established authority.

In the opening line of the Analects, Confucius sets the matter in perspective when he speaks first of practicing what one has learned in the present, sharing the experiences with friends from afar, and finally characterizing the truly noble man as one who is unembittered even if he is unrecognized by others [especially the ruler]. The first two lines express the idea of a self shaped in the process of learning from others, but the last line conveys the sense that this should produce a person able to stand on his own. Later described as "learning for one’s self," in contrast to approval, or "learning for the sake of others,"—that is to say, for his true self-development, rather than to gain social acceptance or political advancement.

This concept of a fully realized personhood is reaffirmed in Confucius’ concise resume of his own life experience:

At fifteen I set my heart on learning.

At thirty I was established [stood on my own feet].

At forty I had no perplexities.

At fifty I had learned what Heaven commanded of me.

By sixty my ear had become attuned to it.

At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing.

Here Confucius characterizes his life-long learning as centered on his own self-development and self-fulfillment in the course of meeting the demands of Heaven. Judging from the rest of the Analects, what he learned had much to do with his relationship to others and his sense of responsibility for them. Yet, here he describes his life experience as one of inner growth in response to the providential guidance of Heaven—a higher moral authority in the universe (Heaven’s Way as defining his own mission in life). In his case "Heaven’s command" (Tianming) is not the same as a dynastic mandate, though it shares with that Mandate responsibility for what Heaven ordains morally and politically. Instead, his is a mandate and vocation to public service that demands difficult and unexpected things of him. Not easily accepted at first, it eventually brings him a sense of personal freedom and self-fulfillment.

This is no less true of the human condition and the human ideal as we see it in Mencius, for whom the Way and the imperatives of Heaven are found in the innermost depths of one’s own being. Moreover, among the other two classic texts that Confucians later constitutes in the canonical Four Books, the Mean (Zhongyong), while paying due respect to social roles and obligations, extols above all personal sincerity or integrity (cheng), which means being true to one’s innermost self, especially when one is not observed by others or answerable to them. In the same vein, the famous Eight Items of the Great Learning give clear priority in the first five items to the individual’s self-development, before extending this further to family or state.

It is these texts and these concepts that later became formative of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation, reaffirming the morally responsible and affectively responsive self in the face of profound philosophical challenges from Buddhism and Daoism. And it is the same sense of the Way and its rightness, deep within one’s self, from which a long line of Ming Neo-Confucian scholars from Qian Tang, Fang Xiaoru, Hai Rai and on down to Liu Zongzhou, drew the conviction and courage to challenge Ming despots. When one risks one’s life, as they did, in order to be true to one’s innermost self, it cannot be thought of as merely performing for others, fulfilling a social role or conforming to the values of the group. Though it would be equally inappropriate to call this true self-centeredness simply a from of "individualism" (if by that one means individual freedom of choice or emancipation from social constraints), it does affirm a strong moral conscience, shaped and formed in a social, cultural process that culminates, at its best, in a sense of self-fulfillment within society and the natural order.

Given its special Confucian features one might better call this a Confucian personalism, as distinct from the individualism of the modern West. But whatever one calls it, he is still left with an obvious question, if true personhood was so esteemed in China, why was it necessary for any number of Confucian martyrs to sacrifice their lives in resistance to Ming despotism and in fulfillment of their true selves? Confucians themselves asked this question increasingly in the seventeenth century, and came up with a critique of dynastic rule, the best example of which is Huang Zongxi’s Waiting for the Dawn: A Plan for the Prince. This critique, which sought to restrain imperial power through a kind of Confucian constitutional law, remained practically ineffective (i.e. had no means of political implementation). Yet, influenced by the West and Japan, it did provide a native Confucian resource for late nineteenth century and early twentieth century constitutional reformers in China to draw upon in arguing that the concept of constitutional law need not be rejected as foreign to China or Confucianism.

