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date: 10 April 2021

Political Culture of East Asiafree

  • Jie LuJie LuProfessor of Political Science, School of International Studies, Renmin University of China


East Asia has been defined as a cultural sphere characterized by the lasting influence of Confucianism on its political and socioeconomic lives. Academic interest in the political culture of East Asia has been mainly shaped by the great diversity in this region’s economic and political landscapes. The systematic differences between Confucianism and its Western philosophical counterparts in prescribing how to organize societies and manage state–society relationships are central to understanding the uniqueness of this region’s political culture. The features of East Asian political culture cast some significant influence over the dynamics of political practice and development in the region, including but not limited to how East Asians assess their political regimes, conceptualize democracy, and participate in politics. Increasing access to high-quality regional barometer surveys, as well as expanding global survey projects, has empowered students of comparative politics to more effectively examine the political culture of East Asia and test the so-called “Asian values thesis” in a much broader context. Yet, among academics, there is a lack of agreement on what constitutes East Asia. This, along with discrepancies between empirical instruments and corresponding theoretical constructs and insufficient research designs tailored to various versions of the “Asian values thesis,” has prevented more fruitful dialogues among scholars. Considering such issues in future research could contribute to more effective accumulation of knowledge and yield a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of the political culture of East Asia.

Since the pioneering work of Almond and Verba (1963), political culture has been a crucial factor for students of political science in their theorization and empirical exercises. Despite various challenges against its ontological status and associated thorny methodological issues, the significance and explanatory power of political culture have been increasingly recognized among political scientists, mainly due to the continuous efforts of scholars such as Putnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti (1993), Inglehart (1997, 2018), and Welzel (2013). Theoretically, the frameworks offered by these scholars do not highlight critical regional differences regarding underlying causal mechanisms. Nevertheless, the growing empirical scholarship on political culture has established some interesting patterns that align quite effectively with geographical zones holding distinct historical and cultural traditions. Following the new scholarship, there is a growing interest in region-centered studies on political culture, calling for more contextualized theorization and empirical exercises.

To generate a more satisfying understanding of East Asia’s mesmerizing landscape and dynamics of political economy, students of political culture have dug deeper into the cultural traditions of this region. The goal is to move beyond existing institutional and structural arguments and to establish richer and culturally embedded explanations. Like other regional studies on political culture, there are multiple theoretical and methodological issues associated with research on the political culture of East Asia. This article reviews existing literature on the political culture of East Asia since the 2010s to illustrate such theoretical and methodological issues. It also suggests possible avenues for future research.

Academic Interest in the Political Culture of East Asia

Distinct perceptions are associated with East Asia. Geographically, East Asia refers to the eastern part of Asia, which includes more than a dozen societies with a great diversity of cultural and historical traditions. East Asia is the cultural sphere characterized by the lasting influence of Confucianism on its political and socioeconomic lives (Shin, 2012). This historically and culturally defined East Asia consists of various subgeographic regions.1 In social science research, most scholars have defined East Asia as including Greater China (covering mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore. In these societies, the Confucian ethics have been “the source of inspiration as well as the court of appeal for human interaction at all levels” (Tu, 1986, p. I) for centuries. This is the regional focus of this article.

Western interest in the cultural traditions and features of East Asia has a long history, possibly starting with the captivating Travels of Marco Polo. Their incorporation into contemporary social science research has been dramatically shaped by the great diversity in this region’s economic and political landscapes, derived from its turbulent socioeconomic and political transformations since the late 1980s. Economically, East Asia hosts world-class economic powers, witnesses unprecedented economic growth, and incubates cutting-edge innovations that may change the world fundamentally. Meanwhile, many people in some East Asian societies still live below subsistence level, without access to basic necessities. Politically, East Asia has a very wide spectrum of political regimes. Personality cults and dictatorships still overshadow the life of some East Asians. For some other East Asians democratic politics with ensured freedom and liberty have been taken for granted for quite a while since the late 1980s. In between, East Asia also observes the practice of authoritarianism with varying levels of political participation and competition. In many cases, the interactions between the socioeconomic and political dynamics in East Asian societies deviate significantly from some leading social science theories’ predictions. Such puzzles have driven heightened interest in exploring the possible influence of this region’s political culture. In the 1990s, Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore’s first prime minister) boldly argued for an incompatibility between liberal democracy and Asian values (Zakaria, 1994). This stance was later reclassified as the “Asian values thesis,” and has become a notable feature in the studies of East Asian political culture.

