If you don’t know anything about this topic, start here. This is outside my normal area of interest – foreign relations – but I double majored in political theory in grad school, and PNU just had this big multiculturalism (MC)conference, so its on my mind. On MC specifically in Korea, my previous thoughts are here and here.
1. Northeast Asians (NEA – Chinese, Koreans, Japanese) strike me as quite nationalistic, and nationalism up here is still tied up in right-Hegelian, 19th century notions of blood and soil. In China, the Han race is the focus of the government’s newfound, post-communist nationalism. In Korea, it is only the racial unity of minjeok that has helped keep Korea independent all these centuries. In Japan, the Yamato race is so important that even ethnic Koreans living there for generations can’t get citizenship and there’s no immigration despite a contracting population. MC in NEA faces huge political opposition that the already existing multiculturalism of South and Southeast Asia (SEA) don’t face.
2. SEA is where the real action is on this question, and it is not all clear to me that it has been really successful. In the discussion of last week’s conference, I warned the other participants to look at the ethnic conflict that can come from multiculturalism – Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines. Japan saw this and decided to risk a general social decline from ageing and low births, rather than to chance renewal through immigration, because it might lead to ethnic conflict. Really successful MC is rare outside the 4 classic immigration countries (US, Canada, Australia, NZ), and SEA’s MC is more often associated with separatism and ethnic violence than with growth and social harmony.
3. I wonder sometimes how much MC is just an academic fad that Asian countries are mimicking, because they feel like it shows how modern they are if they worry about the same things that western intellectuals and societies do. I have a very deep suspicion that emulation from a desire for foreign respect plays a big role, because the central foreign policy goal for Asian elites is to be accepted by Western elites as equals. In order to be equals, they have to look like and act like equals. As the post-modernists would say, equality with the West will be created by performing as the West does. So Asian mimicry of the MC discourse of western political has nothing to do with functional utility of MC in Asia, and everything to do with capturing respect by acting as already respected actors do. Besides the cloned MC discourse in Asia, here are two other examples of this emulation phenomenon:
3.a. Western clothes and music, for example, carry much of their cachet in Asia, because they signal modernity in cultures with long, old, highly conservative patriarchal traditions: in the New York and LA Asians see on TV, white people wear designer clothes and go to clubs (think Sex and the City or Friends). Hence if Asians do that too, they are also modern.
3.b. The Asian regionalism discourse in Asian IR is wholly abjured from the empirical reality of persistent Asian nationalism and talk-shop regional organizations. Asian organizations are many but shallow; they don’t actually integrate their members. Yet Asian elites talk about the integration of Asia, even though there is really no evidence for that. ASEAN is 2/3 the age of the EU, but has done maybe 10% of the integration work that the EU has done. Instead, the real explanation for the Asian regionalism discourse in Asian IR is mimicry out a desire to look modern: if the Europeans are regionalizing, and they keep telling us about it, then this is an important ‘modern’ or ‘civilized’ discourse we need to elaborate too, even if it is wholly fanciful and unempirical. (The same thing happened in Africa; the African Union cloned the EU explicitly to make Africa look more like European and hence ‘modern’ or ‘civilized.’ But like Asian regionalism, the AU has gone nowhere, because African citizens don’t actually want it.)
4. I am not convinced that Asians, especially in NEA, really want this. NEA states are in an interesting pre-MC position. That is, Japan, Korea and China (less so) have essentially ethnically homogenous populations that feel that they are a unique people represented by their own national states. MC, by contrast, assumes a universal-generic, non-ethnic state which umpires among different cultures doing their own thing; Canada is the best model of this. So a good question is whether NE Asians want that. The academic discourse may say they should (otherwise they are racist), or that it will happen whether they want it to or not. But that is scholasticism and elitist arrogance. There is a critical democratic choice question that MC routinely avoids in claiming, simply, that MC is inevitable. The better question is whether citizens want their countries to multiculturalize. And I think the answer to that is pretty obviously ‘no’ in most places. I dare say most French would – if offered the choice strictly on its own merits – prefer a France without its Muslim population; Americans would likely say the same thing about the illegal Hispanic population. Hence for ‘pure’ Asian states, the question is whether their demos actually want to open the doors when so many other countries have come to regret it.
5. The big difference between the US debate on immigration and the of Asia (and Europe) is over legality. The US shows its far greater willingness to multiculturalize insofar as it willingly accepts lots of legal immigrants ever year. It strikes me as amazing that resistance to illegal immigration would be read as racism, but that is how far along the US is on the MC route. By contrast Asians are still debating the value of legal immigration. Illegal immigration is not tolerated and punished swiftly with uncontroversial, widely-accepted deportation.