Professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University, in an April 26, 2021 broadcast on China Dragon TV, discussed how Asian values can help overcome the influence of Western values. The superior values of Asia which are more collectively-oriented, strike a better balance between freedom and self-discipline and inspire greater trust in government have shown recently, and especially during the novel coronavirus pneumonia pandemic to be clearly superior to Western values.
Zhang Weiwei appears regularly on Chinese television. Many of his program are available on YouTube.
Zhang Weiwei’s talk is interesting as a sample of the information and commentary that Chinese people are receiving today. Below is the conclusion of his talk. The full talk is translated below. A panel discussion that followed is not translated but is available in Chinese on Youtube:
Zhang Weiwei Contrasts Asian and Western Values
Professor Zhang Weiwei’s capsule biography from the Chinese language side of Wikipedia:
- Zhang Weiwei was the youngest of six siblings in his family. At the age of 17, he was recruited into Shanghai Engraving Factory No. 2 and became a technical worker.
- After the end of the Cultural Revolution and the resumption of college entrance examinations, Zhang Weiwei was admitted to the Foreign Languages Department of Fudan University in 1977, where he convinced the head of the department to attend a course in international politics.
- 1981, Zhang Weiwei went to Beijing Foreign Language Institute for graduate studies, and then joined the Chinese Foreign Ministry as a translator, working successively for Li Peng, Wan Li, Deng Xiaoping, etc.
- In 1988, Zhang Weiwei was selected to work as an interpreter at the United Nations. In 1988, Zhang Weiwei was selected to work as a translator at the United Nations, and then entered the University of Geneva, where he obtained his master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations, and his doctoral dissertation was entitled Ideological Trends and Economic Reform in China, (1978-1993). He then served as a visiting professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, a senior researcher at the Geneva Center for Asian Studies, an adjunct professor at Fudan University, an invited researcher at Tsinghua University, director of the China Development Model Research Center, and director of the Institute of World Chinese Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences .
On January 6, 2010, scholar Zhang Weiwei participated in the round table of the 4th World Chinese Studies Forum .
In June 2011, Zhang Weiwei had a debate with Francis Fukuyama at the Wenhui Lecture Hall in Shanghai. Fukuyama predicted that a revolution similar to the Arab Spring would occur in China, which Zhang Weiwei thought was absolutely impossible, and predicted that the Arab Spring would soon become the Arab Winter .
On December 14, 2014, Zhang Weiwei gave a lecture at the Mercedes Benz Culture Center in Shanghai, with the theme “The Chinese Model in Global Comparison” and a meeting with readers of the Observer, which was edited into a short film “China Confidence”.
In May 2016, Zhang Weiwei participated in the National Symposium on Philosophical and Social Sciences hosted by Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, and spoke on behalf of the political science field on topics such as theoretical innovation, the construction of Chinese discourse, and the construction of new think tanks. 
Zhang Weiwei compares “Asian values” and Western values, and explains the advantages and importance of “Asian values” | “This is China” CHINA NOW EP98 [Official Channel of East TV]. Translation from transcript of Zhang Weiwei’s talk before the panel discussion at 「学思平治」张维为：亚洲的智慧 also copied below.
“‘Asian values’ help us deconstruct the so-called ‘moral superiority’ of the West and enable us to realize a ‘win hearts and minds’ for our own values. “
The role of a value is, first, to solve problems and, second, to explain the status quo. Now Western values cannot do either of these things.
Even within a particular cultural zone, there are conflicts and rivalries. How do you understand a ‘cultural zone civil war’ that has broken out within a cultural zone?
When the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic broke out in 2020, East Asian countries in general responded significantly better than European and American countries. This once again drew the attention of the outside world to East Asian culture. Many knowledgeable people noticed that East Asian culture seems to be more collectivity-oriented, more concerned about the balance between freedom and self-discipline, have more trust in the role of government and so forth.