On the one hand, despite the well-known positive correlation between democracy and development, some East Asian societies have effectively resisted the pressure of democratic transition despite decades of continuous economic growth. As shown in Figure 1, there is no need to go further beyond the debates regarding the prospects for democracy in mainland China, Vietnam, and Singapore for evidence in this regard. Furthermore, these authoritarian regimes are surprisingly popular among their citizens; thus, the prospect for democracy in these societies is not encouraging (Nathan, 2020).2

Figure 1. Freedom House World Freedom Map 2020.

On the other hand, although democratic systems have been established in some East Asian societies with rounds of peaceful alternation in power, these democracies still are deficient and haunted by numerous problems.3 For example, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated Japanese politics since the 1950s. The infamous factional politics within the LDP has created a hotbed for patronage politics and corruption. Similarly, political scandals have been frequently reported in Korean politics. This is primarily due to the close connections between politicians and economic tycoons, as well as the significant power of the Korean president in shaping related policies and allocating resources. Several former presidents of South Korea (including its first female president, Ms. Park Geun-hye) have been put on high-profile trials. Besides similar problems of scandals and corruption, Taiwan’s democracy has been further challenged by waves of radical mass politics fueled by ethnicity issues. The widely covered 2014 Sunflower Movement stormed and occupied Taiwan’s legislature for more than 20 days. This seriously disrupted the operation of its democracy. A rising concern regarding the quality and consolidation of democracy in East Asian societies has thusly entered the mind of those studying the region.

Neither structural nor institutional arguments can provide satisfactory explanations for these abnormalities in East Asia. Therefore, political culture has been gradually recognized as a crucial factor that merits systematic research. Since the 2010s, pertinent research has accumulated rich information regarding the conspicuous features of this region’s political culture.

Theorizing Prominent Features of East Asian Political Culture

Culture is a multidimensional phenomenon, and so is political culture. Hence, it is not feasible for any researcher to provide a thorough analysis of every aspect of the political culture under examination. In most cases, scholars have to justify their emphasis on specific dimensions, given their research priorities and questions. The academic interest in East Asian political culture has been primarily driven by the noticeable disparities between the practice of East Asian politics and the predictions of mainstream theories of democracy. Therefore, most students of East Asian political culture trace their theoretical and empirical exploration back to some key differences between Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, especially those regarding how societies should be organized and state–society relationships should be managed.4 Such theoretical exercises have generated a critical foundation for the empirical scholarship reviewed in subsequent sections.

Shin (2012) has embarked on one of the most systematic efforts in theorizing the essential features of political culture in East Asia. He has focused on the deep-rooted influence of Confucianism and further differentiates between its social and political legacies. Both legacies, according to Shin (2012), are derived from Confucianism’s glorious aim of “building moral community of grand harmony in which people can live a happy and worthy life” (p. 74). These legacies are expected to have serious implications for East Asians’ political behaviors and attitudes. For its social legacies, Shin has identified familism, communitarianism, and hierarchical collectivism as defining features of the way of life advised by Confucianism. For its political legacies, Shin has spotted paternalism and elitism as key characteristics of the way of governance directed by Confucianism.

Confucian familism prioritizes the salience of strong bonds among family members. It also features graded love based on the closeness of relationships. According to Shin, this sense of family serves as the foundation for understanding East Asian political culture. For relationships beyond families, the Confucian communitarian perspective suggests that mutually cooperative and harmonious relationships should be desirable. In other words, prosperous communities can only be secured when each one has contributed to the wholeness via mutual sharing. Basically, the appropriate way of social life prescribed by Confucianism places high emphasis on group incorporation and raises high demand for norm compliance. Shin’s analysis suggests that this fits quite well with the ideal type of hierarchical collectivistic culture.

The ideal way of governance prescribed by Confucianism models upon within-family power dynamics. Government for the people, rather than that by the people, is the gist of the Confucian political tradition. In congruence, the Confucian ideas of minben (people as the root) and the Mandate of Heaven dictate how political power should be exercised. As maintained by Confucianism, a legitimate government should strive for the happiness and welfare of its people. Furthermore, this government should be run by a virtuous and meritocratic leadership. This argument for paternalistic meritocracy has an implicit but critical assumption, that is, the Confucian way of governance does not recognize the cognitive competence of common people in understanding the complexity of public affairs. Meanwhile, Confucianism does argue that continuous education can transform common people into elites. These educated elites’ polished virtue and learned skills and knowledge shall make them eligible for running the government on behalf of their people.

