Asian Values as a Road to Progress

6 june 2017

Why the Confucian Cultural Region Made a Breakthrough from the Third World

Konstantin Asmolov is a leading research fellow at the Korean Studies Center of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Resume: The uniqueness of the Far Eastern mobilization breakthrough is largely based on the traditional Confucian legacy, which, effectively applied, have helped Asian countries boost their status in the changing world order.

The modern world’s structure is not only explicitly pyramidal, but it is also very rigid. Only a few Second or Third world countries could make it into the First World after they had speedily modernized themselves. By accident or coincidence, all such countries happen to be in the Confucian cultural region. The most obvious example is the Republic of Korea, which in the early 1960s was behind Nigeria in terms of development but which by the beginning of the current economic crisis aspired to be among the top ten most developed countries. Singapore and Taiwan showed impressive economic growth rates, and now Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China are following suit.

In all these cases, the modernization breakthrough occurred amidst an authoritarian “development dictatorship” (in South Korea, there was no human rights legislation until the second half of the 1980s), masked by socialist or democratic ideas modified to suit national or regional conditions. These conditions are rooted in the spiritual legacy of Confucianism, whose traditions, blended with social innovations of the 20th century, have produced a theory or a set of so-called Asian values, which Eurasia often views as an alternative to universal human values. Adherence to these values was essential for Asian countries’ effective modernization.


Confucianism is, of course, a broad topic that deserves a separate discussion. This article will look at it only from a systemic point of view. Like most ethical teachings of the Far East, Confucianism paid less attention to metaphysics and focused on improving state governance and people’s lives. Guided by ideas of the bygone Golden Age, Confucians tried to create universal rules of conduct, which provided for the proper performance of social roles. There were five main types of quasi-family relationships: ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend.

Based on such a model, Confucians sought to create instructions for all occasions, so that a nobleman knew how to resolve any conflict. For this model to reproduce itself, they offered an educational system that was largely built on memorizing certain patterns and elements. Added to this was the concept of meritocracy, according to which any talented person had a theoretical opportunity to take an examination and become a government official. We can single out several characteristic features of Confucian political culture.

The ideal of Order and Harmony is not associated with the horizontal paradigm of universal equality but is linked with a vertically organized system built on the above five models of hierarchical relationships. Accordingly, the slogan “All people are brothers!” has a different meaning, as there is no abstract concept of ‘brother:’ there are elder brothers and younger brothers. Absolute equality was viewed as chaos and anarchy, which must be prevented at any sacrifice.

The canon of hierarchy imposes obligations on both sides. The Confucian category of ‘service’ implies mutual care and imposes moral obligations on a superior towards his subordinates. The younger must obey the elder, while the elder must care about the younger. The state system is also viewed through the prism of the family. From a moral point of view, the relationship between the authorities and the population is a relationship between obedient children and their parents who care for their welfare.

Stability and harmony are considered the main values of the state. Maintaining them is a more important goal than the welfare of an individual subject and is ensured by a strong central authority. The status of the ruler is based on the principle of the Mandate of Heaven. According to this concept, developed by Mencius, Heaven bestows its mandate on a ruler as a reward for his wisdom and moral qualities. The emperor is directly accountable to Heaven, which expresses its pleasure or displeasure through natural phenomena or the general social position of the people. Unlike the European doctrine of “God’s anointed,” the legitimacy of the ruling house is not eternal, and the ruler who has lost the mandate must be replaced with a more worthy candidate. However, heaven does not turn its back on a legitimate dynasty worthy of its place, and there can be no principled opposition to the bearer of the Mandate, aiming to change the existing order.

Confucian society seeks consensus, and the opposition plays a “systemic” role in it, criticizing shortcomings but not trying to completely change the system. Theoretically, it plays the role of a critical observer helping the state identify excesses and failings and improve itself. This approach also formally helps to focus on addressing national problems.

Forced existence within a group forms a system of values based on the predominance of society/collective over the individual. Confucian political culture rules out liberal elements such as individual rights, civil liberties, pluralism and local autonomy and is more tolerant of restrictions on individual liberties than Western democracies. The European notion of ‘freedom’ does not exist in it. If we carefully analyze the hieroglyphs that make up the word that is usually translated as “freedom,” we will see that they literally mean “liberty” or “self-determination.”