In the 1990s, there was an international discussion about “Asian values”. The general context of that discussion was the rise of Japan in the 1970s, followed by the economic take-off of the “Four Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Singapore, our own Taiwan, and Hong Kong) in the 1980s, and the revival of cultural confidence in these societies, which felt that they might modernize themselves based on their own cultural values. Those familiar with the process of the rise of the West know about Max Weber, a very famous German sociologist, who wrote a famous book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He argued that Protestantism required its adherents to fulfill their vocation, which included striving to become rich and then gaining salvation. This ethic brought about the development of capitalism and economic prosperity in countries like England, America and Germany. Frankly, I find Max Weber’s interpretation a bit of a stretch. But in any case, the book has been very influential.
Some scholars in East Asia also suggested that Confucian ethics, especially the espousal of these values such as education, labor, and diligence, was also a major reason for East Asia’s success. At that time, many Asian scholars and political figures were involved in the construction and discussion of this discourse. Two of the most vocal political figures would be Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore, and Mahathir, the Prime Minister of Malaysia. They believe that Asian societies have different values from Western societies, but it is also possible to modernize countries, or even better. According to Lee Kuan Yew, “Asian values” have transformed Singapore from a poor and backward “third world” country to a relatively wealthy one.
When the Asian financial crisis broke out in 1997, the mainstream Western view was that this meant that “Asian values” had failed, and the discussion came to an abrupt end. But many people still disagree with this view, and the 90-year-old Mahathir was still saying not long ago that “Asian values” are correct.
Lee Kuan Yew, who is familiar to everyone, is a senior politician in Singapore. He said, “Asian values” include the following points:
- First, the interests of society and the state take precedence over personal interests;
- Second, the goal of democracy is to achieve good government;
- Third, the relationship between the government and the people is a relationship of mutual trust;
- Fourth, harmony is more conducive to the development of the country and the happiness of the people than conflict;
- Fifth, the foundation of the country lies in the family;
- Sixth, the state should respect the individual;
- Seventh, the state should respect the individual; seventh, the state should respect the individual.
- Eighth, the state should respect the individual; and seventh, different religions should complement each other and live in harmony.
According to Lee Kuan Yew, these values are mainly derived from the Chinese Confucian cultural tradition, but also have modern elements, including respect for individual rights and acceptance of the market economy. But the main difference between “Asian values” and Western values is that even though these values are desired and shared by all, they do not have the same priority. In “Asian values,” the interests of the community, society, and family are given higher priority than the individual, freedom, and rights of the West. This is the biggest difference.
Lee Kuan Yew also emphasized the rule of law. As we know, Singapore is a country with strict law and order, but it also emphasizes the rule by morality. In order to resist the encroachment of Western culture, it openly advocates the eight virtues of Confucianism, and has made a new interpretation in the context of Singapore’s national conditions. These eight virtues are: loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, love, propriety, righteousness, integrity, and shame. The new interpretation is as follows: “loyalty” refers to loyalty to the country, with a sense of national interest and community first. “Filial piety” refers to filial piety to elders and respect for the old and the virtuous. According to him, the family is “the most sacred and inviolable” and is “the foundation for the consolidation of the nation and the nation’s perpetual existence.
Lee Kuan Yew also said that “benevolence” and “love” means to be compassionate and friendly, to care for others, to be “humane” and to avoid monetizing human relations as in Western societies. “He feels that courtesy can produce good interactions, but also emphasizes that the form of courtesy is to be educated.
Lee Kuan Yew also believed that righteousness is faithfulness. Between the government and the people, between the various nationalities in Singapore, and between each individual, one must be honest and trustworthy, not fraudulent or forgetful of righteousness. “Integrity” is mainly for government officials and politicians, they should be honest. A sense of “Shame” is to know beauty and ugliness. He thinks, “If the citizens of a country do not distinguish between beauty and ugliness, and do not think of civilized behavior as beautiful, and do not think of ugly behavior as ugly, then the standards of the country are disordered, and it is not far from collapse.”
