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The role of culture

January 17, 2001

An exchange


The issue of how cultural factors influence the political development of societies is a complex one that is the subject of intense political and academic debate, in Asia and elsewhere. In particular, conflicts between human rights and cultural values - whether perceived, manufactured or real - have been a subject of controversy, with a key question being how much projects of political reform are or will be hindered by cultural obstacles. Here, two scholars engage on these questions. In our last issue, Li Xiaorong reviewed Daniel Bell’s latest book, East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia. Bell responds to her review, and Li then takes up some of his further points.



Does culture matter?
Daniel Bell


I would like to thank Li Xiaorong for the challenging critique of my book (“The East is East, silly,” China Rights Forum, Winter 2000/1). I would normally let things stand—in fact, I’ve never responded to a review in the past (notwithstanding my fair share of hostile reviews!). But I’m afraid that Li’s perspective can (unintentionally) do damage to the cause of human rights and democratic reform in East Asia, and this calls for a response.

Li notes that “Asians who suffer from torture, brutality, injustice, repression, exploitation and discrimination, as well as those who fight on their behalf, have not been and will not be deterred by the cultural barriers dividing East and West. Such distinctions seem to concern, for the most part, academics and political guardians of the status quo.” It may well be that political guardians of the status quo highlight alleged cultural barriers dividing East and West to justify human rights violations. Many academics, however, invoke cultural traditions for the purpose of helping us to think about and respond to “torture, brutality, injustice, repression, exploitation and discrimination.” More often than not, their goals conflict with those of their governments and it is not helpful to tar both groups with the same brush.

Consider the example of Professor Norani Othman, a sociologist who is also a leading member of Sisters of Islam. This group is an autonomous, nongovernmental organization in Malaysia that effectively challenges the way Islam has been (mis)used by powerful forces to justify patriarchal practices, often contravening Islam’s central ideas and animating principles. It advocates women’s rights in terms that are locally persuasive, meaning that it draws upon Islamic principles for inspiration. The Sisters of Islam also engage in long-term human rights work, such as distributing pamphlets on Quranic conceptions of rights and duties of men and women in the family that provide the basis for a more egalitarian view of gender relations than the regressive ideas typically offered in the name of Islam itself. Professor Othman argues that building human rights on traditional cultural resources - on the customs and values that people use to make sense of their lives - is more likely to lead to long-term commitment to human rights and practices.

It can be argued that predominantly Islamic societies present a special case, where people’s outlooks and “habits of the heart” are profoundly informed by religious values. In this context, it seems obvious that defenders of human rights are more likely to be effective if they work within the dominant tradition. But cultural traditions may also be relevant for human rights activists and democratic reformers elsewhere. A recent paper by Wang Juntao - a long-time democratic activist who spent nearly five years in jail after the 1989 massacre - argues that many of the key figures in Chinese democracy movements drew inspiration from Confucian values. From the late-nineteenth century to the present, nearly all the important figures in the history of democracy movements in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong - Kang Youwei, Zhang Jian, Sun Yatsen, Liang Qichao, Zhang Junmai, Wang Xizhe, Li Denghai and Chen Ziming - tried to revive Confucianism in order to support democratization. Wang Juntao supports this aspiration, partly on the grounds that democracy may be easier to implement in the Chinese context if it can be shown that it need not conflict with traditional political culture: “If Confucianism is consistent with democracy, the traditional culture may be used as a means of promoting democratization as well as a means of maintaining social order. At the very least, the political transition will be smoother and easier, with lower costs, since there will not be any cultural resistance.”

In short, East Asian cultural traditions can provide the resources to justify and increase local commitment to practices that in the West are typically realized through a human rights regime. If appeals to traditional cultural resources are most effective in combating “torture, brutality, injustice, exploitation and discrimination,” it would be counter-productive for human rights activists not to make use of them. It would also be counter-productive to allow politicians to hijack cultural arguments for themselves. In China, an enormous effort is now under way to use Confucianism to justify conservative rule, and the best way to counter these efforts is to challenge these interpretations of Confucianism.

But culture is not merely useful as a strategic tool to promote human rights and democracy and counter misuses by politicians. It is dogmatic not to allow for the possibility that local cultural traditions can provide a moral foundation for distinctive political practices and institutions. In Chapter Five of my book, I argue at length for a political institution that is recognizably democratic but significantly different from Western models. I try to imagine how contemporary Confucians might try to articulate a feasible and desirable democratic system “with Chinese characteristics.” Drawing on the ideas of the radical seventeenth century Confucian Huang Zongxi, an imaginary Confucian scholar defends a proposal for a bicameral legislature with a democratically elected lower house and an upper House of Scholars composed of representatives selected on the basis of competitive examinations. The proposal for an upper House of Scholars is partly justified by a cultural argument—namely, that it resonates with the traditional Confucian value of respect for rule by an intellectual elite.