However, one should not think that there are no ideas of ‘democracy’ in Chinese culture. The perception of democracy, especially pluralism, can be analyzed through the Confucian categories of hé, usually translated as “harmony,” and tong, usually translated as “accord.” However, a more thorough analysis, made by Leonard Perelomov, interprets as unity through difference of opinion, and tong as unity through obedience. In political culture of the Confucian era, tong symbolized submissive unity with power originating from the supreme authority, while signified the achievement of unity through conflict between and mutual overcoming of the opposites. Confucius gave preference to hé, comparing harmony achieved in this way to the harmony of taste obtained in preparing a dish, when various ingredients combined create something new and amazing, or to music consisting of different notes.

Meritocracy is one of the main components of Confucian political culture. According to this principle, power should be vested in individuals based not on their aristocratic origin but the level of their spiritual merits manifested in erudition and education. Nobility of virtue was more important than nobility of blood, and theoretically any peasant who passed a civil service examination could become an official, thus forming the basis of the ruling class. Hence the increased attention to education as a means of self-improvement and a way to climb up the social ladder, and the emphasis on creating a new type of man by changing not external conditions but man’s mentality through political indoctrination. Since, unlike legists, Confucianism admitted, after long internal discussions, that man by nature was more kind than evil, education was intended to guide the individual in the right direction.

Over time, the content of the educational process was emasculated, and instead of obtaining practical knowledge people were required simply to memorize texts and remember patterns to be followed. A typical Confucian scholar did not dare to engage in creative thinking and only interpreted, analyzed and commented on classical literature.

This explains greater focus on control over people’s minds. Whereas the “right to thought” is important for Europeans and especially Americans (suffice it to recall the famous phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” often misattributed to Voltaire), the Chinese assign much importance to “correct thinking”—ideas of aggregate public goods, symbolized by “books of quotations,” be it writings from Mencius or Mao Zedong.

Importantly, the Confucian concept of the state is based on the idea of the supremacy of not law but worthy people who rule the country in accordance with their high moral principles. The European concept of law, as a combination of rights and duties, does not exist there, and the judicial function of the state is viewed as a system of repressive actions. This is very clearly seen even in the etymology of the word: whereas the Latin word justitia means “fairness” and implies that the law is intended to establish justice or protect the rights of the individual, the body in the Far Eastern state system that performed functions similar to those of the ministry of justice was called “Ministry of Punishments.”

Speaking of “justice,” I would like to note the fundamental difference in the content of this concept in Europe and the Far East. The idea of social equality and equal opportunities for all is absent in the Confucian paradigm of “justice,” and the ethical aspect prevails over the social one. The same goes for the notions of ‘duty,’ ‘conscience,’ ‘rights,’ ‘duties,’ etc. This is very important, as the introduction of these notions into the Confucian paradigm without further clarification of what meaning the West puts into them may lead to a situation where these notions will be automatically filled with the traditional Eastern content.

At the same time, moral interest plays a significant role in the relationship between the individual and the system. The desire to obtain material goods at all costs is despised (in the traditional ranking order the merchant was placed below the peasant), and the most prestigious job is not always the highest paid. The work of a functionary in the system is rewarded not so much with money as with higher status or privileges.

It is clear that, as elsewhere, there was a significant gap between normative ethics and its application in practice, and the conscientious implementation of ethical norms did not usually imply a successful career. But whereas in the West corruption is not only criminally punishable but also socially blamed (in theory), in the Far East the attitude to corruption is ambiguous. On the one hand, it has always been fought, and an official caught taking bribe is publicly condemned. On the other hand, the tradition of offering “additional encouragement” is very strong. However, this type of corruption is not so much about “greasing the wheels,” like in Europe, but rather about bribing officials into being docile in order to bind them by informal ties or moral obligations so that they act in “the right way” when needed.

Nevertheless, I would like to conclude this section with the words of South Korean political analyst Lee In Sung. “Briefly speaking, peoples professing Confucianism give top priority to the family, collectivism, higher education and moral self-improvement of man. (...) Collectivism advocated by Confucianism to no smaller extent has contributed to the population giving priority attention to such values as the family, work and homeland.”


The above features of the Confucian model have formed a certain set of elements that are manifested, among other things, in bureaucratic or managerial culture. For convenience, I have drawn a table which compares features of “European” and Far Eastern culture.

Universal Human Values

Asian Values

Individualism. Individualism means that the interests of the individual are put much higher than the interests of the state or society consisting of such individuals. From the priority of individualism stems the encouragement of personal responsibility and personal initiative. The power of traditions and customs does not become an obstacle to new ideas and extraordinary actions.

