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Democracy is still a conversation worth having: Teaching in Asia

By Michael Connors

In April 2009 the Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan had this to say at the China-based Boao Forum: “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled…If we are not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.” He went on to criticise protests in Hong Kong and the generally unruly tone of the place.

That’s why Jackie Chan is one of my favourite political philosophers. In a way that no drone from the school of dialectical materialism could have encapsulated, he explained the pressing need for authoritarian guardianship over the Chinese people (on the mainland and elsewhere).  The dialectic always gets karate-chopped with Jackie.

That year I was teaching in Hong Kong and I asked my students what they thought about Chan’s comments. Strong support was the answer. They were at the time feeling the massaging hand of Beijing’s power in the Special Administrative Region and they looked at China’s rise and its associated riches as a lucrative portent.  When you teach in Asia – at least after years of teaching  in Australia as was my experience – you (as in one)  learn that the ready- made arguments for democracy are a bit tin-eared, and don’t quite resonate. Indeed, hearing again and again why liberal democracy won’t work can be quite beguiling, especially when you harbour recidivist Marxist tendencies on things bourgeois, or in some cases have a penchant for traditionalisms that are not your own.

Take Professor Daniel A. Bell author of China’s New Confucianism and one of the leading exponents of a Confucian-way constitution  and his support for a Chinese parliamentary HOUSE   led by a direct descendant of Confucius made up of associated cultural representatives.   Clearly, “turning Chinese”  – as in any cultural turning –  isn’t always a simple or appealing process.  In their hit song “Turning Japanese” the Vapors nicely capture the turmoil by which foreign scholars of other societies can sometimes go batty:

I want a doctor to take your picture

So I can look at you from inside as well

You’ve got me turning up and turning down

And turning in and turning ’round

I’m turning Japanese

I think I’m turning Japanese

I really think so

And just as the appeals of great non-western cultural traditions are easy to understand, it is easy to see how the hollowness of western democracies – their marketization and securitization – gives edge to the resurgence of Maoist groupies around figures such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek in the west. Now if Bell’s Confucian conversion fairly questions the place of the “people” in sovereign power, BadSlav’s  two-faced rationalizations of mass murder (under Mao) as the eventful hand of divine history makes bourgeois democracy look resplendent.

Rather than a labour camp the two philosophers need waterboarding in a pool of empiricism and history – but then the facts and voices poured over them would be mere shadows of animals to their  Platonic gods. And while BadSlav resurrect religion as revolution, millions of Chinese people are – with facts and voices – making day to day history in ways that matter to concrete lives.  That is  what we might call the Asian Century – a people’s century trying to avoid the ideological prisons of the past, Confucian or Maoist.

I now teach at the Malaysian campus of University of Nottingham and find myself with students who will quite readily gnash at the easy assumptions with which western social sciences assemble “knowledge” of their world, and this includes Western critiques of “deviant” Asian democracies (about which some published scholars know little other than banal generalizations). Some of our students have requested to broaden the curriculum to include Asian ways of looking at things. Such demands are being met, but not always in the manner perhaps expected. The Malaysian government has imposed a compulsory curriculum that includes Asian civilizations, Malaysian society and Malay language on International Students.

Faced with some students’ exasperation  (why do I have to learn Malay)  it’s good to remember that in a more equal world such  power reversals do strip away the privilege of being born in the” right” (for a time) place. I am thinking of reversals of meaning and it’s pleasing to see growing evidence that the European experience is being properly provincialized and brought down from its self-appointed universality. How dare the Malaysians expect us to learn Malay!  Well, let me suggest that those brave student souls who venture to Asia for an international education are up to the challenge almost by default, having chosen to come here.  And the language course is basic and not that demanding. Who doesn’t want to order food and have a basic conversation in the language of the country you are planning to spend at least three years?

But the students want more than government-sponsored Asianizing of the curriculum.  They want ideas that speak to them with the prestige of Asian authenticity. There are problems here. One is the question of authenticity and the other is the question of practicality.

Authenticity is easy enough to deal with in theory, but in practice it still mobilises identity and structures life paths. It kills and it loves and it will continue to do so. When Daniel A Bell supports proportional sovereign power in the form of a parliamentary house that carries official cultural authenticity we know other subcultures and traditions are eviscerated.    And of course the politics of authenticity do this work not just in Asia.

On a practical level what for example, would International Relations, the degree we teach in the School of Politics, History and International Relations, look like stripped of its Eurocentrism?  For the corridors-of-power IR set (realists), it wouldn’t look much different. Theirs is such a reified world of Westphalian states that they think even Western culture doesn’t matter in the pathological pursuit of balancing power. It hardly matters if it’s China or the US that is being balanced against. Well it matters, but not theoretically.   And for most Asian practitioners of IR it wouldn’t be possible to think without the western literature – as they have hitched on to the logics of various schools that are grounded in mainstream IR. And they wouldn’t get published, well not much, because such scholars need to be sure of citing the realist and liberal classics that are held to ground any scholarly endeavour to understand the dynamics of international order. Even appeals to analytical eclecticism still juggle the differing but western derived approaches.

The students request for Asian thinking manifests an Asian pride that contrasts with the anxiety students in Australia feel when we academics  tell  them over and over that this was the Asian century (and you better learn Mandarin or something!). This isn’t to say that the pride trumps anxiety, but there is a difference to be noted that is productive. There is no preparation for an Asian century in Asia. Afterall, the students are for the most part already multilingual, they are culturally adept (but share the de-socializing obsession with face-book and its addictiveness), and their English is strong. When you are in Asia the Asian Century is already here, and that shifts perspectives a bit. From non-Asian places the Asian Century is about export figures for western commodities, off-shore job promises, superlative GDP stats. The yearly rise of Asia is astounding and seen in material benefits.  And while that is part of the narrative in Asia too, there are also fears about social cohesion, growing great power rivalries, pollution and high levels of corruption. There are also new radical-conservative traditionalisms claiming to speak the identity of Asia. Now just who has the right to speak and assert that identity? That question’s unanswerability  is why democracy is still a conversation worth having.

Michael Connors is the co-author of The New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific (Routledge, 2012),

Image credit: Wikipedia commons

Published inAsiaChinaInternational Relations


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