Not rights but duties

by Terence MacNamee

Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung last week, Asia commentator Urs Schöttli talked about a theme that has preoccupied him for many years: the primacy of duties over rights in the Asian value system. When Western political leaders go to China, he says, they feel obliged to lecture their hosts on human rights, mainly for home consumption, and then they get down to the real business of negotiating lucrative contracts for their companies to sell in the Chinese market. Afterwards, he observes sardonically, they should go to the temple of Confucius and reflect on what makes Asia (that is to say, China and the countries to which it has taught its civilization, notably Japan) economically great – namely, its values.

Schöttli has an abiding admiration for Japan, where he has spent a great deal of time. He says Japan works because people live to fulfil their duties to society, instead of demanding individual rights for themselves. This values orientation makes Asia great and will continue to make it strong.

Schöttli’s view may not be to everyone’s liking, but the point he makes about modernization is a good one. He says people in the Western world suppose that Asians just lag behind them and need to catch up. As soon as they have a standard of living like ours, they will start to think like us and demand individual rights too. This has not turned out to be so. Japan and the Asian tigers have long developed living standards and services comparable to the West, but they show no signs of changing their old Confucian ways.

Schöttli’s point is of more general application. In the Western world, we like to think that progress and modernity mean the rest of the world becoming like us. Look how far our societies have come in the past century, we say. It may take the rest of the world a century to catch up, but catch up they will. Economic prosperity will do the trick. In the meantime, immigrants have to integrate into our societies by adopting our values, and globalization is spreading our values to the places where they come from.

This is all reassuring talk for us in Western countries. But given the way the world is going – in particular the dawning of the “Asian century” – does this really look at all likely as the future scenario?