Authoritarianism. The interests of the state/superiors/authorities are above the interests of the individual. This is well seen in the military principle of unity of command, which is characterized by harsher governance, compared with civil society, and more restrictions on the freedom of subordinates.

Egalitarianism, which maintains that, when born, no one has any innate or a priori advantages and, therefore, all have equal rights and freedoms, equal starting opportunities, etc.

Hierarchy. This component is often not separated from authoritarianism, with which it really goes hand in hand. But whereas we view authoritarianism as a measure of government harshness, hierarchy implies the predominance of vertical ties over horizontal ones.

Rationalism/pragmatism is analytical and logical thinking based on facts; it is a relativistic attitude to values, based on the fact that they change and cannot be absolutized. It is “secularization of thought” and “separation of friendship from work.”

Corporatism and personalism. The aspiration not so much to unite into a single whole, as to isolate a small group from the rest of society and divide into “friends” and “foes;” preference given to formal relations over informal, quasi-family relations, tinted by personal sympathies or attachments.

Legalism as the idea of the supremacy of law. The law is viewed as an impersonal category, standing above the state system and uniform for all, regardless of status. Reliance on the law is the recommended way to solve problems, including those that in the traditional model of society are usually addressed without resorting to outside help.

Ritualization as traditionalism and the desire to do everything in accordance with the established customs, giving special importance to outward things. This phenomenon could be called formalism, but this term covers only some of its aspects.

Materialism. Orientation is not to the spiritual world but material values. The criterion of success and a sign of high social status are not spiritual merits, combined with noble poverty, but economic prosperity, expressed in the accumulation of wealth.

Non-materialism as a tendency to attach less importance to material goods; the desire to prefer social prestige to material values, and moral incentives to material ones.

Motive for achievement. This notion combines an active attitude to life, as opposed to fatalism, the practice of blindly following fate or circumstances, and concentration on the achievement of goals, often by any means.

Apathy or what political scientists call a parochial type of political culture, manifested in the passivity of the masses and a tendency to ignore risks, relying more on luck than on active planning for the future.

The table shows that the main sets of values of the Confucian and universal/Western systems differ substantially. Clearly, in all cases we are discussing an ideal model, and surely, there are people in both Europe and Asia who do not follow this standard. Interestingly, however, that even advocates of Asian values who were particularly supportive of globalization criticized the Western system of values. For example, then South Korean President Kim Young-sam wrote that democratization caused a fountain-like surge of economic needs and demands and an eruption of group egoism, and that the excessive emphasis on achieving individual aspirations to the detriment of public ones should be eliminated.


Each country has its own concept of Asian values, but their core usually includes “maintaining a strong state and stable leadership; rejecting full-fledged social and political pluralism; respecting traditional principles aimed at maintaining consensus and social harmony, as opposed to disagreements and confrontation; providing conditions for the state’s active interference in the economy and social processes; and giving priority to collective rights over individual rights, and to national wellbeing over civil rights and freedoms” (Igor Tolstokulakov. Political Modernization of South Korea).

According to South Korean political analyst Yoon Min-bong, the most important Asian values are corporate approach to any problems and consensus in developing practical solutions; traditionally respectful attitude to the government; efforts to maintain harmony and order in society; an extremely important role for the family and other social communities; self-discipline and renouncement of all desires in the name of the collective; an exceptionally important role for education; and tolerance, thrift, and respect for elders.

Asian values challenge the modern Western model of economic and political governance: priority is given to traditional political culture aimed at maintaining corporatism and hierarchical principles underlying the organization of society. Then follow cultural values sanctifying ethics and social life, while the concept of civil rights and duties is given secondary importance. Asian capitalism and the Asian market are built on kinship and clan ties and are less dependent on legal norms and the judicial system.

Asian values are often associated with the medieval “Asian mode of production:” rice was the main agricultural crop, and its cultivation was impossible without irrigation systems, canals and reservoirs, the construction and maintenance of which required concerted efforts of hundreds or even thousands of people. Irrigated rice growing as the main economic/cultural pattern in many respects shaped the situation where the state was the main land owner. The process of land privatization, which led to feudal fragmentation, was always under greater control in Asia than in Europe, and the need to maintain irrigation systems made harvests dependent not only on weather but also on the ruler. In such conditions, labor formed certain qualities in Far Eastern peasants that have made them ideal workers in the modern capitalist economy.

