Asia as Political Ideology and Populist Movement

‘‘My Asiatic blood has always called to other Asiatics. In my dreams, both sleeping and waking, I have heard the voice of Asia calling to her childreny. TodayyI seem to hearythe same voice of Asia gathering her children together. It is the call of our Asiatic blood. This is not the time to think with our minds; this is the time to think with our bloody.’’ Thus claimed Burmese nationalist Ba Maw in a moment of Asiatic reverie at the Greater East Asian Conference of 1943. While it is not surprising that nationalism should thrive by articulating a distinctive national cultural heritage and identity as a legitimizing narrative for the nation’s existence, Asian nationalisms have often added to this a transnational narrative of Asian commonality. One might assume from this that the legitimacy of independent Asian nations is wrapped up in the existence of a broader ideology of Asian coherence. Indeed, as Wang Hui argues, both socialism and Japanese colonialism have provided the context for just such a coherence around which Asian nationalisms have emerged. It was, after all, under the umbrella of Japanese colonialism that Ba Maw made his remarks. But the impulse to tie national identity to a broader discourse of ‘Asianness’ now sees its clearest articulation in terms of an Asian way of modernity, and Asian values as alternative to the universal pretensions of Anglo-American modernity.

Asian Values and the Dream of an AU

The idea of an Asian way of modernity, based on distinctive Asian cultural and philosophical traditions, was promoted by leaders such as Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia. Perhaps its most strident articulation has been under the guise of ‘Confucian capitalism’ which posits ‘Confucian values’, kinship, and native place ties as generating an alternative center for global capitalism. Yet, Confucian capitalism, like the broader discourse of Asian values is in fact highly limited to a relatively small region within Asia, and ex presses more of a cultural invention than an economic reality. The more significant issue is less the divergence of the Asian values discourse from reality and more the fact that Asian values emerge as the product of a dialog across a space not limited to Asia. The Asian way of modernity reflects a global conversation about modernity, rather than any supposed cultural essence bounded within Asia itself.

It is significant to note, in this context, the obvious fact of intense intellectual and ideological traffic between Asia and the West since the nineteenth-century. At various moments in history Western intellectuals have enjoyed enormous popularity in Asia. The celebrity status enjoyed by reformers like Samuel Smiles in Japan, or artists like George Bernard Shaw in China are but two examples. Indeed, Marxism itself is probably the most profound example of this traffic. Given this situation, then, it seems that Asian values, like ‘Western values’ before them, should be regarded as the product of a long term global dialog. And such a view is perhaps all the more necessary given the polemics of some, such as Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister, who has argued that, ‘‘it is altogether shameful, if ingenious, to cite Asian values as an excuse for autocratic practices and denial of basic rights and civil liberties.’’ At the same time, Anwar has appealed to the nebulous formation of ‘Islamic values’ to combat both despotism and ‘Westernization’ in Asia.

The 1997 financial crisis brought about a renewed questioning of the idea of an ‘Asian way’ of modernity. While the crisis offered an opportunity for Western critics to rail against the idea of Asian exceptionalism, it also spurred efforts in East and Southeast Asia to move toward the founding of an Asian Union on par with the EU. Japan’s early proposal for an Asian Monetary Fund was resisted (perhaps in remembrance of Japan’s im perialist history in the region), but in 1998 an ‘East Asian Vision Group’ met in Hanoi to propose steps toward greater Asian cooperation in all spheres. Such cooperation could include a common market, a common currency, and common citizenship.

Conclusion: Beyond Orientalism

It remains to be seen, perhaps, whether a continent wide idea of Asia will be increasingly shadowed by more manageable regionalisms based in south, southeast, east, or even southwest Asia. Most movements developing some degree of cultural, political, and/or ideological coherence in the name of Asia have in fact been regionally limited. And so it may be that Asia in practice means little more than a disjuncture of regionalisms. At the very least, however, it can be claimed that Asia represent far more than the ‘other’ of the West. It is most accurately described as an ongoing project of identity fueled by engagement with global patterns of politics, culture, economics, and governance.