U.S. vs. Asia: Culture as Diplomacy

Jacob Heilbrun is an associate editor of the New Republic

In late November, Disney announced that, despite Chinese threats, the company would go ahead with plans to distribute Martin Scorcese's coming film on the Dalai Lama, titled "Kundun." Since then, Disney has earned kudos from the U.S. media for standing up to Beijing. By putting principle ahead of potential profits, the Magic Kingdom ended up triumphing over the Middle Kingdom.

In all the congratulations over Disney's actions, however, a more fundamental development is being overlooked: the collision between American culture and Asian culture. Though Disney managed to prevail, this recent spat was not over attempting to export U.S. culture to Asia. It was over American culture in America.

Beijing has become so emboldened by its growing military and economic strength that it attempted to prevent Disney from distributing inside the United States a film depicting the Tibetan cause in a sympathetic light. And when it does come to exporting American culture abroad, Asian regimes from China to Singapore to Malaysia to Vietnam have become overtly hostile.

This hostility is the most potent challenge the U.S. has faced since the collapse of communism. Like communism, the rise of "Asian values" contradicts the U.S. claim to be a unique nation that bases its identity on an idea: the idea of liberty.

America's culture has, in fact, been its foreign policy. Even if the U.S. has not always acted on its lofty rhetoric, America has always defined its culture on the basis of individual rights and democracy that exerted a universal appeal--on the belief that American democracy should serve as a model for the world.

Authoritarian Asian societies reject this model. They don't think democracy and human rights are universal. They see them as parochial, self-serving Western notions. They don't even believe capitalism has to lead to democracy, or that democracy is a desirable state of affairs. Quite the contrary. Countries such as China hope to adopt the American economic model, while rejecting the political and social freedoms that underpin it. They see American liberties and permissiveness as leading to high crime rates and poor education. Indeed, Asian societies such as Singapore and Malaysia now argue that their model is superior to the culturally degenerate American one precisely because they reject fundamental political liberties.

In a remarkable development, many in the U.S., including Clinton administration officials and conservative pundits have begun to accept this Asian version of progress. Conservatives such as Alexander M. Haig Jr., Brent Scowcroft and Henry A. Kissinger contend that America has no business inflicting democracy or human rights on Asia; its only business there is business. The Clinton administration agrees: It has jettisoned any emphasis on democracy and human rights, focusing solely on trade with Asia.

Alarm over the "Asianization" of American culture and foreign policy, however, is already discernible--evident among magazines as diverse as the American Prospect, the Weekly Standard and Washington Monthly. What the Disney episode showed is how desperate Americans have become for politicians and companies to defend U.S. values.

The danger that authoritarian regimes in Asia pose to the United States should not be pooh-poohed. Unlike the Soviet Union, these countries are flourishing economically, giving a veneer of plausibility to their claims that democracy is dispensable. Giving up on the universality of American culture, however, would amount to giving up on America itself.

Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, China and its neighbors are the primary holdouts against the Americanization of the world that took place after World War I. At the turn of the century, Americans already enjoyed the highest standard of living and were the envy of many nations. In 1914, the U.S. had a million automobiles and 10 million telephones. In the '20s, the radio, car and motion picture disseminated the American creed, beginning the homogenization of the world that would take off after World War II, when the U.S. controlled close to 50% of the world's gross national product.

By the 1980s, it was Lennon, not Lenin, who prevailed, as Western culture undermined communist societies from Budapest to Moscow. In 1989, American values seemed to have won out. When President George Bush declared a "new world order" after the Gulf War, it seemed based on American democracy.

Not for long. Not surprisingly, Beijing has warned that the world cannot become unipolar and that Washington threatens to gain "hegemony." Beijing is right. The U.S. model does have the potential to become the world model. Militarily, no other power comes close to challenging the U.S. And the dream of every U.S. corporation--understandably--is to have several billion Chinese contentedly sipping Cokes and Pepsis as they drive around Beijing in jeeps and convertibles. It looks like an unbeatable combination.

As a result, a number of Asian countries have begun to develop a system of "Asian values." In March 1996, for example, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia told the heads of European governments, "European values are European values; Asian values are universal values." Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore has said Americans should not attempt to "foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work" and called American democracy "decadent." The idea is that the West can learn more from Asia than Asia can learn from the West.