The establishment of links between special ethics and successful social and economic modernization is worth special mention. The Confucian cultural tradition is perceived as a “special initial capital.” Yoon Min-bong emphasizes that Asian values have ensured not only economic growth, but also the spiritual health of the nation, which is protected from anarchy and egoism by high social responsibility and discipline. The events of recent years give grounds to speak of moral degradation of the European civilization which is obsessed with the issue of individual rights and freedoms, whereas Asia links its social and political stability with the strong sense of duty cultivated in the region.

Essentially, man is a social being by nature, and from the point of view of some zoologists, it is altruism and collectivism inherent in human nature that set man apart from the animal world. It is clear that one individualist in a group of altruists is in a privileged position, but when the number of individualists grows significantly and they begin to dominate, the group breaks up, because its ability to produce a collective response to an external challenge decreases.

Generally speaking, the idea of Asian values appeared as a response to the West’s attempt to impose its cultural hegemony on the world and present its values as a universal dogma. Therefore, advocates of Asian values want, at the least, to prove that the West and the East have taken different paths in their development, and, at the most, to show the superiority of Asia over the West and create its own center of attraction, opposite to Eurocentrism. It is no coincidence that all variants of Eastern “regional specifics” ruled out mechanical copying of Western models.

There are enough factors in the classical Confucian system that slow down modernization. Confucianism ensures continuity of values and preservation of traditions for a long time, but prompt responses to rapidly changing situations is not its strong point. It is these aspects of Confucianism that led to the type of stagnation that hit Far Eastern countries after their “forcible discovery” by European powers. Overemphasis on collectivism leads to depersonalization and kills creativity; however, it is not accidental that Asian values are viewed as a synthesis of the old and the new, allowing the system to effectively update itself within the changing world order, where the rate of change is much greater than before.

Therefore, this is not about mechanical copying of traditions, but the synthesis and formation of the Asian specificity the essence of which fits well into the Korean slogan “tongdo s?gi” (“Eastern way, Western technology”), and the place of Asian values in a political context. In this sense, it would be useful to analyze the attitude of some Asian leaders, primarily former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, to the Confucian legacy. I believe Park’s modernization reforms are particularly impressive.

Despite the traditional upbringing, Park was not a devout Confucianist and did not promulgate this teaching as the main factor behind Korea’s economic progress, as, for example, Singapore’s then President Lee Kuan Yew did. Park did not show much respect for Confucian rules and ceremonies, and his works, especially early ones, criticized Confucian dogmatism as one of the factors behind the country’s backwardness. Speaking of obsolete features of the mentality and social order in Korean society that objectively hampered its modernization, Park named the caste system, red tape, the desire for imitation, adulation, blind obedience to superiors, and the habit of banking on others and not oneself.

However, “preserving traditions and modernizing society should not be in conflict with each other—they are parts of one continuous process.” This is why Park spoke of the importance of collectivism and consideration for virtues important for Confucianism, such as loyalty to the state (ch’ung) and filial piety (hyo), which, in his opinion, fit perfectly into modern ethical standards.

At the end of the 20th century, the place of Confucianism and its correlation with the Korean national character was the subject of broad discussions. However, the criticism was aimed not at Confucianism as such but at certain morally obsolete elements of society, which hindered its development towards democracy and globalization. For example, Yang Geun, professor of political science at Hanyang University, said that although the state system of South Korea followed the European tradition, thoughts and deeds of its actors demonstrated their adherence to the traditional political culture based on discrimination stemming from regionalism, education and personal ties, and these factors slowed down society’s progress. His opinion was challenged by a well-known lawyer and journalist, Chun Sung Chol, who argued that the Confucian system of values traditionally placed loyalty to the system above rationality, and the interests of the group were above the interests of the individual. Confucians see man-to-man help as a natural duty, even if it looks (or is) an illegal act or a manifestation of corruption. The new era attaches primary importance to individualism and the individual’s independence from the system; the country’s abstract interests prevail over the interests of a narrow circle of people (family); and the notion of honesty differs from the traditional notion of sincerity.


Everyone knows that an authoritarian system can be more effective in managing the state’s resources and that it can reduce the value of the human factor by limiting human rights and regulating living standards. This is due to several factors. Firstly, an authoritarian system has features that are good for management in crisis situations. These are fast response, discipline and the ability to quickly transfer resources. Secondly, a certain level of coercion allows the authorities to take control over a situation caused by confrontation between two tendencies. On the one hand, a country that has found itself in a difficult situation usually has to take tough measures to overcome the crisis, with citizens forced to sacrifice part of their personal well-being for the benefit of the country. On the other hand, the concept of civil rights and the priority given to the interests of the individual over the interests of the state stand in the way of these efforts.

