Show Me the Money: The Dominance of Wealth in Determining Rights Performance in Asia

79 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2005

See all articles by Randall Peerenboom

Randall Peerenboom

UCLA School of Law - UCLA School of Law


In recent decades, Asia has emerged as one of the most contested sites for the increasingly powerful international human rights movement. Most notably, the heavily politicized Asian-values debate called into question the universal pretensions of the international human rights regime. More fundamentally, the experiences of Asian states over the last five decades challenged two widely held if somewhat inconsistent views: first, that democracy was the key to economic growth, or, reversing the causal direction, that economic growth would inevitably lead to political reforms, democratization and better protection of human rights. Many Asian states experienced their periods of rapid growth under authoritarian governments. Moreover, while some Asian states have made the transition to multiple-party, competitive-election democracy, others have not. Still others exist in a limbo state variously described as soft authoritarianism, semi-dictatorships, semi-democracy or nonliberal electoral democracy. Even those states that have most fully embraced democracy continue to interpret and implement human rights in ways that differ in important respects from some Western liberal democracies, thus calling into question the extent to which they should be described as liberal democracies.

Past discussions about human rights and values in Asia have been hampered by the lack of reference to empirical studies to back up the strong theoretical, and in some cases polemical, claims being made on both sides about the differences or lack thereof in fundamental values. Numerous multiple-country quantitative studies have demonstrated significant regional effects with respect to democratization, labor rights, women's rights, personal integrity rights, freedom from government intrusions, rule of law and good governance, and cultural values that in turn affect rights performance. Although invaluable in locating Asian countries within a larger comparative context, the studies generally define Asia very broadly and deal with rights in a very general way. They generally do not measure the degree of variance in rights performance within Asia, or attempt to explain the variation within Asia or why Asia as a region might differ from other regions.

In Part I, I provide an empirical overview of the performance of twelve Asian countries with respect to physical integrity rights, civil and political rights, social and economic rights and other indicia of quality of life including poverty, infant mortality, life expectancy, primary school enrollment, government expenditures on education, health and military, quality of governance measured in terms of regulatory effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption, and law and order and social stability as reflected in crime rates and the number of drug users, suicides, divorces and young mothers. I also include several other countries from different parts of the world for comparison points.

The empirical overview demonstrates a wide variation in Asia with respect to rights performance. At the same time, patterns emerge with respect to lower scores for civil and political freedoms among East Asian countries and higher scores for social and economic rights as well as good governance, law and order, and crime control and social stability. These patterns are consistent with aspects of the "Asian values" platform that emphasize the importance, if not the priority, of social and economic rights relative to civil and political rights. Similarly, the studies suggest that even in Asian democracies the liberal emphasis on the individual will often take a back seat to collective interests and social stability. However, the wide variation within Asia still requires an explanation.

Accordingly, Part II examines several possible explanations for the wide variation among Asian countries. Clearly the story is complicated. A number of factors come into play, with some factors more important for different types of rights or playing a different role in different countries or at different times within a country. War, political regime type, the nature and level of development of legal institutions, population size, colonial history, religion and cultural factors all play a role. In several countries, ethnic diversity, religious tensions and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or separatist movements have had a major impact on rights policies and performances. However, consistent with the empirical evidence globally, in the subtle and complex interplay of economics, politics, culture, law and institutions in determining rights performance, what matters most is wealth. While money may not be able to buy happiness, it does seem to buy a longer life, better education, more health care, and even civil and political rights.

The implications are twofold. First, put bluntly if somewhat too simply, if you want better performance across a range of rights and indicators of human well-being, show me the money.

Second, given the importance of wealth to rights performance, comparisons are best made between countries in the same income categories. Comparing a lower middle-income country like China to a rich country like the U.S. makes about as much sense as comparing a piano to a duck.

Keywords: Human rights in Asia, political and economic development, development of human rights

Suggested Citation

Peerenboom, Randall, Show Me the Money: The Dominance of Wealth in Determining Rights Performance in Asia. Available at SSRN:

Randall Peerenboom (Contact Author)

UCLA School of Law - UCLA School of Law ( email )

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