However, I emphasize that traditional values are not sufficient to justify a normative proposal for contemporary societies. Firstly, the proposal will only be realistic if these values continue to be influential today. In this case, I point to the phenomenon of actually existing Confucian meritocracy in Korea and Japan and to the fact that one million ordinary citizens rallied around student leaders from prestigious universities during the 1989 Beijing Spring protests. Secondly, one must advance arguments explaining why such values ought to remain influential. In this case, the arguments include: first, the need to raise the quality of governance in contemporary societies; second, the need to consider the interests of future generations not represented by elected politicians; third, blindly graded examinations can help to increase the proportion of women in government; and finally, the claim that citizens are more likely to bear with a democratic system in difficult times if that system incorporates an element of traditional political culture. I also suggest that this kind of upper house, where deputies are held accountable by term limits and strict anti-corruption procedures, and deliberations are televised and transmitted to the public, can help to remedy the defects of actually existing Confucian meritocracy in East Asia.

The relatively accountable and transparent House of Scholars would also be an improvement on the fact that, as Li points out, “some of China’s most brilliant intellectuals serve in a consultative capacity in various government offices and at the Academies of Social Sciences” (of course, another advantage of this proposal compared to the current arrangement is that scholar-advisers in the House of Scholars could afford to be more critical of the political decision-makers). I also suggest that this upper house is more meritocratic, and no less democratic, than the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. The main point of the comparison with the House of Lords is to suggest that overall democratic systems can and do accommodate certain constraints on democracy and this need not be seen as “autocratic.”

In short, culture plays a relatively minor part in justifying this proposal. While it may only be realistic in societies with a Confucian heritage, it can only be defended with reference to more general arguments about good government.

Let me add some reflections regarding the notion of “cultural authenticity.” The reviewer claims that “neo-Orientalists” such as myself “bend over backwards to admire the Orient” and criticize “things Western, particularly American.” It is assumed that “neo-Orientalists” defend the notion of “cultural authenticity” and seek to build “cultural barriers” between the good East and the bad West. Thus, it might seem “ironic” that “communitarian” ideas developed in Western societies are invoked to support a proposal for democracy in Singapore.

One important purpose of my book, however, is precisely to break down the barriers between “East” and “West,” to suggest what may be learned from other cultures and to point to particular values and practices that may be relevant outside of the societies in which they were first invented/applied. But when there are heated arguments and moral controversies over whether one particular society should “import” the values and practices of other societies, any plausible defense of those values must refer to the particular context for one’s political analysis and invoke the specific examples and argumentative strategies that the “locals” themselves use in everyday moral and political debate. Thus, it is misleading to claim that the communitarian justification for democracy in Singapore is “literally airlifted” from its American context. Rather, I draw on these communitarian arguments to show, by means of detailed contextual analysis, that they can help to deal with the pressing need to increase public-spiritedness in Singapore and thus that political leaders—and opposition figures—could benefit by paying attention to these arguments.

In reference to Lee Kuan Yew’s “communitarianism,” the reviewer claims that “as it turns out, East Asian values are nothing but ‘communitarian values,’ where the interests of society take precedence over that of the individual.” But this actually refers to a quote from Lee Kuan Yew in a chapter where “Demo” clearly gets the better of the argument. My own view is that it is hard to make sense of Lee’s claim that “the interests of society take precedence over that of the individual.” As I see it, all public policies should be justified with reference to the ethical interests of individuals and it is both dangerous and misleading to claim that the interests of “society” should take precedence over those of individuals. What may be distinctive about communitarians is that they are more inclined to argue that individuals have a vital interest in leading decent communal lives, that this interest may occasionally conflict with their other vital interest in leading freely chosen lives, and that the latter does not automatically “trump” the former in cases of conflict. Regarding the content of “East Asian values,” the whole book is meant to suggest some possibilities, and I most certainly would not want to argue that these should be reduced to Lee’s absurd claim!

