The Asian Century Looks Different From Asia


In April 2009 the Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan said at the China-based Boao Forum, that “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled … If we are not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

He went on to criticise protests in Hong Kong and the generally unruly tone of the place. The dialectic always gets karate-chopped with Jackie — without a lot of verbiage he echoed a desire for authoritarian rule.

That year I was teaching in Hong Kong and I asked my students what they thought about Jackie Chan's comments. Strong support was the answer. They were at the time feeling the massaging hand of Beijing’s power in the Special Administrative Region and they looked at China’s rise and its associated riches as a lucrative portent.

The ready-made arguments for democracy don’t quite resonate in Asia. Indeed, hearing again and again why liberal democracy won’t work can be quite beguiling.

Take Professor Daniel Bell, author of China’s New Confucianism and one of the leading exponents of a Confucian-way constitution. He supports a Chinese parliamentary House led by a direct descendant of Confucius, made up of associated cultural representatives.

Just as the appeals of great non-western cultural traditions are easy to understand, it is easy to see how the hollowness of western democracies – their marketisation and securitisation – enables the resurgence of Maoist groupies around figures such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek in the west. If Bell’s Confucian conversion fairly questions the place of the “people” in sovereign power, the way European Maoists rationalise mass murder (under Mao) as the eventful hand of divine history makes bourgeois democracy look resplendent.

While the theoretical battles rage, millions of Chinese people are making day to day history in ways that matter to concrete lives. That is what we might call the Asian Century – a people’s century trying to avoid the ideological prisons of the past, Confucian or Maoist.

I now teach at the Malaysian campus of University of Nottingham and find myself with students who will quite readily gnash at the easy assumptions with which western social sciences assemble “knowledge” of their world, and this includes Western critiques of “deviant” Asian democracies (about which some published scholars know little other than banal generalisations).

Some of our students have requested to broaden the curriculum to include Asian ways of looking at things. Such demands are being met, but not always in the manner perhaps expected. The Malaysian government has imposed a compulsory curriculum that includes Asian civilisations, Malaysian society and Malay language on International Students.

Faced with some students’ exasperation (why do I have to learn Malay?) it’s good to remember that in a more equal world such power reversals do tend to strip away privilege. I am thinking of reversals of meaning and it’s pleasing to see growing evidence that the European experience is being properly provincialised and brought down from its self-appointed universality. How dare the Malaysians expect us to learn Malay!

But the students want more than government-sponsored Asianising of the curriculum. They want ideas that speak to them with the prestige of Asian authenticity.

There are problems here. Authenticity is easy enough to deal with in theory, but in practice it still mobilises identity. For example, Daniel Bell supports proportional sovereign power in the form of a parliamentary house, that carries official Confucian cultural authenticity. If that were to come to pass, other subcultures and traditions would be eviscerated.

On a practical level, what would International Relations, the degree we teach in the School of Politics, History and International Relations, look like stripped of its Eurocentrism? For the corridors-of-power IR set (realists), it wouldn’t look much different. Theirs is such a reified world of Westphalian states that they think even Western culture doesn’t matter in the pathological pursuit of balancing power.

It hardly matters if it’s China or the US that is being balanced against. For most Asian practitioners of IR it wouldn’t be possible to think without the western literature – as they have hitched on to the logics of various schools that are grounded in mainstream IR. They wouldn’t get published, well not much, because such scholars need to be sure of citing the realist and liberal classics that are held to ground any scholarly endeavour to understand the dynamics of international order. Even appeals to analytical eclecticism still juggle the differing but western derived approaches.

The students' request for Asian thinking manifests an Asian pride. It is in contrast to the anxiety students in Australia feel when we academics tell them over and over that this is the Asian century (and you better learn Mandarin or something!).

This isn’t to say that pride trumps anxiety, but there is a difference to be noted that is productive. There is no preparation for an Asian century in Asia. After all, the students are for the most part already multilingual, they are culturally adept (but share the de-socialising obsession with Facebook etc.), and their English is strong.

When you are in Asia the Asian Century is already here, and that shifts perspectives a bit. From non-Asian places the Asian Century is about export figures for western commodities, off-shore job promises, superlative GDP stats. The yearly rise of Asia is astounding and seen in material benefits. And while that is part of the narrative in Asia too, there are also fears about social cohesion, growing great power rivalries, pollution and high levels of corruption.

There are also new radical-conservative traditionalisms claiming to speak the identity of Asia. Now just who has the right to speak and assert that identity? That question’s unanswerability is why democracy is still a conversation worth having.

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