No less difficult, Confucians’ critical self-reflection and reappraisal of their own past experience, though still valid as a critique even of the present situation, remained in the realm of Confucian ideas and fell well short of any effective implementation. Thus we have reason to question whether an approach to human rights suffices if it simply cites as "Asian values" abstract ideals set forth in earlier tradition. In some recent discussions of human rights, it has been thought enough, in refutation of the Asian Values thesis, to find in Asian traditions and mostly in classical Confucian writings, some evidence of values akin to human rights concepts. For this purpose, quotations may be drawn from the Analects of Confucius, the Buddhist sutras or the pronouncements of the early Indian ruler Asoka, to illustrate their humanitarian sentiments.  Still such classic statements serve only a limited purpose. While they can illustrate traditional ideals or axial values—which are by no means insignificant—such quotations fail to address the historical realities of China in later terms or contemporary circumstances in which current human rights issues are embedded.

What happened to Confucians’ attempts to implement and live by ancient ideals is of crucial importance. Their success in practice and the limiting conditions in which Confucians tried to act upon are questions quite relevant both to the implementation of human rights and the pursuit of economic development today. Problems of continuity and change in the evolution of major traditions must also be considered. One should not take the sayings of Confucius and Mencius, alone, to represent what was instead a historically developing, yet conflicted Confucian tradition. Confucianism should not be thought of neither as static nor monolithic.

One must also question whether Asia and China can be conceded exclusive rights over communitarianism, and whether Western conceptions of human rights can be dismissed as radical individualism, self-indulgent permissiveness, or even the "spiritual pollution" that is said to contaminate Western liberalism and endanger the Asian community. The forms of Western communitarianism are themselves legion and of long-standing; even contemporary versions range widely over the political spectrum, reflecting the evolution of nineteenth century Western liberalism into twentieth century socialist or social democratic varieties (with liberals often characterized as "pinko") and spoken for more recently by writers as diverse as Christopher Lasch, Amitai Etzionik, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre, some of whom may even be labeled neo-conservatives.

Though useful to compare the communitarianism of these Western writers to what is said about human rights by the "Asian Values" school, it is not expected that the former would endorse the latter’s derogation of human rights, and far more likely that they would support the Universal Declaration. Therefore, I shall undertake no such inventory or assessment of their views here. Instead, I shall focus on what communitarianism has meant in the Confucian context, that is, in the longer development of Confucianism and especially of Neo-Confucianism, and its attempt to deal with the problems of an increasingly complex society that is dominated by an authoritarian state.

More particularly I point to Confucian communitarian thought in relation to two specific cases: community school (she-xue) and the community organizations known as "community compacts" (xiang yue), the fate of which Confucians illustrate as a wider range of efforts to strengthen community life and build consensual, fiduciary institutions. If these two cases seem to be homespun examples of communitarianism, they are actually authentically Confucian, genuine expressions of a tradition that assigns a prime value to education and ritual—a value which has endured well into the twentieth century modernization process. More than demonstrating the enduring importance of education to the Confucians, however, community schools, as a response to the specific historical opportunities and challenges in late Imperial China, are also indicative of the difficulties Confucians experienced in trying to put their educational ideals into practice.

The community compacts, as well, are instructive of the same historical process and predicament. Confucians viewed the compacts like the schools, as civilizing instruments; especially in the sense that these organs of consensual and cooperative self-governance were conceived as local rituals and not as instruments of state power, voluntaristic in nature and not coercive. Hence, this authentically Confucian concept of civility through voluntary, locally observed "rites," rather than by legal systems enforced by an overarching (and often over-reaching) state, stands in ironic contrast to the current "Asian Values" interpretation of communitarianism, which views it as something readily and directly translatable into a law-and order society dominated by an authoritarian central government.

Stemming from communal ideals alluded to in the classics, the advocacy of community school, local academies, and community compacts was a special feature of the Neo-Confucian revival during the Song period (eleventh and twelfth centuries) in response to the growing centralization of power in the dynastic state. Thought of as instrumental to the expansion of education, popular participation, and local self-governance, such advocacy intended to fill the gap between family, clan and lineage organizations on the rice-roots level and the centralized bureaucratic state on the higher level, providing some civil infrastructure between them. Espoused by the highly influential Neo-Confucian thinker and educator, Zhu Xi (1130-1270) and attempted repeatedly by leading scholar-officials thereafter, these institutions fell victim to the overpowering influence of state and its preference for dealing with politically atomized family structures, under the presence that together they constituted one big happy family. The whole story of this denouement is too long to be told here, but it is most instructive of how a genuine Confucian communitarianism lost out to a paternalistic dynastic system. 

