Wednesday 05 Aug 2020 | 03:26 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 05 Aug 2020 | 03:26 | SYDNEY

Uh-oh, I see a Chinese values debate


Malcolm Cook

11 April 2008 12:18

Watching the war of words over the Olympic torch relay and the Chinese government’s policy in Tibet, I am getting a foreboding sense of déjà vu about the bad old days of the early 1990s Asian values debate. The 'sacred flame', when not being hidden, is passing demonstrators who criticize the Chinese Government for its human rights record and groups of overseas Chinese demonstrating against the first group as demeaning Chinese society and civilization.

This is a battle over values and identity, over pride and face. The same arguments that were unsheathed during the early 1990s are coming up again, even on this blog – successes at poverty alleviation versus political and civil rights, Western media bias versus media suppression (this time in China not Singapore), Western versus Eastern cultural values, Western global dominance versus Asian post-colonial sensitivities, and the conflation of a country’s ruling regime and the country and society itself.

The 1990s Asian values debate played out at two levels: the international debate that caught most academic and journalistic attention, and the use of this international debate by the rulers of Malaysia and Singapore to strengthen their rule domestically. Prime Minister Mahathir and his clashes with Prime Minister Keating were some of the most memorable vignettes of this two-level game. Andrew Fisher, in an insightful opinion piece for the Guardian website, looks at how a similar two-level game is playing out in China.

This time however, a rerun of the Asian values debate might have an angry and worried People’s Republic of China — rather than the much smaller Singapore and Malaysia — at the helm. Australia’s engagement with East Asia was certainly complicated by the 1990s Asian values debate, despite our long historical ties to Singapore and Malaysia and our shared strategic interests. If a new Asian (or simply Chinese) values debate blows up with China in the lead, Australian foreign policy and its core goals of supporting the US presence in East Asia and deeper engagement with East Asia become much more difficult. The balancing act that Prime Minister Rudd has so far successfully navigated on his first international trip and within China may become much longer and more perilous.