A little more than a week ago, in Davos, at the gathering of the world's great and the good, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, directed a polite, though pointed question to Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani strongman. How could we trust the Pakistani supreme court as the arbiter of fairness of future elections when Musharraf had removed all the judges who opposed his authoritarian rule? President Musharraf lost his cool. How could Roth (an American) presume to 'impose' his 'European values' on the Pakistanis! Pakistan, he said, had its own idea of democracy and human rights. Indeed, what Musharraf was offering was not some Western notion of freedom, but 'the essence of democracy'.
A day before this arresting exchange, the same Kenneth Roth had annoyed another official from a non-Western country, senior Chinese diplomat, Wu Jianmin. China, Roth pointed out, was not a democracy, so could not be expected to promote civil society around the world, but it could, surely, do more to stop mass atrocities in places such as Darfur. This launched Ambassador Wu into a passionate speech about 'Chinese democracy' and about the folly of Westerners trying to 'impose' their idea of democracy on others.
The same sentiment was voiced by a Chinese government spokeswoman, after Hu Jia, a prominent human rights activist was arrested in December for allegedly 'inciting subversion of state power'.
His crime was to chronicle human rights abuses on his website, something the government would like to nip in the bud before the Olympics. The foreign ministry spokeswoman said: 'Chinese people know best about China's human rights situation.'
Such arguments are not new and might, with frequent use, have started to wear thin. But they resonate in some circles, where colonial guilt still colours all perceptions of the developing world. More important, perhaps, they resonate among businessmen who feel the need for a moral justification for making money in non-democratic countries: 'They have their own way of doing things. It is their culture. Who are we to impose...?' And so on.
There are several things to be said about all this. First, the West has very rarely, if ever, 'imposed' democracy on anyone. Perhaps the world would be a better place if it had. On the contrary, during the Cold War, the main US policy was to support 'our bastards' whoever they were, as long as they were anti-communist. A certain amount of lip service, faute de mieux, was paid to democracy, after the invasion of Iraq, but few members of the Bush administration had a serious interest in imposing free institutions.
On Burma, Western governments can do little more than preach about democracy and human rights. In China, they have stopped doing even that. Business interests are simply too important. Without Chinese money, the US economy would be in even worse trouble than it is already. And China, for better or worse, is buying more and more interests in the West, as Friday's purchase of a 12 per cent stake in Rio Tinto showed.
Now it is true that countries have their own histories, peculiar circumstances and cultures and that too much preaching can smack of the old missionary zeal to assume that all the things we cherish at home should be universally adopted. But culture, in the sense of custom and tradition, is often nothing but an excuse for political arrangements. Democrats from countries such as China, Pakistan or Burma do not accuse the West of imposing its values. Only authoritarians do.
A few decades ago, it was fashionable, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, to talk about 'Asian values'. Obedience to authority, sacrificing self-interest to what governments defined as national interests, accepting curbs on free speech, all these things were claimed to be specifically Asian, part of ancient traditions, something all Asians had in their cultural DNA. In fact, it was a justification of authoritarian politics inherited by the likes of Prime Ministers Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew from the British empire.
Even as the Asian values were being touted, South Koreans, Taiwanese, Thais, Chinese and Filipinos were demonstrating in huge numbers against their authoritarian rulers. In South Korea, Taiwan and, more fitfully, Thailand and the Philippines, they succeeded. And what was it that the Burmese were risking their lives for recently, not to mention Kenyans, Zimbabweans, and many others, if not more of what Musharraf dismisses as European cultural impositions? What they want is not our culture, but the kind of freedoms that we take for granted.
One reason why Taiwan is such a tricky problem for the Chinese government is precisely its politics. If Chinese culture demands authoritarian politics, or what Ambassador Wu would call 'Chinese democracy', then what about Taiwan? Are the Taiwanese any less Chinese?
When it comes to human rights, and not just political rights (although the two are obviously linked), things can become more complicated. It is not always easy to define what should be regarded as a human right. Child labour, for example, can be a necessity in very poor countries. Trying to stop it, in the name of human rights, can make things worse for people instead of better. Nor is there a universal agreement on the precise age at which a person stops being a child.
But again, culture is often a poor excuse for inhumanity. Slavery, female circumcision or stoning of adulterous women are undoubtedly part of certain cultures, in that they are traditional practices. So is widow burning in India. This is not a good argument, however, for continuing such practices. To what extent the West can, or should, directly intervene, is a difficult question. Lord William Bentinck, who served as governor-general of India in the 1830s, banned widow burning and infanticide in the name of universal moral law. But he did so with the full support of Hindu reformers. And, after all, the British were more or less in charge, not a situation that is likely to repeat itself.
Local support is the crucial factor, when we talk about promoting reforms and cultural changes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948 by China, Burma and the Soviet Union, among many other countries, would certainly be supported by most people in the world, wherever they are. It is hard to imagine Chinese, Pakistanis, North Koreans or Zimbabweans being in favour of torture, arbitrary arrest, slavery or lawlessness for cultural reasons.
All human beings would like to be free to express their thoughts and beliefs, without danger of being arrested or worse. Who would not like 'the right to life, liberty and security of person'?
The problem is that these rights can only be guaranteed under certain political conditions. No party, or ruler, should be above the law. People should not be arrested for peacefully criticising their government.
There must be mechanisms to resolve peacefully political conflicts of interest and to change a government in power, if most people desire it. Institutions that can accomplish these aims may take different forms, according to local cultures and conditions. But they can all be adequately described by one word, which has been much abused of late, but still has enough power left to inspire, in Beijing and Rangoon no less than in Barcelona or Washington DC: democracy.