The fact that both the community schools and community compacts eventually fell under the hegemony of the dynastic state does not demonstrate historical insignificance. On the contrary, the noble failure of these Confucian experiments only underscores the very real difficulties of implementing ideal values in such a tough environment and such limiting conditions. One cannot assume that, in China today, it will be much easier for liberal democratic politics to become established in the face of similarly adverse circumstances; hence realism cautions against overly optimistic expectations. At the same time, if the difficulties can be recognized, one will not immediately assume that progress is inevitable, that economic liberalization will necessarily lead to political liberalization, or that Confucian humanistic influences can be counted on as a long-term force for good, without the need for active advocacy.

If these two earlier communitarian efforts were successful, they might have contributed to a Confucian version of a civil society. The mere existence of relatively independent local organizations alone, however, would not have assured such an outcome. Such social entities did indeed exist in the form of traditional family, clan and lineage organizations, and religious communities that were largely autonomous. Yet, the enjoyment of such autonomy is not the same as participation in a civil society; wherein organizations intermediate between family and state would serve as a political infrastructure, with formal channels of communication leading upward to policy-making levels on top and at the center. If organizations had expanded education, extended literacy more widely, and provided public channels (open media) for the more active participation of the people in representative government, perhaps a civil with Confucian and Chinese characteristic would have emerged.

That such did not happen points to the other side of the state-society equation: the absence of a constitutional order providing formally for the kind of countervailing institutions identified in the West with civil society. This is not simply a matter of delimiting the power of the state; for in practice, there had always been limits to effective state control and many local organizations enjoyed virtual autonomy. Besides the limits of imperial rule, greater participation in the political process must be provided by a constitutional structure. Indeed, the two must go hand in hand; for without popular support, educated opinion, and moral cultural support, any constitution would be a dead letter, as is no less true today.

Some of the best Confucian minds came to such a realization in the modern period, and therefore a constitutional order supportive of democratic values and human rights, though not at all an assured prospect on Confucian grounds or Chinese calculations alone, nevertheless was not alien to Confucian thinking nor out of line with the growing critique of dynastic rule. Evidence comes from twentieth century Confucian spokesmen’s subsequent acknowledgment of the need for such constitutional processes and from other East Asian societies’ ready acceptance of them.

In relation to the Confucian preference for rites instead of laws, however, the need for a constitutional order to replace dynastic law points to a weakness in the Confucian approach to government because it relied so heavily, so long and so unavailingly, on the moral restraints of ritual to curb the excesses of autocratic power.

The same question also arises when one considers the status of women as an area of particular concern for human rights. Here, we also find that Confucian concerns for human dignity and norms of ritual respect for the human person were insufficiently borne out in the actual status and treatment of women. In fact, some of the severe limitations imposed on women in the name of Confucian ritual contradicted such norms. Indeed this very tension within Confucianism and Chinese society, over its humanitarian professions, may account for the comparative susceptibility, rather than determined resistance, to Western standards by Confucian-influenced societies in East Asia.

Of course, this is not the same thing as saying that an improvement in the condition of women would likely have occurred without the catalyst of outside influence—an outcome which is frankly implausible. Even so, in this area, there is little evidence to suggest that an "Asian" defense against human rights could be mounted on fundamental Confucian grounds. There is, however, good reason to believe that the Confucian historical experience would lend positive support to many of the human rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration, as well as negative confirmation of the need for others of them.

Yet, it remains true that the nominal acceptance of such rights or even their legal enactment, as is now almost universal in East Asian constitutions, still leaves a large question as to whether or not effective compliance will follow. This is why the multifaceted issue of civil society becomes rather crucial in the discussion of Asian communitarianism. One could dispute the claim that Confucianism supports a strong state and systems of authoritarian, law-and-order rule. Yet one could also assert that without the elements of a civil society, a practical infrastructure and countervailing institutions able to check the abuse of state power, mere lip-service to human rights would count for little. If the proponents of "Asian Values" are genuinely concerned with achieving a proper balance between the rights of the individual and the legitimate needs and claims of society, then the Confucian experience is truly relevant to the maintenance of such balance and the Chinese historical record in these matters is worth reflecting upon in this connection.


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