On the notion of cultural diversity, of course cultures include “complex, diverse (often clashing) and changing political values,” as Li suggests. As I say in my introduction, the dialogue form can help to express this idea by “allowing for a relatively systematic treatment of two contrasting positions.” Moreover, I tried to create “three plausible, situated characters that express three different viewpoints, thus rendering vivid the fact that there are a plurality of thought-provoking voices involved in the debate on human rights and democracy in East Asia.” This multiple voices approach is only a “starting point” and it is explicitly recognized that “there are many other viewpoints in the East Asian region.” The reviewer rightly echoes the view that some viewpoints have been neglected and I welcome her additional input.

Lastly, I would like to correct one factual mistake in the review. Demo is not a “portrayal of a program officer from the US foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy.” As I say in the introduction, “Demo is the East Asia program officer for a fictitious U.S.-based nongovernmental organization named the National Endowment for Human Rights and Democracy (NEHRD).” I chose the name because there is an element of satire in my book and the acronym was meant to be humorous. For what it is worth, I have high regard for the work of the National Endowment for Democracy and any resemblance with the NEHRD is purely coincidental.














How does culture matter?
Li Xiaorong



What is at stake here is certainly not whether culture matters, but rather how much and in what manner it does. That is, can culture provide a firm moral foundation (justification) for a normative political proposal? Serious “damage to the cause of human rights and democratic reform in East Asia” could certainly be done if one simply denied the moral significance of culture, dismissing culture’s role in inspiring and motivating sustained commitments to the implementation of democracy, human rights, or for that matter, any moral/political norms. But surely comparable damage can be caused by insisting that what has always been believed and practiced in a society justifies what ought to be accepted and institutionalized in that society.

For sure, the most effective way to realize a normative principle like human rights is by way of finding inspiring symbols, locally familiar vocabularies and resources for combating abuses and providing effective protection within local communities. But what if the local culture in a given society is in flux, heterogeneous, or strife-ridden, divided by competing religious, spiritual, or philosophical traditions, polarized by political powers seeking to legitimize their dominance? What if a given intellectual tradition is itself a contentious and evolving discourse, where disagreeing schools, interpretations, priorities, options, are debated and contested?

A defense for Bell’s political prescription for contemporary China - meritocratic democracy - may be found among these competing traditions, promoted by some of the many self-anointed heirs to Confucianism, such as the 17th century scholar Huang Zongxi. But does this mean that Bell’s prescription is justified by the Chinese culture? If a culture has not spoken in one voice, it is all the more likely that a rejection of Bell’s proposal could also be found in the culture. Moreover, can Huang’s own theoretical premises and historically specific judgments be justified? Even if they can, does this mean Huang’s plan for the China of three centuries ago is suitable for contemporary China? By grounding his normative proposal in one particular strand of Chinese cultural traditions, Bell inadvertently alienates his proposal from, and makes it culturally unattractive to, those Chinese who know little about, or have no faith in, Huang Zongxi’s views.

Given that followers of Huang Zongxi must only be a small minority in today’s China, the cultural appeal of Bell’s proposal is at best limited, unless Bell were able to convince us that the culture of a small circle of elite intellectuals ought to have more authenticity and authority. We can’t say he didn’t try. The essence of his political solution is to give the educated elite, selected by their higher scores in a National Examination to the Upper House of parliament, more political power to overrule popularly elected representatives in the Lower House. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Since the early 20th century China’s ruling elite appears to have been in constant fear that true democracy will be unobtainable in China as long as the mass majority remain uneducated, backward, short-sighted and superstitious.

To be credible, Bell has to admit that he needs to advance “independent arguments” justifying why Huang’s moral views “ought to remain influential” (if they ever were). He says he agrees that a normative proposal “can only be defended with reference to more general arguments about good government.” And he has given four such arguments in support of meritocratic democracy, citing such norms as good governance, the interest of future generations, equality for women and democratic stability.

However, he wants it both ways. He still says that a normative proposal can be justified (perhaps “not sufficiently”) by traditional values. He still insists that culture plays “a relatively minor part” in justifying a normative proposal. But what exactly is that “minor part”? Bell fails to specify, other than pointing to various roles culture can play in facilitating effective implementation of normative ideas, as his examples (the Sisters of Islam and Wang Juntao) demonstrate.

Bell labels anyone who does not “allow for the possibility that local cultural traditions can provide a moral foundation for distinctive political practices and institutions” a “dogmatist.” By trying to ground his political proposal independently (from Chinese culture) on the four normative “general arguments,” Bell has certainly not allowed the local cultural traditions to provide the moral foundation for his favored institutions. We are both “dogmatic,” but at least I am out of the closet.

Daniel A. Bell teaches in the Department of Public and Social Administration, City University of Hong Kong. Li Xiaorong does research at the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland, and is a member of Human Rights in China’s board of directors.