Another major advocate of “Asian values” is Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir. His faith is Islamic, so his “Asian values” have their own characteristics. Like Lee Kuan Yew, he believes that “Asian values” emphasize family and respect for authority. This authority includes parents, teachers, and government. In addition, he emphasizes the responsibility of the government, including its power to intervene in society, and the priority of the economic and social interests of the group over the freedom and rights of the individual. Emphasis should be placed on social stability and relying on reaching consensus to solve problems rather than through confrontation. On the issue of democracy, Mahathir has this view: “Democracy is not a religion, we must look at our democracy and the well-being of the people and the country is more important than democracy. Democracy is made for the country and the people, not for democracy itself.”
Mahathir’s “Asian values” have several characteristics, one is that Mahathir has been outspoken in the international arena, often criticizing the Western-dominated world economic order as unjust, and has also been critical of Western centrism and racism. I remember when the Asian financial crisis broke out in 1997, he said that the financial predators on Wall Street were greedy and bad and orchestrated the crisis that set our Malaysian economy back a full 20 years. He also dared to fight for the underdog, making him a leading voice of the Third World and the Islamic world in the 1990s.
Second, he advocated Malay nationalism. Internally, he sought Malay leadership; externally, he opposed Western imperialism. He called on the Malays to overcome the “inferiority complex” created by the long period of white colonial rule.
Third, he advocated “Asian values” which called on Muslims to focus on the substance and spirit of Islam rather than on external forms and unnecessary red tape. He opposed religious extremism and argued that Muslim societies should not believe in “fatalism” but should keep up with the times and modernize their countries.
After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia were hit hard. Critics in the West believe that “Asian values” are responsible for the Asian financial crisis. Why? Because it led to the spread of cronyism, nepotism and corruption. The Asian financial crisis has exposed these problems. In the analysis of the causes of the Asian financial crisis, many American scholars, as well as some of our domestic scholars, have focused on a term called “Crony Capitalism. In other words, one of the major problems of the East Asian model is that the government dominates the economy, causing interest groups and collusion between government and business, resulting in credit inflation, power and money transactions, and lack of power supervision, which leads to a bubble economy.
At the same time, however, many East Asian scholars hold a different view. They believe that the main cause of the Asian financial crisis was “Casino Capitalism”, that is, the lack of supervision in the international financial market, and the financial predators without any moral restraint made a lot of money, and the process itself included a lot of corruption. The Asian financial crisis was caused by the premature opening of capital markets in some countries and regions by the United States and the lack of regulation of the international financial system.
One view is that the combination of “casino capitalism” and “power capitalism” caused the Asian financial crisis. We have a common saying that a fly does not bite an egg without a seam. Both the flies and the seams on the eggs are the causes of the crisis. So we have to condemn both “power capitalism” and “casino capitalism”. We need to promote the reform of the international financial system to curb “casino capitalism”, otherwise there will be a major crisis in international financial issues.
In 2008, the United States broke out the subprime mortgage crisis, the subprime mortgage crisis triggered a financial tsunami, not only hit the United States itself, but also the whole world, this is a very typical example. At this moment, the United States, in order to save the rich and the economy, adopted the policy of beggar-thy-neighbor and financial deflation, the end result of which may also be harmful to themselves and others.
At that time, after the outbreak of the financial crisis in 1997, Amartya Sen, an Indian-born Nobel laureate in economics, said, “This Asian financial crisis is a punishment for not practicing a democratic political system.” But in 2008 the U.S. financial tsunami broke out that was much worse than the Asian financial crisis. I wrote at the time that I wondered how Mr. Amartya Sen would explain in the face of such a U.S. financial tsunami that was countless times worse than the Asian financial crisis.
