Left and Right in Asia


Throughout much of Asia, it is the left that is reactionary, nationalist and socially conservative, while the right is progressive and pro-Western.

It’s an idea that Westerners have trouble getting their heads round. Indeed, I am regularly informed that I am wrong or biased or have failed to understand it properly, whenever the subject comes up. Of course, if you’re Chinese or Korean or similar, it all seems self-evident: The right is about reform and Westernisation, sky-scrapers and capitalism and liberal ideas about human rights. The left is about socialism and traditions and patriotism, and whatever the local equivalent of the Kampung spirit is.

Nevertheless, the cognitive dissonance that the average Brit or American experiences when they find out that – for example – it is the South Korean left that traditionally does its best to hush up human rights abuses in the North is impressive to behold. Check out this paper, for instance, as it tries to come to terms with the idea that the South Korean left has for years blocked any attempt at tackling the woeful human rights situation in the North. It uses the word ‘progressive’ throughout, which leads to some rather bewildering moments:

In general, South Korean progressives have argued that the government should avoid criticizing North Korea’s human rights record or inserting human rights issues into inter-Korean negotiations. There are a number of philosophical arguments commonly cited for this. Some say that human rights criticism would constitute improper interference into North Korea’s domestic affairs. Others say that the true human rights problem lies in US bellicosity and sanctions, which back the North Korean regime into a corner and push it to view authoritarianism as the only answer to its security dilemma.

My, how splendidly philosophical and progressive of them! Where do I buy the bumper sticker?

Of course, you might say that the useful idiot phenomenon is not a new one as far as the authoritarian left is concerned. Personally, I would put this down to a different phenomenon. Asia’s traditional left are not deluding themselves that authoritarians are jolly good eggs beneath it all – the root of the useful idiot concept. They’re fully aware of what is going on, but feel that it is necessary for social cohesion and defence against outside forces.

In any case, at least now when I try – after a weary day sifting through the squabbles of fenqing on Tiexue.net – to explain this to a Western audience, I can cite an official academic study proving me right:

When Harvard researcher Jennifer Pan and MIT researcher Yiqing Xu posted a widely cited new paper, ‘China’s Ideological Spectrum‘ on April 12, it marked the first time that anyone has provided large-scale empirical data on the ideological shifts and trends within the Chinese population. China scholars have, of course, lavished attention on these issues for years — one cannot build a coherent argument about Chinese political and social change without grappling with them — but their arguments were largely based on personal experiences and anecdotes. The Pan and Xu paper therefore did academic and policy circles a significant service by providing a firmer foundation for such discussion.

The paper is not intended as an accurate temperature reading of the Chinese population’s ideological leanings. A voluntary online survey, with its inherent selection biases, cannot do that. What it can do, however, is measure a number of relative and relational factors: which beliefs correlate positively or negatively with each other, whether different regions lean in different directions, and whether exogenous factors such as income or education affect those relative leanings. (The excerpted image above this article shows unweighted data for provincial ideological rank; the most liberal provinces are blue, the most conservative are red, and those in the middle are purple. Grey areas indicate insufficient data.)

Many of the findings (which have not yet been peer reviewed, and are subject to change) are intuitive to those who have some basic familiarity with Chinese ideological trends: Respondents who are more nationalist also tend to support both the current ‘Chinese Socialist’ political system — along with the limitations it places on civil rights and liberties — and state control over the economy. In contrast, those who view Western ideals more favorably tend to support constitutional democracy, human rights, and free market reforms. In Chinese political terminology, the former are commonly called ‘leftists,’ and the latter ‘liberals.’

These terms are more than mere descriptive labels; they represent fairly coherent intellectual and political factions that are consciously antagonistic towards each other. Pan and Xu find that leftists enjoy greater popular support in lower-income, inland regions, compared to wealthier coastal provinces, whereas the opposite is true for ‘liberals.’



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