Can Asians Think? 19 Years Later

BEIJING – A controversial book published in 2001 entitled Can Asians Think recently surfaced on my China desk again.

I had met its famous author, Kishore Mahbubani, in Beijing in October 2013. Mr. Mahbubani is a Dean, professor, former diplomat, and author of other East-West themed books like his hottest Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World or, his illustrious The New Asian Hemisphere. All good, eloquent stuff.

Yet, the “Can Asians Think” debate, to me at least, seems to be an outdated one. Asia was once believed to be on top of things until small European powers set out to colonize the world. That Asians can think is unquestionably the case ever since Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, reminded us that he who asks whether he thinks must necessarily exist in thinking  Cogito, ergo sum; yet what Mr. Mahbubani has in mind, I reckon, is the troubled worthwhileness of that Asian thinking.

In other words, is that “I think therefore I am” still a pleasant experience if the “I” turns out to be, say, a person from the third world or the impoverished south? Mr. Mahbubani belongs clearly to the global intellectual elite; yet he, too, must have observed the disadvantages many Asian thinkers face in a world almost exclusively dominated by Western thought and theories.

Leaving the great Western philosophers, inventors and Nobel Laureates aside, the Western hemisphere for the last 300 years of imperialism, colonialism and orientalism, has been credited with leading humanity not only into regrettable bloody wars but also into the Ages of the Enlightenment, Sciences, Technologies, Industrialization, Modernity, Globalization and, finally, the reckless Westernization of economics, politics, scholarship, education, entertainment, sports and the arts.

Even uniquely Asian originals  in name, theory and practice  can only achieve global recognition and credentials – think about Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or Shinto  if those traditions are accredited and approved of by Western authorities, e.g. recognized by leading Western experts; and it is still the case, I dare say as a general rule, that Asians who want to study their own cultures must do so in the United States or Europe simply because it’s in the West where they will find all the theories.

Chinese schools are infamous for inculcating their students into rote-learning, endless repetitions, and the recitation of classical texts as well as the occasional Party propaganda ad nauseam. There is little critical reflection on what has been learned, little analysis, and little room for creativity. They are often superior at memorizing, imitating and preparing for all sorts of tests, while (almost) never questioning, letting alone challenging their teachers and professors, not to mention their glorious leaders.

And even those thinkers who break out and away from the Chinese tradition (perhaps, by studying abroad) face the harsh reality upon their return: Thought cannot be free in an authoritarian society. In China, scholars are officially encouraged to be creative and innovative anywhere, except in politics, psychology, history, ethics, philosophy and the social sciences because there the regime already has all the right answers.

Mr. Mahbubani, of course, isn’t Chinese but Singaporean. His theory however hooks onto the idea of China becoming the next superpower. He argues in this book (and his three others) that the East, having absorbed and mastered all the (useful) Western theories, is now coming back onto the stage of world history (in a Hegelian sense) with some sort of a peaceful vengeance. What is more, the Asians were always thinking, Mr. Mahbubani argues, but silently and quite differently from the West, and therefore were never fully endorsed, letting alone admired, by Western policy makers until now.

This line of argument belays the concept of the East-West dichotomy which states that there exists some kind of benign, spiritual competition between Eastern and Western cultural systems, as ancient as the “Greeks versus the Persians” paradigm, that has seen the West beating and crushing down on the East throughout the centuries vying not only for world dominance but also for ownership of the arts, ethics, technologies and all the better theories.

There it is again… “theories”. What are those theories? Well, you may want to read the book yourself, but it seems to me that Mr. Mahbubani bases the rise of Asia by and large on the failings of the West. There’s a lot of shell-game about prophetic wake-up-calls, warnings, dangers and decadence. He believes that certain Asian values such as hard-work, piety, love for learning, patriarchy and Confucian family values may have been ill-advised in the past but – judging from the successes of (quasi-) Confucian societies like Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and now the entire mainland of China  might be just the right, winning formula to global success in the 21st century. It’s quite a windfall. He also believes that a “world democracy” – if implemented  would actually accelerate the rise of the global “rest” because overpopulated India and China would have the largest numbers of electorates.

Having said all that, I wonder… despite Asia’s rise, little has been reported on what Asian intellectuals truly think when they were not just thinking about the West. Mr. Mahbubani is evidently obsessed with the marketable idea of a beaten West; however, his entire education, career, and intellectual output (he studied in Canada and writes in English) seem but the product of his Westernization. His “Asians” – however educated and possessed – may feel they have new things to offer to world history; alas… they, too, think precisely on Western terms.

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Thorsten Pattberg Written by:

German cultural critic and political commentator on Sino-Western relations. Doctor of Philosophy, Peking University. Harvard, Tokyo and Edinburgh visiting scholar. Author of The East-West Dichotomy.