March 29, 2010 3:00 am

Don’t accommodate Asia’s undemocratic concepts

From Mr Sheng Li.

Sir, The current difficulties of companies such as Rio Tinto and Google in China and the trial of Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia are now making it harder than ever for western companies doing business with authoritarian, or less than fully democratic, Asian countries to avoid coming to terms with an uncomfortable question.

That is, how much of the traditional western commitment to freedom and the rule of law are they willing to compromise in order to continue enjoying the benefits of cheap imports, cheap labour and the hope of gaining access to large and rapidly growing Asian markets?

For far too long the west has been trying to sweep this question under the rug by pretending to accept made-up theories such as “Asian values”, which are not really Asian at all, as shown by the persistence of dissident movements in countries such as China and Burma and the strength of democratic institutions in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, but just another term for autocratic rule.

The danger is that as Asia’s economic influence continues to grow, so will the temptation in the west to accommodate undemocratic concepts such as endemic corruption, rigged trials and internet censorship, in order not to lose the economic benefits of engaging with the world’s latest up-and-coming power centre.

It is a truism that Asia’s success has been driven by exports to the west. Democratic countries everywhere should be careful that dictatorship does not become one of these exports.

Sheng Li,
New York, NY, US

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