The Western myth of universality and China's moment in history

The Western myth of universality and China's moment in history

SINGAPORE - China's rise has been psychologically disquieting to many in America and the West generally, because in China, capitalism flourishes without liberal democracy.

This is regarded as somehow unnatural and illegitimate because it punctures the Western myth of the universality of certain political values and of the inevitability of the development of certain political forms.

And unlike, say, Japan or India, China only wants to be China and not an honorary member of the West. The myth of universality is ahistorical, pretentious and parochial.

It is ahistorical because it ignores the inconvenient fact that every Western country was capitalist long before it was either liberal or democratic as those terms are today understood.

The myth of universality is pretentious and parochial because it generalises as universal the highly contingent historical processes that led, quite late in the 20th century, to the current form of Western liberal democracy; processes that there is no reason to believe will be replicated anywhere else.

The empirical evidence of our senses tells us that diversity is the most evident characteristic of the world we live in. Democracy, as practised in Japan, is very different from American democracy and rests on a foundation of different values and traditions.

And Japanese democracy is very different from the practices of other Asian polities that it today pleases America to consider "democratic" - for example, South Korea, Indonesia or India.

For that matter, democracy as was practised in mid-20th century America was very different from contemporary American democracy.

Still, universality as a mode of thought has its origins in teleological and monotheistic Christian traditions and is today deeply embedded in the subconscious of even the most secular of Western societies.

It lies at the very heart of the Western sense of self. It will not go away and cannot be refuted by something as mundane as empirical evidence.

These are not just abstract intellectual considerations because since the end of the Cold War, the claim of the universality of certain political forms and values has been used to justify military interventions to change regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.

This has tempered but not erased the doubts and anxieties that this approach has aroused in many countries, including China. Of course, China is not going to be subject to kinetic intervention. Nobody is that mad. But that is beside the point.

Not all interventions are necessarily military and East Asia, Singapore included, has experienced more than its fair share of Western attempts to meddle in our domestic affairs.

This is a habit that many in the West seem unable to shake off even when they lack the capability to do anything effective.

Recently, I laughed when I read about Lord (Chris) Patten and British parliamentarians talking about democracy in Hong Kong during the "Occupy Central" demonstrations. That only made the British look more hypocritical than usual.

But when 20 members of the US Senate wrote to President Barack Obama on the same subject and when the President of the US feels obliged to pronounce, however carefully, on Hong Kong, that is no laughing matter.

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