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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Asian values shade Japan hostage crisis

LOS ANGELES -- It's true that Asian values may not be all they used to be. But they still pop up now and again with the capacity to dazzle and astonish. It's possible to argue, in fact, that if Asian values remain a strong enough force over time, they could even mitigate emerging Asian nationalism. Two recent Asian political dramas illustrate why.

In Japan last week, a few terrified private citizens returned home after an awful captivity ordeal in Iraq. But they were not warmly received. Many asked why they took matters into their own hands, ignored the government's advisory against going to Iraq to get captured by kidnappers, who then demanded the withdrawal of Japanese humanitarian-forces from their country?

Had the victims been American, you can imagine the media psychodrama ("HOSTAGES: DAY 5"). But in Japan, a curious thing -- to the West anyway -- happened. The media downplayed the story, and the public reacted with antipathy. What's more, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not only refused to negotiate with the kidnappers (who eventually released the captives after intervention by Muslim clerics) but threatened to charge the "grandstanders" for the full cost of their return airfare to Japan.

Most Western observers were floored. That's because the West nurtures a culture of individualism and entrepreneurism. That's especially evident in our aggressive journalism (heroic correspondents getting the story in spite of danger) and in the rise of our civil-society nonprofit organizations. In Japan, by contrast, the news media tend to react more as a group, and the civil-society nonprofit sector is in relative infancy.

One reason for the difference between East and West is that Eastern culture still has the capacity to reflect hierarchical values: In effect, father (the authority figure) knows best. And so when father is government and the government strongly advises its people not to go to Iraq and people go anyhow, then it's their fault and their problem.

Another splendid example of Asian values playing out in ways hard for the West to appreciate was in Hong Kong. China recently warned Hong Kong that its progress toward one-person-one-vote democracy would be very slow at best. Democracy advocates living in this special administrative region of China (a British colony until 1997) have been lobbying for elective offices by 2007-2008, a theoretical possibility under the territory's temporary constitution.

The latest warning was delivered Monday by Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong chief executive, on behalf of Beijing, to whose leaders he reports. Unhappy as the message was, it was scarcely shocking to many of the territory's 7.4 million inhabitants. Father, you see, had been upset.

Democracy advocates such as Martin Lee (whose upstart testimony before the U.S. Congress had struck many Chinese as nearly treasonous) have been on Beijing's case to lighten up and permit a flicker of democracy (as indeed has been happening in many of the mainland's small villages). Precisely because father (Beijing) was being pushed in public, the curfew on the children would not be lifted -- at least not right away and not until the children behaved themselves and gave father some respect so that he can save face.

From this cultural perspective, Japan and China (and much of Asia) are in ways as alike as different. So, might this broad commonality of Asian values serve someday to unify the region and muffle self-interested nationalism?

Hah! Full democracy in Hong Kong will come sooner, scoff cynics. Perhaps, but talk of some kind of Asian regionalism did fill the corridors of the annual retreat of the Boao Forum earlier this month. This forum is the Beijing-led retreat of 2,000-plus of the region's top leaders in southern China. It has emerged as Asia's answer to the annual CEO glitz-arama show in Davos, Switzerland, put on by the more-Eurocentric World Economic Forum.

Its secretary general is Long Yongtu, China's former chief trade negotiator, who has become, reports South China Morning Post correspondent Allen T. Cheng from Boao, an advocate of Asian regionalism. Might he even be in history's line to become the "father" of Asian regionalism?

"We must not rule out the formation of an Asian community," the respected trade diplomat told the paper. "Whether from a China viewpoint or an Asia viewpoint, there is a lot of common ground."

Yes, there is. The average citizen in China was not as flabbergasted by the hostility of the Japanese public toward the go-it-alone hostages as the average citizen in the West. And the average Japanese is hardly surprised that China's leaders are putting the brake on self-styled democracy upstarts in Hong Kong.

Odd examples, perhaps; but the good news is that these common Asian values might just serve as the launching pad for the kind of regional economic organization imagined by the visionary Long.

UCLA Professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on Economic Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network and new UCLA Media Center. Copyright 2004, Tom Plate

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