Later, Mahathir repeatedly said that “Asian values” are good and superior to the Western “universal values”, which are based on Western values. He said He said that “Asian values” have not caused as much damage to the world as Western values have. He also cited the 2008 financial tsunami in the U.S. as an example of how Western values are concerned with acquiring wealth, regardless of the means used. “Asian values” are different from Western values in that we are concerned with the interests of the majority of people, not the interests of a few elites.
Westerners, he said, like to sacrifice the lives of others to achieve their own goals, which we call war and killing. When they have disagreements with other countries, they usually resort to war as a means to solve their problems, which is why they develop strong military forces and develop all kinds of weapons. The reason why we find the whole world living in fear is that the trend of Western values inevitably leads to the sacrifice of others as a means to solve their own problems. I should say that he spoke quite profoundly.
Mahathir also said that our “Asian values” are very good and we should be proud of them, and we should defend them and not be easily influenced by Western values.
These “Asian values” are important because of the failure of Western values, which are based on materialism, wealth and individualism. This failure is a huge failure.
Looking back at this discussion more than twenty years ago reminds me of what we did in the fight against the epidemic last year, and how the different values compare. One of the major reasons for China’s success in this fight is that we, the ordinary people, embody a very valuable value that Chinese people believe in. For example, we believe that “human life is above all” and “life comes first”. We found that Western countries, which used to shout about human rights and “universal values” every day, do not have the concept of “human life is of paramount importance” that everyone in China understands, and do not agree that “human life is the most important”. It is surprising that they do not share such a common value as “human life is the most important. Frankly speaking, how can a country that does not even respect the right to life be qualified to teach China a lesson in human rights? This is a big joke.
Likewise, during this fight against the epidemic, the spirit of unity shown by the Chinese people as a united front touched countless Chinese and foreigners. Once again, we found that once a national tragedy is at hand, the value of “all people will come together to fight the national tragedy” is something that had long taken root within us.
In contrast, Western countries are self-conscious and go their own way, which is a kind of egoism. We are proud of the solidarity of our great nation. In addition, during this fight against the epidemic, the Chinese demonstrated a sense of responsibility to their families, to others, to society, to their country, and to the world that is hard to match in the West. In Western societies, it is not easy to make people stay at home or wear masks in a neighborhood, not to mention more than a billion people, because the value of individual rights is deeply rooted in the marrow. In contrast, the Chinese people advocate the unity of freedom and self-discipline, the unity of rights and responsibilities. This value of responsibility is both a continuation of traditional Chinese culture and a true “great modern spirit,” as I call it.
In contrast, the failure to prevent and control the epidemic in the West was largely due to them taking individual freedom and individual rights as absolutes.
After this catastrophe, I really hope that the educated people in the West will reflect on the tendency of the Western culture to extremism of individualistic values. This tendency to take values as absolutes and to take them to extremes is frankly unsuited to the challenges of modern society.
Finally, our Chinese values, as well as many of the elements of the “Asian values” discussed earlier, are in fact very helpful in breaking away from the excessive influence of Western values on our Chinese society over time, and serving as a riposte to the so-called “moral superiority” of the West, and strengthening the formation of our own values. “It comes down to a “victory in our hearts” for our own values. We can not only look at Western values as equal to our own, but can in some ways look down on them, that is to say, we can find that their values have many problems, even serious ones.
Frankly speaking, this is not arrogance, but realism. We believe from the bottom of our hearts that many of the values of the Chinese and Asian peoples are indeed more humane and rational than many of those espoused in the West. These values are more in line with the general interest of all humanity, and more capable of meeting the challenges facing modern society in the 21st century than are Western values. Whether the West can understand or even accept these values is frankly of no particular concern to me. It is like a patient who is seriously ill and is told that there are some medicines in that part of Asia that are quite effective, but the patient just does not believe in them, so what can be done? No one can wake up a person who does not want to wake up.
(Zhang Weiwei, is a member of Chang’an Street Reading Group and director of the Institute of Chinese Studies at Fudan University)