Vol. 10 No. 10 (October 2000) pp. 577-580.


Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 369 pp. Cloth $65.00 ISBN: 0-691-00507-9. Paper $19.95 ISBN: 0-691-00508-7

Reviewed by Tom Ginsburg, College of Law, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

For several years, Asian leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad have criticized "Western" standards of human rights and democracy. These leaders argue that the Western emphasis on civil and political rights over economic and social concerns is ill-suited to Asian conditions, that Western governments promoting human rights are hypocritical, and that "Asian Values" offer an alternative, locally appropriate basis for political life. Although these critiques have become somewhat less prominent in the aftermath of the 1997-98 economic crisis, the broader debate about what values are universal will continue to challenge conventional understandings of human rights, democracy, and global culture. In EAST MEETS WEST, Daniel A. Bell of the University of Hong Kong provides a highly accessible synthesis of the key positions in the debate and develops a nuanced position on the appropriate role of democracy and human rights in the Asian context.

Professor Bell's device is a series of dialogues between Sam Demo, a grantmaker for an American organization that promotes democracy and human rights abroad, and various Asian interlocutors. In Part I, while on a mission to determine funding priorities, Demo meets Joseph Lo, a Hong Kong businessman and activist. Lo eloquently makes the case that Asian views should be taken into account not only in determining the means through which universal goals should be pursued, but in the very definition of those goals. In particular, Lo argues that observers ought to consider local perspectives and problems when evaluating political practices that do not conform to certain human rights norms or a Western conception of democracy. If Western policymakers promoting human rights take the ends as given, policy "dialogue" merely becomes a gentler means of imposing norms on Asian countries. A true dialogue would require Western policymakers to be willing to change their own policies, their conceptions of human good, and the institutional configurations designed to best achieve them.

Part I is perhaps the strongest section of the book. Lo admits that political leaders whose motives may be open to question typically advance the argument against democracy and human rights. However, he also points out, correctly, that self-interest on the part of those critiquing the Western position does not in and of itself renders their objections meritless. Furthermore, many Asian intellectuals not associated with the government have advanced thoughtful critiques of the Western position on human rights and democracy. Some of these people were involved in an earlier project from which Professor Bell draws extensively (Bauer and Bell, 1999). Lo provides numerous examples of such critiques and

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urges that Demo consider them in designing his program.

In Part II, Demo meets Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean elder statesman who is the most visible and articulate exponent of Asian Values. Here Lee (often in his own words quoted from other sources) presents a summary of the Singapore model, which emphasizes social order, economic pragmatism, meritocracy, and a paternalist party-state that dictates the terms of public debate. Lee argues forcefully that in certain circumstances, the Singapore model can better achieve substantive human goods than can Western democracy. Lee also restates his oft-quoted critiques of Western "hyper-individualism" as undermining social order and the family.

Demo responds with a plea to Lee to take communitarianism seriously. He makes the case that more democracy in Singapore, by facilitating the development of a vibrant civil society, could further Lee's goals of a patriotic, harmonious, family-oriented society. Here Demo seems to have learned something from his earlier conversations with Lo by drawing on local circumstances in support of his arguments. Westerners often do not appreciate the fear of violence in Southeast Asia, where ethnic diversity is high, democratic history limited, and memories of communal violence vivid. It is especially important in such circumstances to ground arguments for democracy in local conditions.

This section also resonates with an instrumental view of democracy that has been predominant in many parts of Asia. Democracy has often been viewed not as an end to itself, but as a means of increasing national power. By framing the argument for democracy in this way, Demo makes Lee reconsider his position, although the section ends amusingly with Lee's ordering Demo to be monitored by internal security forces. Lee, it seems, has no more interest in genuine dialogue than do the Western governments who seek to impose their own standards on Asia.

The dialogues with Lee highlight the worthwhile elements of the Asian Values critique while rejecting those elements that smack of narrow self-interest. As a self-described communitarian, Professor Bell is sympathetic to the argument that the language of rights has limitations. "Positive" rights, such as those to health care or education, and communal goods such as social order, may not be amenable to rights-type discourse and legalistic approaches. In many cases these substantive human goods can be better achieved through non-legal methods. The experience of economic growth in postwar Asia is perhaps the premier example in world history of illiberal societies achieving broad-based and sustained growth, raising standards of living without "rights talk". Although international lawyers in much of the Third World argued about a "right to development," Asian governments delivered gains in health care, education and economic well-being.