Kim (2010) has followed a similar approach of identifying the defining characteristics of East Asian political culture. However, she has done so without explicitly putting Confucianism at the center of related theorization. She has neither differentiated between social and political domains. Kim has proposed a four-dimensional framework in analysis. The first is familism, characterized by filial piety with unconditional respect for parents and obedience to their wishes. The second is communalism, featured by the primary of group, or community goals, over individual welfare and freedom. The third is authority orientations, including a range of orientations like deference to authority, penchant for order and stability, and idealization of sage kings and rule by experts. The fourth is work ethic. The former two dimensions correspond well with Shin’s Confucian social legacies. The third corresponds partly with Shin’s Confucian political legacies, particularly paternalism. The new component suggested by Kim is work ethic. It covers strong norms of self-discipline and internalized appreciation of education’s intrinsic values for cultivating human virtues. This cultural component has been distinctly featured in the scholarship on economic success in East Asia (Haggard, 2015; Woo-Cummings, 1999).

Both Shin and Kim have adopted a holistic approach to theorize the political culture of East Asia. They have not differentiated between related attitudes, values, and norms. Shi (2015) has taken such distinctions seriously. He has argued for a norm-centered understanding of political culture, including that in East Asia. On the one hand, norms, according to Shi, are much more stable than attitudes. The latter are more likely to be significantly shaped by specific cases and situations. On the other hand, norms have much clearer prescriptions that values on the appropriate ways of achieving desirable goals. The former can generate more specific and concrete implications for how people may behave. Like what Shin has done by contrasting Confucianism against the liberal democracy, Shi also has built upon similar disparities in the philosophical and political traditions. Guided by such, Shi has established the defining features of Confucian guardianship norms that are expected to cover the whole East Asia. Specifically, Shi has identified four key differentiations between Confucian guardianship norms and Western liberal norms. These normative differentiations are about how people should: (a) define interest; (b) define the relationship with authority; (c) handle conflict; and (d) define justice.

Confucianism stresses the embeddedness of individuals in a community. It further predisposes that people should be encouraged to use a larger self-identity for interest calculation. Thus, Confucian guardianship norms feature an allocentric definition of self-interest. Confucianism also highlights the significance of appropriate behavior according to status in ensuring social harmony. And the five key relationships identified by Confucianism for a society all are hierarchical in nature. Therefore, for Confucian guardianship norms, the appropriate orientation toward authority should be hierarchical. Furthermore, Confucianism advocates collaboration to ensure the achievement of collective interest for the sake of a harmonious society. Thus, conflicts, according to Confucian guardianship norms, should be avoided whenever possible. Last but not least, Confucian guardianship norms assign privileges to virtuous and meritocratic leaders in running government for the people. Hence, substantive rather than procedural justice should prevail in popular assessment of public policies and political decisions. Altogether, according to Shi, allocentric definition of self-interest, hierarchical orientation toward authority, conflict avoidance, and substantive justice are the defining features of Confucian guardianship norms. These differ from the liberal norms based on the Western tradition of social contract theories. Furthermore, Confucian guardianship norms provide the key “logic of appropriateness” to decode critical political behaviors and attitudes in East Asia.

Shin and Shi have taken distinct approaches in theorizing political culture. Shin has differentiated between the social and political domains of Confucian legacies and treated them separately in his analysis. Shi has specifically argued against that differentiation. He has emphasized the overarching influence of Confucian guardianship norms, as well as the intimate interactions between social and political domains in Confucianism.5 However, there is significant overlap between the Confucian legacies identified by Shin and the Confucian guardianship norms spotted by Shi. The allocentric definition of self-interest, hierarchical orientation toward authority, and conflict avoidance identified by Shi correspond well with the Confucian social legacies singled out by Shin, namely, familism, communitarianism, and hierarchical collectivism. There is no straightforward correspondence between Shi’s emphasis on the salience of substantive justice for Confucian guardianship norms and the Confucian legacy of paternalistic meritocracy spotted by Shin. However, it is reasonable to argue that paternalistic meritocracy is more inclined to justify its decisions and policies by their substantive results, that is, how these decisions and policies have improved people’s welfare.

Consistent analysis throughout the scholars’ work showcases systemic differences between Confucianism and its Western philosophical counterparts. They differ greatly in prescribing how societies should be organized and state–society relationships should be managed. These differences are central to understanding the uniqueness of the political culture in East Asia. As numerous students of East Asian politics have demonstrated, the defining features of East Asian political culture do emit significant influence over the dynamics of political practice and development in East Asia. Among all topics examined in pertinent scholarship, regime support, understandings of democracy, and political participation are of high salience.

