Is liberalism a specifically Western ideology, or does it embody universal norms? The old dispute is a matter of pressing concern in East Asia, where political leaders repeatedly denounce liberal values for various purposes—from suppressing dissenters to pursuing popular support.Yet the region has a growing number of liberals, that is, those who seek to combine a fundamental commitment to liberty with the endorsement of other key values including individuality, rationality, equality, and the limited and accountable use of power. What is it like to be liberal in East Asia?
I recently had the privilege of visiting the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, where I met academics and practitioners from South Korea, Japan, China, and elsewhere. One of the most interesting things I learned there is that liberals in South Korea have had difficulties in coming to terms with the country's impressive political achievements since the late 1980s. While there is little evidence leading us to believe that the civil liberties, political equality, and economic prosperity that the populace have enjoyed in the last 25 years will turn out to be short-lived, South Korean liberals have been unable to feel at home in the newly liberal and democratic South Korea. Being used to seeing themselves as free-floating intellectuals detached from society at large, they are more bemused than amused by the series of political and economic accomplishments that they long wished for. They sometimes look at Japan with some envy as the neighbour has a longer and hence presumably more stable history of liberal democracy and a matching intellectual tradition running from Yukichi Fukuzawa through Masao Maruyama and his disciples.
Be that as it may, Japanese liberals hardly feel more at home in their society than their Korean counterparts. While it is true that Japan has been the only Asian country that has been nominally liberal and democratic for more than six decades without interruption, Japanese liberals suspect that their democracy is scarcely rooted in a genuine democratic culture and their liberal tradition is not mature enough to deserve much praise. To this, they often add the observation that Japan's key liberal achievements are not home-grown but transplanted "from above;" after all, it was Americans that half-forcibly introduced (or "imposed") during occupation a series of major reforms to set up liberal institutions, including the Constitution of Japan, that are still dear to the nation's liberal (and non-liberal) left. Indeed, Japanese liberals are so uncomfortable with their country's political achievements that they often look at South Korea with envy; unlike the Japanese, their neighbour obtained liberal democracy through grassroots movements "from below."
The uneasiness among the well-educated liberals with their own society's political tradition is arguably even stronger in China. Chinese liberals are of course glad to see the considerable public interest in liberal ideas that has emerged since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. However, they are alarmed by the no less strong interest in recent years in the work of the critics of liberalism including Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, not only because these thinkers' ideas are in themselves worrying to liberals but also because they might crush the country's nascent liberal tradition. It is one thing that Schmitt's "Political Theology" has enjoyed a renewed interest among political philosophers and historians in the safety of the faculty clubs of Harvard and Princeton; it is quite another that it has attracted increasing popularity among China's rising educated class. Indeed, partly due to the influence of Western anti-liberal thought, in the last few decades some of the former friends of liberalism in China have been converted to enemies.
Liberals in South Korea, Japan, and China, despite their important differences that I do not wish to downgrade, may thus be said to share one thing in common: the inability to feel at home. The flipside of this is of course the notion that liberalism is something Western—and above all European—and therefore somehow alien to the indigenous traditions in East Asia. What are we to make of such a confidence problem?
First of all, the nature of the problem must be properly understood. The entity in which East Asian liberals lack confidence is not themselves but their respective societies. Typically well-educated and relatively well-off with varying degrees of international (read: Western) education and experience, East Asian liberals are a fairly self-assured bunch, seeing liberal values as a natural and essential part of who they are. What they doubt is whether the rest of their society will be as liberal as they have always been. This perceived gap between the liberals' liberal selves and the supposedly illiberal or insufficiently liberal societies that they inhabit gives rise to a fascinating variety of elitism—strong and weak, social and intellectual, conscious and subconscious. It is in fact surprising how distrusting East Asian liberals can be of their fellow citizens, all the while professing to believe in democratic values and the power of civil society in the abstract.
It may of course be argued that the confidence problem that East Asian liberals suffer from is a false one; just because many liberal ideas and institutions originate from Western history does not mean that people in other regions cannot benefit from them. The automobile may have been invented in Europe, but East Asians have not only benefited from using it but have arguably surpassed the Europeans in manufacturing cars. This argument is coherent, but it is not as persuasive as it may appear because it is based on the dubious premise that a political tradition is to a people what the automobile is to its consumers and producers. The argument has at any rate been unable to impress skeptical East Asians, who think that the relationship of liberalism to a people is like a sense of direction to a driver; it is something that can be acquired and refined by training, but it is also partly inherited through generations and is hence ultimately unchangeable in the short run. Genuinely liberal East Asia is possible—but not in our lifetime.
The degree of essentialism accompanying such pessimism is questionable. It is important to remind ourselves in this context that Europe has not always been a continent of liberty, equality, human rights, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitism and other traditional forms of barbarism are unfortunate and yet undeniable chapters in European history. In addition, as Michael Oakeshott wrote as early as 1939, the modern doctrines of communism, fascism, and National Socialism cannot be simply ignored because each of them "is an expression of something in our civilization;" indeed, "we cannot merely regret them without regretting our civilization." (The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, p. xii) One may extend Oaskeshott's observation still further: if liberal democracy originates from "European civilization," so do the concentration camps. One does not need to be a Theodor Adorno to see that illiberal ideas and ideologies are an integral part of European history.
Yet the idealization of Europe among East Asian liberals is not a matter of mere ignorance. It has also been a strategic move to pile up the resources of criticism, although the move has typically been a semiconscious one. That is, East Asian liberals have portrayed Europe as a sort of actually existing utopia, against which their home societies can be measured, their problems identified, and solutions found. They have thus been able to take a short cut to act as social critics by pointing across Eurasia at a model society to aspire to, instead of constructing what John Rawls called "ideal theories" and considering how these might be applied to highly non-ideal East Asia. The strategy worked well at least until the late 20th century when Asians by and large were struggling to reach the economic standard of developed Western countries. It is debatable whether the same strategy will turn out to be as effective in this "Asian century."
Indeed, it might be the case that the entire mode of social criticism that I discussed will eventually come to an end, as the economic disparity between East Asia and Europe shrinks and will perhaps be reversed, and as the growing flow of information and people will make the idealization of Europe—or of any region in the world for that matter—impossible. Until such time arrives (if it arrives at all), East Asian liberals will continue to feel a sense of loneliness and discomfort in their home societies. Yet those sentiments may well be seen as a blessing rather than a curse by their future descendants, because the time when East Asian liberals feel utterly at home will also be the time when they lose what has been one of the most significant sources of inspiration for social and political change in the region: imagined Europe as a liberal democratic paradise. Will the loss be followed by the emergence of a new form of political imagination? The answer is too early to tell.
* Thanks are due to Bi-Hwan Kim, Shin Osawa, and Wang Qian for helpful comments on an earlier version of this piece.