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  • Hong Kong, Singapore, and “Asian Values”An Alternative View
  • Joseph Chan (bio)

The debate now in progress over “Asian values” and human rights suffers from the same problems that plague most political debates: its focus is misplaced, participants often seem to be talking at cross-purposes, and the truth is more complex than the views conveyed by the dominant voices. The current controversy was sparked by the signing of the Bangkok Declaration in April 1993 by a number of East and Southeast Asian states, including China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. In the words of a government spokesman for Singapore, whose leaders have been particularly outspoken participants in the debate, the Declaration “stakes out a distinctive Asian point of view” on human rights. 1 The governments of the countries that signed the Declaration argue that Asian states, because of uniquely Asian values and special historical circumstances, are justified in adopting an understanding of human rights and democracy that is fundamentally different from that prevailing in the West. According to these states, Western diplomacy centering on the issue of human rights is simply part of an attempt by Western countries to assert political and economic hegemony over Asia.

These views have provoked a series of criticisms from Western political leaders and from human rights scholars and activists all over the world, as well as from individual politicians, intellectuals, and dissidents within the Asia-Pacific region. These critics counter that there is no such thing as “Asian values,” that the Asian statesmen’s challenge to the idea of universal human rights is simply an excuse for their own [End Page 35] grave violations of human rights, and that the so-called Asian conception of human rights is wrongheaded and lacking in intellectual credibility.

If I were forced to take sides in this debate, I would lean toward the critics of the Asian states. Yet I am reluctant to join either camp, because neither has captured the important alternative perspective of those who are not liberals in a straightforward sense and yet do not endorse the authoritarian political practices of various Asian countries. Those Asians who adopt this alternative perspective not only condemn violations of human rights in their own countries, but also aspire to construct long-term, coherent visions of human rights and political morality that do justice to their countries’ historical backgrounds and mesh with their cultural traditions.

At international conferences on Asian values and human rights— conferences attended by Asian academics rather than statesmen—Western human rights advocates and lawyers often launch into lengthy denunciations of the appalling human rights records of some Asian countries, as if their listeners were unaware of the violations in question or would want to defend them. These advocates and lawyers then conclude hastily that “Asian values” is simply an excuse for the commission of atrocities and the suppression of freedoms, and that the appropriate agenda for Asia is simply to follow faithfully the settled vision of human rights and democracy developed in the West.

This is not a good way to engage in the debate on Asian conceptions of human rights. First, while it is true that Western countries on the whole have better human rights records than Asian countries, this is a relatively recent phenomenon: it was not so long ago that Western nations still had many people’s blood on their hands, not only as a result of imperialism and colonialism, notably in Asia, but also because of their discrimination against and repression of minorities within their own borders. Moreover, Western countries often adopt a double standard and an agenda that secretly serves their own interests. Most important of all, however, the norms and institutions of human rights and liberal democracy are not settled visions but are continually evolving. According to the alternative perspective put forth in this essay, the task that Asians face is twofold: 1) to transform Asian cultures and traditions of thought in light of the spirit of human rights, and 2) to show how these transformed cultures may in turn contribute to and enrich the ongoing discourse on human rights.

To articulate this “alternative perspective” on the debate over Asian values and human rights, we must first make two...

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