If you want to identify the most harmful idea in the world, it would be hard to avoid the phrase “Western values.”
From over here, it doesn’t sound so bad. In North America and Europe, the expression is simply a commonplace bit of chauvinism, a historically naive way to suggest that various good things – equal rights, multiparty democracy, the rule of law, open economies, freedom of speech – were the product of, or are uniquely held by, European-origin cultures. However historically and geographically inaccurate, we don’t mind the phrase because it represents a set of hard-won qualities we’re rightfully eager to possess and defend.
It becomes dangerous when applied in the negative: When autocrats on the other side of the world want to deny their people basic rights and freedoms, they can then use our chauvinism to spread the notion that these universal human assets are merely “Western” imports or incursions.
This sleight of hand is now taking place on a large scale in China. In April, the country’s new President Xi Jinping issued a memo, known as Document No. 9, that has been sent to Communist Party officials throughout the country for discussion and implementation. The document lists the “seven perils” that should be eradicated from Chinese society.
A copy of Document No. 9 seen and verified by The New York Times places “Western constitutional democracy” at the top of its list of perils, then follows with more “subversive currents” to guard against: “promoting ‘universal values’ of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation (and) ardently pro-market ‘neo-liberalism.’” Across the country, cadres and mandarins are taking part in education sessions to fight against these threats.
This sort of language has long been a familiar part of the Chinese state-controlled media, whose opinion articles frequently contrast these dangerous “Western” values with the “Confucian values” of deference to authority, social order, harmonious co-operation, common endeavour and unquestioning loyalty. Eastern and Western values, in this popular formula, are fire and ice.
It helps that this notion has been embraced by many writers in the West, from Cold Warriors such as Herman Kahn to latter-day civilization dividers such as Samuel Huntington and Martin Jacques, who attribute China’s recent success to a completely different, anti-“Western” set of values and core beliefs.
This is, as anyone with larger historical or cultural knowledge is aware, an illusion. The values of the Enlightenment – the ones denounced in Document No. 9 – were never a strictly or primarily European thing; most of them emerged simultaneously in Europe and in the urbanized (and non-colonized) parts of East Asia, as modern accounts of the period by historians such as Robert B. Marks and C.A. Bayly make clear. The rise of human rights and democratic institutions was not a product of a particular culture – except a generalized revolt against religious and feudal cultures.
Rather, those values, everywhere, were a response to the emergence of new economies, technologies and institutions. Wherever urbanization, commerce, secularism and private property have occurred, those aspirations have eventually followed. Yes, some of those things came first to Europe, some of them waited a century before they gained a toehold in Asia, and some were force-imposed by colonial Europe on Asia, all of which has made the “East versus West” language easier to sell.
But they are not fire and ice; at most they are yin and yang – entwined parts of one another. The deferential “Confucianism” that has emerged in the post-Mao years is in large part a simplified, Rome-friendly version of classical Chinese thought created by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century, which then was re-exported to China in the twentieth. But actual Chinese cultural traditions are equally given to revolt against authority, to individual rights and free expression, to liberal economies and the rule of constitutionally codified law: Those things can all be found in Confucius – who, after all, was an inspiration to Voltaire, Thomas Paine and other fathers of the Enlightenment. Many “Western values” were present in China before the West existed.
In fact, those “Chinese values” of deference and self-abnegation being imposed by Mr. Xi are in good part a product of the post-1949 rule of the Communist Party of China, whose “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was almost entirely an import from the West, formulated by well-known Marxist thinkers in Berlin, London and Moscow. Those are the real imported “Western values.”
The values listed in Document No. 9 are as Chinese as they are Canadian. It’s time for everyone to stop pretending they’re “Western.”