These are not isolated statements. They represent a deep antipathy to everything the U.S. represents. And this antipathy is rooted in a very real apprehension about the possible, even probable, effects of the American cultural invasion of Asia. Films such as "The Lion King," "Forrest Gump" and "True Lies" may be wildly popular in Asia, but countries such as Vietnam worry about the effects of other Western products, such as pornographic or violent films, on their societies and, above all, about the dissemination of American democratic values.

Vietnam has begun a campaign to ban imports of "harmful cultural products"--movies, magazines and videos containing "unwholesome content." In early 1996, 23,200 people were arrested in a "social evils" campaign. Vietnam is not an isolated example. Singapore, one of the world's most technologically advanced countries, has established rigid controls over the Internet to prevent its population from viewing pornography and seeing pro-Western democratic literature. Indeed, ordinary news is not exempt from the state's heavy hand: China succeeded in pressuring Rupert Murdoch to remove BBC World Service Television news from his satellite TV service in northern Asia.

As Murdoch's truckling to Beijing suggests, the lure of the vast Asian market is far more attractive than standing up for a free press. American newspapers, in general, have been most reluctant to antagonize Asian regimes. After Singapore sued an American teacher at Singapore's National University over an innocuous Op-Ed article criticizing Singapore's judiciary in the International Herald Tribune, the newspaper apologized to the government and paid a fine. If U.S. newspapers are unwilling to take a stand on behalf of free speech abroad, how can they do so at home?

As though this weren't bad enough, many American conservatives are hailing these authoritarian regimes as a model for the U.S. When a young American teenager was sentenced to flogging for illegal spray-painting in 1994, conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Patrick J. Buchanan praised Singapore.

Other conservatives preach a kind of moral relativism. In his new book, "The Clash of Civilization," the brilliantly provocative Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington sums up the conservative case for relativism toward Asian societies: "The belief that non-Western peoples should adopt Western values, institutions and culture is, if taken seriously, immoral in its implications . . . . As Asian and Muslim civilizations begin to assert the universal relevance of their cultures, Westerners will come to appreciate the connection between universalism and imperialism and to see the virtues of a pluralistic world."

But it is pluralism, of course, that American democracy has, at least rhetorically, stood for. What the conservative critics are calling for is removing the "pluribus" from the "unum." Most of them belong to what is known as the "realist" school of foreign policy, as opposed to the "idealist" school. They want an insular America that protects only strictly defined national economic and military interests, rather than idealistically attempting to push for human rights worldwide. The result is a relativism that threatens America's traditional conception of itself as a democratic nation.

If American conservatives have begun to succumb to a moral relativism about Asian authoritarianism, the success of an indigenous U.S. lobby on Asian affairs in influencing the Clinton administration is even more troubling. This lobby is made up largely of American businesses, including General Motors, Mobil, Exxon, United Technologies, TRW and dozens of other companies. "The Fortune 500," writes Robert Dreyfuss in the American Prospect, "have become China's public-relations machine."

This coalition helped prompt the Clinton administration to muzzle the assistant secretary of state responsible for human rights. And it was instrumental in persuading the House to endorse the renewal of China's most-favored-nation status in June, despite its human-rights violations and failure to redress a burgeoning trade deficit with the U.S.

Indeed, in a devastating article in the New York Review of Books, a leading China expert, Jonathan D. Spence, shows how morally corrosive Clinton administration policy is for both the U.S. and China. "What will really shake the idealism of the Chinese," writes Spence, "is the visit to the U.S. in early December of Gen. Chi Haotian, China's minister of national defense. Chi was received with full military honors in Washington and presented to West Point cadets. The official U.S. handout to the cadets ignored the fact Chi presided over the massacre at Tian An Men Square."

In a Disney film, the West Pointers would have risen en masse to implore the general to repent. Following the script, Chi would have heeded their words and exhorted his comrades back home to mend their ways. American values would have saved the day.

In reality, neither Democrats nor Republicans have an uplifting message to deliver. For Democrats, it is a more unsettling scenario, as Chinese arms dealers are ushered into the White House, while hundreds of thousands of dollars are funneled into the coffers of the Democratic National Committee. Meanwhile, leading Republican conservatives sound like Asian authoritarians, as they indulge in a sort of anti-Americanism that bashes the U.S. for its cultural depravity.

The people who really seem to believe in the universalism of America are the billions of Asians now embracing it. The Chinese students at Tian An Men Square, after all, built a Goddess of Democracy as their version of the Statue of Liberty.

Even as Singapore and China, among others, denounce it, American culture continues to make huge inroads. Hollywood may deal in fantasy, but Asian leaders have identified a very real threat. The drama has begun.*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World