A noteworthy but puzzling phenomenon of “legitimacy premium” (as illustrated in Figure 2) has been discussed by Gilley (2016) in his analysis of regime legitimacy in East Asia. Among East Asians, both Shin (2012, 2013a) and Shi (2015), as well as others like Chu (2013) and Nathan (2020), have similarly uncovered strong and consistent positive correlations between various indicators of political support and features of political culture.6 These scholars have proposed different causal mechanisms for such beneficial impact of East Asian political culture on political support. For instance, people who have internalized the allocentric definition of self-interest are more likely to accept public policies or political decisions that contribute to a society’s collective interest. Thus, their regime support is more robust and resilient. Meanwhile, people who have embraced the hierarchical orientation toward authority are more likely to grant political authorities the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, their regime support is less sensitive to regime performance’s short-term fluctuations. This “legitimacy premium” has critical implications for understanding crucial political and economic phenomena in East Asia, like the endurance of authoritarian regimes and the origins of the developmental state.

Figure 2. “Legitimacy Premium” in East Asia (from data in Gilley, 2016).

As shown in Figure 3, in his examination of popular understandings of democracy in Asia, Lu (2013) has established the dominance of a substantive understanding of democracy among East Asians. This substantive understanding deviates from the textbook definition of democracy. The latter follows the liberal tradition and emphasizes the intrinsic values of democracy in protecting inalienable rights, freedom, and liberty of human beings per appropriate institutions and procedures. Similar findings have been reported by Shin (2012) and Shi (2015), as well as others like Shi and Lu (2010) and Huang, Chu, and Chang (2013): a large percentage of East Asians appreciate the instrumental values of democracy in satisfying their needs and improving their welfare. And they prioritize democracy’s instrumental values over its intrinsic ones. Basically, East Asians are more inclined to define democracy via its substantive outcomes, rather than its core procedures and institutions. Furthermore, East Asians’ endorsement of paternalistic meritocracy as the ideal way of governance (Shin, 2013b) makes them significantly more likely to embrace the substantive understanding of democracy. So does their internalization of the hierarchical orientation toward authority and allocentric definition of self-interest (Shi, 2015). The prevalence of the substantive understanding of democracy among East Asians makes the mobilization for democratic transition much more challenging in East Asian authoritarian societies. It also generates additional uncertainty and risk for potential crises and even deconsolidation in East Asian democracies.7

Figure 3. Popular understandings of democracy in East Asia (Lu, 2013).

The centrality of political participation in political practice is undisputable. Unfortunately, systematic comparative examination of political participation in East Asia is still limited.8 Even less comparative work can be found regarding the influence of East Asian political culture on political participation. In the late 2010s, Wang and Ye (2018) have taken advantage of the ABS II data for such a long overdue comparative analysis. Wang and Ye have found that East Asians show a high level of enthusiasm for voting. But their interest in other electoral activities like attending campaign rallies or persuading others to vote is much lower. Meanwhile, contacting government officials or influential people outside government for political concerns is widely observed in East Asia. Wang and Ye’s further analysis has revealed the beneficial impact of East Asian political culture on voting turnout. Nevertheless, the Confucian legacies’ influence on political contacting is negligible. The empirical scope of Shi (2015)’s analysis of political participation is more limited. He has focused on non-electoral participation in mainland China. Shi has argued for and demonstrated the critical roles of hierarchical orientation toward authority and allocentric definition of self-interest in shaping participatory activities. Such two Confucian guardianship norms have generated contradictory incentives for political participation. The former has made people more likely to hold their government responsible for welfare concerns, participate in politics in general, engage in confrontational participatory activities, and report a higher level of protest potential. The latter does the opposite. Shi’s theoretical framework clearly can be applied to examine more modes of participatory activities in more East Asian societies. And there is need more research in this regard to uncover how nuanced interactions between the political culture of East Asia and this region’s varying institutional environment could have shaped East Asians’ political participation.

Is East Asia Really Different?

East-versus-West distinctions in political philosophical traditions and political practices are the basis for deciphering crucial characteristics of East Asian political culture. To effectively establish the uniqueness of East Asian political culture, scholars must extend their studies to other regions and examine East Asia in a broader and comparative context.