Bell does not develop the communitarian argument fully in the book, but it is not clear that it would be persuasive if he did. Although communitarianism can be used as an argument in favor of democracy, it can also be used to justify state intervention (Davis 1998). It is difficult to assert that Singaporeans, for example, are any more communitarian than are Westerners, since their ability to form communities is constrained by the state. Furthermore, many of the substantive goods that Asian governments delivered, such as health care and education, are perfectly

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consistent with a liberal view of the development of individual autonomy, even if they are not associated with the classical liberalism of Locke.

This leads the reader to the question of whether Asian values are in fact different from those of the West. Lee proclaims the importance of Asian values such as the desire for social order and the importance of responsibilities toward elders, but these may be illustrations of commonalities rather than differences between Asia and the West. Any observer of the current United States presidential election cannot fail to note the emphasis on "working families" - embodying two supposedly Asian values in one neat phrase. Accepting Lee's argument about alternative means suggests there may be more agreement about ends than conventionally understood.

Despite claims that global human rights instruments reflect Western origins, many of the substantive goods that Asian governments have delivered (health care and education, for example) are explicitly included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even if the Universal Declaration, drafted before widespread decolonization, did not reflect broad Asian input, the International Covenants of Civil and Political Rights and of Economic and Social Rights were drafted, signed and ratified in the 1960s, after decolonization was well under way. The drafting committees reflected Asian and other non-Western input, and of course the signatory countries had a choice as to whether to become parties to the Covenants. For a government to now say that the norms embodied in the Conventions were some sort of Western imposition is disingenuous.

Part III consists of a Confucian justification for a Chinese model of democracy. Here, in the year 2007, Demo encounters Professor Wang, a participant in a constitutional convention for (post-communist) China. Wang and Demo discuss the compatibility of Chinese political thought with constitutionalism and human rights. Professor Wang draws on the Chinese tradition of rule by scholar-elites to propose a particularly Chinese constitutionalism. The centerpiece of this scheme is a bicameral assembly with an elected lower house and an upper house composed of meritocratically-selected elites.

Although it is useful to try to reconcile traditional political theories with human rights and democracy, the specific constitutional proposals outlined in Part III are less than persuasive. Should China democratize, constitutional creativity will no doubt be needed, but it seems more plausible that upper house composition will need to reflect regional or federalist concerns than traditional notions of meritocracy. Rich cultural traditions such as Confucianism, as noted in the book, can serve as the basis of various kinds of political and institutional arrangements, and may be compatible with both authoritarianism and democracy. There are antecedents for attempting to reconcile modern constitutionalism with Chinese tradition, most notably Dr. Sun Yat-sen's constitutional scheme for the Republic of China. However, recent democratization in Taiwan (which itself illustrates that Western-style human rights and democratic institutions are not incompatible with contemporary Asian societies) has led to the gradual dismantling of the traditional Chinese elements of Dr. Sun's scheme. Mixing and matching institutions may be attractive to theorists but unnecessary in practice.

Despite these quibbles, Professor Bell's book is a welcome contribution to the

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literature on Asian Values because it is both nuanced and accessible. Local leaders, scholars and activists in Asia have articulated a serious critique of liberal democracy. Developing locally contextualized arguments for democracy and human rights helps to meet the critique on its own terms and engenders a true dialogue among civilizations. EAST MEETS WEST is an excellent synthesis of the positions in the debate over the universality of democracy and human rights. The format of the book as a series of dialogues makes it appropriate for undergraduate courses in many fields, including international law, Asian politics, and human rights. Graduate students may also find it of interest, and can delve more deeply into the issues in the conference volume edited by Bauer and Bell (1999) as well as numerous other recent works in this field.


Bauer, Joanne R. and Daniel A. Bell, ed. 1999. THE EAST ASIAN CHALLENGE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS.
New York: Cambridge University Press

Davis, Michael C. 1998. "Constitutionalism and Political Culture: The Debate over Human Rights and Asian Values,"

Copyright 2000 by the author, Tom Ginsburg.

Copyright 2000 by the author, Peter J. Galie.