- East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia
In Daniel Bell's extremely rich new book, East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia, the medium is part of the message. The book is written in dialogue form, and its central message is the need for more cross-cultural dialogue between political theorists trained in Western and East Asian societies. Bell criticizes "West-centric perspectives," which assume that every society aspires to the ideal of [End Page 265]becoming a Western-style liberal democracy. West-centric perspectives foreclose the possibility of a genuine dialogue where both sides open themselves to learning something new and revising their initial assumptions. Genuine dialogue is needed to figure out which arguments for the promotion of human rights and democracy resonate best in East Asian societies. If Bell's text focused merely on this strategic aim, then his own account could be accused of being "West-centric," but Bell goes on to argue that non-Western input would also modify international understandings of human rights and democracy.
Over the course of his book, Bell suggests a number of reasons why Western theorists are reluctant to engage in genuine dialogue with East Asian scholars. Western theorists suspect that political leaders in East Asia self-servingly use the idea of "Asian values" to justify authoritarian rule rather than make a constructive contribution to the cross-cultural dialogue on political values (p. 8). Bell hopes to avoid this problem by looking at the work of East Asian intellectuals who draw on their cultural traditions to explore areas of commonality and difference with Western views on human rights and democracy. Given this preference for intellectuals over politicians, Bell's choice of Lee Kuan Yew as the main interlocutor in part 2 of East Meets Westseems strange. However, Singapore's former prime minister has been a very articulate defender of Asian values. In constructing the conversations in part 2, Bell quotes at length from Lee's public statements and it is a testament to Bell's skill at constructing a believable dialogue that he is able to integrate these quotations into a seamless, flowing conversation.
Bell's text also suggests that Western intellectuals are not open to a genuine dialogue concerning democracy because they assume that there is no alternative to democracy (p. 127). He argues that Westerners should be open to dialogue with decent non-democrats, where non-democratic regimes are decent if they do not endorse or practice gross violations of human rights (p. 116). Indeed, Bell makes it clear that the subject matter of a dialogue between East and West does not concern "customary international law." There is already broad agreement that slavery, genocide, murder, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, and systematic racial discrimination are wrong. The real debate concerns "criminal law, family law, women's rights, social and economic rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the attempt to universalize Western-style democratic practices" (p. 3). Bell's text focuses almost exclusively on the last of these issues, and part 2 is an example of how a dialogue between a Western democrat and a decent non-democrat might proceed.
The very title of Bell's book might raise the hackles of commentators like Edward Friedman, who was recently critical in this journal of simplistic and essentializing contrasts between a democratic West and a despotic East. 1Bell hopes to avoid this pitfall by employing a "multiple-voices approach" (p. 12). His fictitious Western interlocutor converses with characters from Hong Kong, Singapore, and mainland China. By having this interlocutor engage in these different conversations, Bell hopes to convey the idea that there are a plurality of Asian voices in the debate on human rights and democracy (p. 12). His interlocutor's name is Sam Demo, who is presented as the East Asia program officer for a fictitious U.S.-based nongovernmental [End Page 266]organization called the National Endowment for Human Rights and Democracy. In Hong Kong, Demo talks to a human-rights activist and business consultant named...