Kim (2010) has taken advantage of large-scale comparative survey projects and appropriate modeling techniques for such a task. Kim has tried to examine whether there are systematic differences between East, South, and Southeast Asia, other developing countries, and Western European/North American countries in their familism, communalism, paternalism, and work ethic. And she has followed the United Nations’ classification of East Asia by including Greater China, Japan, both Koreas, and Mongolia. Kim has found that, after taking societies’ economic development and individual key demographic, socioeconomic, and other value features into consideration, East Asian societies are less likely to endorse the values of familism and authority orientation. Meanwhile, the average East Asian is more likely to endorse the values of communalism and work ethic. Overall, Kim has concluded that the political culture of East Asia does show some unique properties as compared to that of other regions. In East Asia, communalism and work ethic have been held to a higher regard in the region. Despite this, East Asians do not necessarily endorse familism and favorable attitudes toward authority and order more. These conventionally assumed core components of East Asian political culture may be challenged under such preceding evidence.

Welzel (2011) has taken a different approach to examine the same question and primarily focused on the possible consequences of East Asian political culture. According to Welzel, the trend of rising emancipative values has been widely observed around the world. If the Asian values thesis is valid, the East Asia dummy should be significant in predicting a lower stock of emancipative values after accounting for related socioeconomic and political features. Like Kim, Welzel has adopted hierarchical linear models for empirical analysis. These models can effectively account for the nested structure of the survey data and incorporate possible cross-level interactions. Different from Kim’s operationalization, Welzel’s East Asia covers Greater China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Kyrgyzstan. Essentially, Welzel have found that, after accounting for a society’s knowledge development and people’s educational attainment, the East Asia dummy is not statistically meaningful in predicting the stock of emancipative values. This dummy is insignificant in moderating the impact of education on emancipative values either. Furthermore, Welzel’s analysis has revealed that the East Asia dummy’s influence on popular endorsement of liberal notions of democracy is negligible. Meanwhile, the relationship between emancipative values and popular endorsement of liberal notions of democracy is equally strong in East Asia as in the West. Altogether, the evidence presented by Welzel suggests that the political culture of East Asia is not that different as conventionally assumed.9

Shin (2012) also has visited the same issue after theorizing essentials of East Asian political culture. Shin has had access to both World Values Survey (WVS) and Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) data. Thus, he has contrasted East Asia against its Asian neighbors as well as other regions in terms of the prevalence of Confucian social and political legacies and other related attitudes. Different from Kim and Welzel, Shin has identified East Asia as an area covering Greater China, Japan, both Koreas, Vietnam, and Singapore. Instead of relying on hierarchical linear models, Shin has opted for multiple classification analyses for related empirical scrutiny. Shin has found that hierarchical collectivism is no longer the dominant culture in East Asia. Rather, East Asia as a whole is even more individualistic than other non-Western cultural zones, including Latin America. Shin has also documented the declining practice of Confucian civic traditions and endorsement of familism among East Asians. In contrast, paternalistic meritocracy is still quite popular among East Asians. Nevertheless, this popular attachment to paternalistic meritocracy is not confined to East Asia. It is even more pervasive in other Asian societies. According to Shin, the lingering influence of Confucian political legacies and the continuing authoritarian rule in some East Asian societies have dramatic impact on how East Asians are informed about democracy. A much larger proportion of East Asian citizens are partially informed, or uninformed, about democracy. Additionally, while the support for democracy is prevalent among East Asians, their commitment to democracy is quite shallow and qualified.10 For the most part, Shin’s findings are mixed in bolstering the Asian values thesis. He is more inclined to emphasize the influence of political practice and people’s live experiences with distinct political regimes on shaping democratic citizenship in East Asia.

Avenues for Future Research

Thus far, this article has reviewed the most prominent research on East Asian political culture since the 2010s. The review includes (a) what has driven the academic interest in the political culture of East Asia, (b) how its essential features have been theorized, and (c) whether East Asia does constitute a unique political cultural zone as compared to other regions. Given the reviewed theoretical arguments and empirical evidence, it should be fair to conclude that there still is no sufficient evidence for, or against, the Asian values thesis. Multiple theoretical and methodological issues have prevented students of East Asian political culture from engaging in fruitful dialogues. This has further impeded effective accumulation of knowledge in existing scholarship. To improve our understanding of East Asian political culture and its implications for political development in the region, future research should pay more attention to the issues in conceptualization, theorization, operationalization, and empirical analysis.

What Constitutes East Asia?

