Future Perfect

Time Asia  |  Aug 23, 1999

By Sin-ming Shaw

The next century can be Asia's if it abandons its Confucian ways and embraces the wisdom of democracy and capitalism
The dramatic recovery in Asian financial markets may have revived the pre-crisis belief among the region's élite that the next century belongs to Asia. Hubris is high among this group, but without an honest assessment of Asia's flaws, the region will fail to respond to the challenge from the West--just as it did in the previous century.
The predominant Asian view remains that the West enjoys an advantage only in science and technology--and that this can be appropriated without sacrificing any of the supposedly superior Eastern values and institutions. This view is fundamentally flawed since it ignores the inseparable link between scientific progress and the social factors that allow the human mind to soar. Asia must recognize that what the West has done is not mysterious--and not, in fact, uniquely Western. The foundation of its success rests on a few simple but powerful propositions. To bring out the best and most creative in human beings, a society should be organized democratically in its economy and its politics. Put simply, in economics one votes with a checkbook; in politics with a ballot. Markets must be free, ownership must be private, rules must be transparent and fairly applied. In politics, the rule of law must reign, changes must be constitutional, conflicts should be resolved through the courts and the ballot box. Above all, education is the best investment.
To figure out why Asia failed to arrive at that conclusion before the West did, begin with Confucius, the oft-misquoted Chinese thinker of 2,500 years ago whose ideas still shape Chinese, Korean and Japanese societies. The Confucian precept of letting a ruler be a ruler, and a subject be a subject, has been used by every Chinese leader (except those in present-day Taiwan) to keep the people in their place. It is a top-down model in which each person is assigned a pre-determined moral and behavioral role. Rulers, then and now, conveniently ignored the second half of the Confucian axiom: a ruler cannot govern without the people's consent, and the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule is loss of the Mandate of Heaven. This neglect was, of course, deliberate.
The first Asian country not to have its feudal values and pride get in the way of progress was Japan. In 1868, its Meiji leaders wisely grasped the essence of Western science and technology based on analysis and empirical evidence, not moral axioms and seniority. With this insight, the Meiji restorers began a process of reform that was to make Japan Asia's most advanced country, bypassing China, the region's traditional teacher.
Confucius's erroneous view of human nature and the hierarchical structure rulers imposed in his name have prolonged the existence of a static society. The sage thought man was by nature good and that the ideal gentleman, a junzi, must have flawless morals and manners. A junzi does not argue with his superiors, for that would be uncivilized, therefore, immoral. Perfectly genteel, absolutely suffocating. Asia should have given more heed to Xunji, a non-conformist thinker of the Legalist school. Two centuries after Confucius, Xunji preached that man was inherently selfish in his quest for individual gain. Only with the rule of law, not moral codes, could a society properly organize itself. Had that thesis caught on, it would have helped create, long before the West did, the rule of law in China, Korea and Japan, while making the individual the driving force in society.
In economics, it is rare now to find any Asian from Surabaya to Kashgar who would dispute that the seemingly chaotic free market is a superior method of organizing production, consumption and investment. Capitalism was already thriving in the Tang dynasty of 9th century China. To respect the market is to acknowledge the intelligence of every person in society who votes with his money. Why then is that respect so often withheld from the same individual who wishes to vote his social and political preferences at the ballot box? The answer remains timeless. It would be inconvenient for the ruling élite if its Mandate of Heaven had to be renewed regularly by free and fair elections.
All societies will eventually find that the way to the Promised Land is not known only to a few wise leaders. There are no better alternatives than capitalism and democracy. Other-isms have been tried and have failed. The appropriate pace of evolving into a smoothly working market economy and democracy may vary for each society, but the end result is no longer in doubt. The secret of success is that there is no secret. Capitalism and democracy are certainly not perfect. But to borrow from Churchill, they are terrible systems save for anything else.
Asia--and China in particular--need not reinvent the wheel by searching for solutions with Asian characteristics. The issue of losing the Asian soul by embracing democracy and capitalism does not exist, for those systems are both Asian and universal. Once freed from the shackles of bankrupt ideas and arbitrary governance, the talents of Asians will flourish in the next millennium as they did in centuries past.

Sin-ming Shaw is chairman of Shaw Investment Management and a visiting scholar in Chinese history at Harvard University

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