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  • Hong Kong, Singapore, and “Asian Values”
  • Marc F. Plattner and Larry Jay Diamond

As Zbigniew Brzezinski Notes in the essay that opens this issue of the Journal of Democracy, the most potent challenge today to the prevailing conception of democracy and human rights comes from Asia. It typically takes the form of an argument that supposedly global standards of democracy and human rights are in fact based on Western culture rather than universally valid norms; that these standards, whatever their utility in the West, may be inappropriate in non-Western cultures; and that other norms derived from certain non-Western cultures—in particular, “Asian values”—may actually be more conducive to widely shared goals of economic progress and political stability.

Although China, with its growing economic strength and military capability, lurks massively in the background of this argument, the debate over Asian values increasingly is coming to focus upon the two rival “city-states” (as they are sometimes imprecisely called) of Hong Kong and Singapore. Both are tiny territories with histories of British colonialism, predominantly Chinese populations, and extraordinarily successful records of economic growth. Singapore has come to be regarded as a leading critic of Western conceptions of democracy and human rights and a champion of Asian values. Hong Kong, though it has remained a British colony, has guaranteed its inhabitants a high degree of personal freedom, and in recent years has begun gradually instituting a measure of self-government that has led to electoral victories for prodemocratic forces. But the future of both freedom and self-government in Hong Kong seems increasingly precarious as its return to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997 approaches.

In the three essays that follow, political leaders and scholars from Hong Kong and Singapore seek to clarify what is at issue in the debate over Asian values. Margaret Ng offers a spirited defense of the universality of democratic principles and of their appropriateness not only for Hong Kong but for Asia. Bilahari Kausikan presents a sophisticated elucidation of the views of Singaporean leaders, flying the banner not of Asian values but of realism, pragmatism, and diversity. And Joseph Chan puts forward an alternative approach that seeks to combine in “a single vision” both an affirmation of human rights and democracy and the revitalization of traditional Asian cultures. We believe that this exchange not only illuminates the debate over Asian values, but points toward a wider and more fruitful discussion of what democrats around the world may learn from the experience of Asia.

Marc F. Plattner and Larry Jay Diamond
—The Editors, 14 March 1997

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pp. 9-10
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