A consensus on what constitutes East Asia is much needed within the literature. Scholars have adopted different distinct strategies in this regard. Shin (2012) distinguishes himself by justifying and identifying East Asia as a historically and culturally defined area. This East Asia is characterized by the lasting influence of Confucianism in both social and political domains. Other scholars falter in their classifications. They have simply taken conventional definitions from international organizations, collaborative research projects, and so on without providing any convincing theoretical justification. Despite some meaningful overlap in the coverage of these East Asia dummies (like Greater China, the two Koreas, and Japan), there also are some noticeable discrepancies. For instance, should Singapore, Vietnam, Mongolia, or Kyrgyzstan be counted as part of East Asia? Such discrepancies may have played a role in driving different conclusions regarding the significance of the East Asia dummies in empirical exercises. An agreement on the key independent variable is a precondition for productive discussions on the Asian values thesis.

Even in Shin’s justification for his identification of East Asia, there are ambiguities that merit more explanation. For instance, Shin has counted Singapore as part of East Asia, but excluded other Southeast Asian societies like Thailand, Philippines, and Malaysia. These societies actually have a much longer and richer history of interacting with Confucian China. Theoretically, if the historical and cultural traditions shaped by Confucianism are central to the identification of East Asia, is it not reasonable to include all societies that used to be part of the Sinocentric tributary system? If not, what should be the criteria for inclusion or exclusion? What are the appropriate indicators of the long-term influence of Confucian ethics on a society’s socioeconomic and political dynamics? Clearly, more research in this regard is needed for cultivating a consensus on what constitutes East Asia in the scholarship.

What Are Effective Empirical Instruments for Examining East Asian Political Culture?

It has been widely acknowledged that effective conceptualization, operationalization, measurement, and model specification should be guided by specific research questions. To ensure robust and valid empirical results, scholars should minimize the inconsistencies between their theoretical constructs and empirical instruments. Otherwise, their findings and conclusions may be highly contingent upon and sensitive to the specific instruments and data used. Unfortunately, there is a lack of effective correspondence between their theoretical frameworks and empirical instruments in most of the existing research on the political culture of East Asia.

Kim (2010) has vividly demonstrated such issues. To test the validity of her four-dimensional framework on East Asian political culture, she has simply pooled even remotely relevant instruments from different survey projects to run her confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) models. Many of her selected instruments have been designed for other purposes. Therefore, her finding that the four-dimensional framework cannot be supported by the CFA models is not surprising. Methodologically, CFA results are shaped by the variance–covariance matrix of the data under examination. With specific instruments included or dropped, the variance–covariance matrix changes accordingly. Thus, had Kim added or dropped a few instruments, her CFA results could have been different. And her conclusion might have changed.

Shi (2015) is a pronounced exception in ensuring a close match between his theoretical framework/constructs and empirical instruments. This should be credited to his role as a core board member for comparative surveys in Greater China. The empirical instruments adopted by Shi for Confucian guardianship norms have closely followed his theorization of the core differences between Confucian and liberal philosophical and political traditions. Additionally, he has been able to adopt multiple indicators for the same theoretical construct to ensure more reliable and refined measurement. Shi has been able to enforce the incorporation of the same battery of instruments across waves of surveys in Greater China. This has further enhanced the effectiveness of his between-society and longitudinal comparisons. All these have greatly contributed to the robustness and validity of his findings. However, even with such effective and tight control over instrument crafting and questionnaire design, Shi still has not been able to fully examine his theoretical framework. Two critical normative components identified by Shi (i.e., conflict avoidance and substantive justice) have been left unaddressed in his empirical analysis. It is very complicated and challenging to coordinate comparative surveys covering a large number of societies. Thus, it is understandable why Shi could not extend his analysis beyond Greater China. Unfortunately, this has compromised the value of his research for improving an understanding of East Asian political culture as a whole.

Shin (2012) has been equally ambitious in theorizing the essentials of East Asian political culture. He has made enormous effort in bridging relevant literatures across disciplines to substantiate his theorization. Be that as it may, when it comes to empirical analysis, Shin has been forced to cherry-pick from second-hand survey data. There are limited instruments that may work for his theoretical framework. Therefore, he could not run extensive psychometric tests for the validity and reliability of the empirical instruments. Due to the same constraints, he had to mix measures of attitudes, values, and norms for analysis. A close review of Shin and Shi’s empirical exercise reveals that similar instruments have been used by them for distinct theoretical constructs. Such data constrains limit effective dialogues between these scholars and may explain some of the different conclusions drawn.

