This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes. Jarrod is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. He received his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2009. From 2009 to 2010, he was the ConocoPhillips Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Oklahoma, a joint appointment between the Department of Political Science and the School of International and Area Studies.
Last week, my wife and I were hiking with a local day hiking group in Hong Kong. We were discussing Hong Kong’s pollution and the surprising fact that recycling does not appear to be a priority here. One of the women, an Australian expat who has been in Hong Kong for a number of years, made the observation that it is difficult to get the citizens of Hong Kong and Chinese generally to act for the sake of the community. I was immediately struck by the comment. Specifically, it brought to mind the ‘Asian Values’ argument—part of which argues that Asian societies value the community over the individual—that had a high profile in the 1990s and continues to pop up with varying degrees of frequency.
Usually (almost always?) the argument is deployed by China and other authoritarian states in the region to justify the denial of individual rights. I had always assumed there was probably something to the argument, if for no other reason than I did not want to be guilty of cultural imperialism. But the expat’s comment gave me reason to reflect on the last six months or so that my wife and I have spent in East and Southeast Asia. In doing so I have found there does not seem to be much evidence to support the ‘Asian Values’ claim. Certainly economic norms are as individualistic as they are in the West, perhaps even more so. It seems to me that the major cities of East and Southeast Asia have come close to perfecting consumerist capitalism (or are working hard at it), with its emphasis on the needs and wants of the individual. The social safety nets (i.e. community oriented economic provisions) here are also minimal, as the widespread and active panhandling in Chinese cities suggests. In terms of economic norms, individualism rules the day.