A fully-fledged theory of East Asian political culture has emerged thanks to the efforts of scholars like Shin and Shi. To rigorously examine whether and how East Asian political culture is unique, researchers need to get better empirical instruments. Collecting high-quality comparable data from a large number of societies poses numerous challenges. Therefore, this cannot be addressed single-handedly by any scholar. More effective coordination in instrument crafting is needed between survey teams. These tasks are not an impossible mission. They are feasible and can be done through the burgeoning industry of barometer surveys. More focused coordination and dedicated investments via research networks like the Global Barometer Surveys (GBS) can help tremendously in this regard.

How to Effectively Test the Asian Values Thesis?

The reviewed research has examined the Asian values thesis from different perspectives. The evidence reviewed so far clearly indicates that the political cultural environment of East Asia in the early 2000s is not homogenous. Likewise, the imprint of Confucian political and social legacies also varies dramatically within this region. Knowing such, can these arguments be accepted as sufficient evidence against the Asian values thesis? As Welzel (2011) has forcefully argued, simply focusing on Asia or East Asia per se cannot generate any meaningful tests for the Asian values thesis. In other words, systematic comparative research is central in evaluating the Asian values thesis. Even for such comparative work, scholars may take distinct strategies and target different versions of the Asian values thesis. They have posed varying levels of challenges for related empirical tests.

The strongest version of the Asian values thesis implies the dominance of Confucian legacies in East Asian political culture. Furthermore, the cultural influence of Confucian legacies should be much less felt in other societies. The well-documented heterogeneity within and between East Asian societies in this regard (Kim, 2010; Shi, 2015; Shin, 2012) suggests that the strongest version can be easily rejected. The first part of the conjecture runs against the empirical evidence collected so far. Hence, it is not even necessary to engage in cross-regional comparisons to further test the strongest version.

A weaker version of the Asian values thesis does not insist on the dominance of Confucian legacies in East Asia. It suggests that, after accounting for related socioeconomic and political factors, there should be a broader and deeper endorsement of Confucian legacies among East Asians. Empirically, to effectively test this version of the Asian values thesis, scholars need appropriate indicators of Confucian legacies as their outcome variables. In addition, researchers also need to engage in systematic cross-regional comparisons centered on the East Asia dummy as their key explanatory variable. Kim (2010) and Shin (2012) have done exactly this in their respective research.

A different presentation of the weaker version focuses on related attitudinal and behavioral consequences of the Asian values thesis. Welzel (2011), who has analyzed how the East Asia dummy could predict the prevalence of emancipative values and popular understandings of democracy, is a noteworthy example of examining the weaker version. Similarly, Lu and Chu (2021) have examined several conceptions of democracy from around the world to scrutinize this weaker version. So far, the evidence in this regard is mixed. So far, the scholarship targeting this weaker version of the Asian values thesis suffers from a lack of valid and reliable instruments for their outcome variables from a large number of societies. A demonstrably insufficient amount of consensus on the operationalization of the key explanatory variable (i.e., the East Asia dummy) also haunts the scholarship.

There is another interesting twist of the weaker version of the Asian values thesis. It does not necessarily focus on the significance of the East Asia dummy in predicting the popularity of specific political values, norms, or attitudes. Instead, it tries to examine how the East Asia dummy may shift some relationships of interest. For instance, Welzel (2011) has examined how the East Asia dummy may moderate the correlation between education and emancipative values, as well as that between emancipative values and popular understandings of democracy. In other words, the Asian values thesis may still hold if scholars can find that the East Asian cultural environment significantly moderates the interactions between political values/norms, attitudes, and behaviors. Far more research on the moderating effects of East Asian political culture is needed to collect more evidence before drawing valid and robust conclusions in this regard.

For a More Nuanced and Dynamic Understanding of East Asian Political Culture

Thanks to the efforts of comparative survey projects like WVS, ABS, and GBS, students of East Asian political culture have increasing access to high-quality survey data covering a majority of the world’s population. This enables researchers to engage in more effective comparative research. Such comparative studies are critical for demonstrating whether the political culture of East Asia is as unique as the Asian values thesis suggests. Since the 2010s, the literature has witnessed more systematic theorization of the essential features of East Asian political culture and more effective crafting of empirical instruments for corresponding theoretical constructs. All these have greatly improved the quality of the scholarship on East Asian political culture.

However, as explored in this article, there are still noticeable deficiencies, disagreements, and issues regarding the theorization, conceptualization, operationalization, and measurement in the research. So far, the collected empirical evidence is, at best, mixed for the Asian values thesis. To enrich and deepen the understanding of East Asian political culture, researchers should engage in comparative research with more focused theorization, more valid and robust empirical instruments, and more carefully crafted research designs. Eventually, through continuous exploration, scholars may no longer care whether East Asian political culture is unique or not. What should be of significance is how to explain away the significance of the East Asia dummy. Empirically, researchers can try incorporating more specific and well-defined cultural features and modeling related dynamics. Theoretically, such exercise can help researchers identify meaningful underlying causal mechanisms, driving forces, and latent constructs. All these shall contribute to a more nuanced understanding of East Asian political culture.

Furthermore, more research on the continuity and change in the Confucian legacies is needed for a more dynamic understanding of East Asian political culture. The few available studies on this have exclusively relied on cross-sectional survey data (Dalton & Shin, 2014; Huang & Chang, 2017). They have tried to demonstrate how modernization, democratization, and generational replacement may have weakened the appealing of Confucian values among East Asians. Nevertheless, given the cross-sectional nature of the data under examination, it is very challenging to differentiate between possible lifecycle and cohort effects. It is also quite difficult to assess the longitudinal features of the established differences. By the end of 2020, scholars shall have access to all five waves of ABS data and all seven waves of WVS data. This has generated a golden opportunity to examine the longitudinal dynamics of East Asian political culture.


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  • 1. Some of the contradictory findings on whether East Asia hosts unique political culture are partly driven by researchers’ different definitions of East Asia. This article will revisit this in subsequent discussions.

  • 2. The validity of survey data from authoritarian societies has been hotly debated. Overall, the plausibility of such surveys has been accepted, as long as appropriate sampling, administration, and quality-control measures have been effectively taken. For methodology related questions and concerns, visit the official websites of the Asian Barometer Survey and World Values Survey. These two survey projects provide the most widely used public opinion data from Asian societies.

  • 3. Japan is a parliamentary democracy dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). South Korea is a presidential democracy with a very fluid party system. Taiwan has a semi-presidential system characterized by the competition mainly between the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

  • 4. There are numerous empirical studies focusing on just one specific aspect of East Asian political culture for analysis. They generally fail to provide sufficient justification for why the specific aspects have been selected. Therefore, such research’s findings are too fragmented and isolated to enable a coherent understanding of East Asian political culture. This article intentionally focuses on the studies that have provided a justifiable and systematic framework to theorize and examine the essential features of East Asian political culture.

  • 5. Shi has operationalized the Confucian guardianship norms exclusively with indicators from the social domain. He has done so to ensure sufficient distance between his key independent variables (i.e., Confucian guardianship norms) and dependent variables, namely, crucial political behaviors and attitudes. Shin has operationalized Confucian political legacies with indicators from the political domain and used them to explain, for instance, how East Asians view democracy and their political trust. Comparatively speaking, the closeness between Shin’s independent and dependent variables makes his analysis and related conclusions more fragile against methodological challenges.

  • 6. Instead of theorizing such features as part of East Asian political culture, Nathan (2020, p. 161) has followed a different literature to identify “conflict avoidance, deference to authority, and an inclination to favor the group over the individual” as typical values widely held in traditional societies. Nathan’s traditional social values correspond quite well with the noted Confucian legacies.

  • 7. Similarly, in their examination of democratic support among East Asians, Shin and Kim (2017) have found that a majority of East Asians implicitly prefer a hybrid regime over liberal democracy. This still holds true in societies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, wherein citizens have sufficient exposure to and experience of democratic politics.

  • 8. There is a large scholarship of political participation in each of the East Asian societies. Nevertheless, due to the varying instruments used in these studies, it is very difficult to incorporate the scholarship into this article for effective reviews. A key reason for limited comparative analysis of political participation in East Asia may be the vast differences in these societies’ political institutions. The literature of political participation has demonstrated the significant influence of institutional features in shaping participatory activities. Comparatively speaking, the influence of political culture may be much less and limited.

  • 9. However, in their co-authored publication, Welzel and Dalton (2017, p. 118) have found “a combination of strong allegiant norms and weak assertive norms” in East Asian societies like China and Vietnam. According to Welzel and Dalton, this may “reflect the heritage of Confucian traditions and general deference to authority in these nations” (p. 118). This runs against Welzel’s conclusion here.

  • 10. In their upcoming book on popular understandings of democracy in 72 Asian, North and South American, and African societies, Lu and Chu (2021) have established the significance of the East Asia dummy in predicting a higher propensity of endorsing a substantive understanding of democracy. Their findings are based on hierarchal linear modeling and have accounted for the societies’ key socioeconomic and political features and individual demographic, socioeconomic, and psychological characteristics. They have identified East Asia following Shin’s historical and cultural definition.