As Samuel Huntington wrote, the modernization of a backward country is a contradictory process. In countries where it has been completed, society acquires relative stability and well-being, but the initial stages are characterized by the growth of crisis phenomena and conflicts. In addition, people are mainly conservative by nature and do not want changes. They are quite satisfied with their satiated and trouble-free life, with no need to sacrifice anything for the country. Authoritarianism and non-materialism make it possible to overcome this tendency.

However, in European culture, with its developed institutions of civil society, such a policy causes either open opposition or apathy, which also prevents a breakthrough.

But in Confucian society, thanks to the above traditions, there are much fewer reasons for such a reaction from people to the state’s actions. People in this society are easier motivated. In poor countries, moral stimulation is a cheaper and more widespread social technology, which is very important, because a forced breakthrough is possible when the broad masses of people view well-being of the state as part of their personal destiny and are ready to stint themselves for the sake of a better future: “Three years of hard work—ten thousand years of happiness.”

The problem of recession and economic slowdown arises in Asian countries when generations change, with new generations being much more susceptible to “the culture of globalization.” This process is most clearly seen in the Republic of Korea which, due to demographic and social imbalances, has begun to use ever more migrant workers, because using its own workforce is much more expensive.

The more obvious the changes for the better are, the readier society is to perceive objective disadvantages of an authoritarian regime as an acceptable price to pay for the well-being. However, the new generation, which does not know the difficult past from which the country has emerged, is less ready to accept the former limitations. As one Korean philosopher said, the old generation is content with rice and remembers the times when it was a delicacy, whereas young people do not remember it and are concerned about the purity of rice. In other words, as soon as economic growth slows down, negative aspects of an authoritarian regime become ever more evident and no longer seem to be an adequate price for economic growth.

Asian values make it possible to significantly extend the period when the bulk of the population is loyal to the state and is ready to work hard for its benefit during a period sufficient enough for making a modernization breakthrough. On the other hand, the Confucian model at least declares the social responsibility of the government, which must take care of the people within its quasi-family model of relationships.
Meanwhile, it is time to think about how solid the foundation for Asian values is in modern society. Some Korean experts in conversations with me expressed doubts that “the generation of only children,” who grew up in an atmosphere of excessive attention and care and who have in many respects broken away from the traditional Confucian/collectivist culture, would be ready for self-sacrifice if the country was again hit by a crisis similar to that of 1997.


This issue is a subject of politically engaged discussions, as it is an argument against the idea, widespread among liberals and democrats, that authoritarian regimes are bad by definition. Another point of view, popular in recent times, rejects this variant of society-building completely. However, the Asian experience provides an important example of balance between democracy and modernization: we cannot but admit that the rapid breakthrough from poverty and chaos to stability and prosperity would have been impossible without the “mobilization of the nation” and the strengthening of the state’s role, which is inevitably accompanied by restrictions on the freedoms of individual citizens.

Critics of Asian values cite the example of Eastern European countries which overcame the economic crisis without tightening the screws. But I would like to note that, first, former Comecon members did not experience economic devastation like that in Korea in the 1960s; and, second, their economic growth rates were incomparably lower than those achieved by Korea. Argentina cannot serve as a positive example either, because its liberal reforms, after an illusion of growth, led to deplorable economic consequences. My point of view is supported by the fact that President Kim Dae-jung had to tighten the screws to lead Korea out of the fallout of the 1997 crisis, and took some measures which he would most likely have criticized, had he been the leader of the opposition.

As Andrei Lankov, an expert in Korean studies, points out, attempts to build a society combining a liberal democracy and a market economy in East Asia failed until the late 1980s (Japan is an exception, but it belongs to the Confucian cultural region only partly). The danger is of another kind: “There are civilian methods of governance in peacetime, and military methods during war,” and they should not be confused. When an emergency situation ends, the country should gradually move to a softer governance model. Delaying this process may lead to a dictatorship, and preserving authoritarianism in the absence of an emergency may bring as many problems as sticking to liberalism during war or an acute social crisis would. It is no accident that most of the difficulties faced by authoritarian systems emerge when, despite the improvement of the economic situation, the masses develop a different view of their place and rights. Attempts to suppress emerging protests are non-constructive and may lead to social upheavals, as the Korean experience has shown.

Another politically motivated aspect of the discussion about Asian values is that they are presented as an alternative to the so-called universal human values, which the West seeks to spread across the world. But in this connection, I would like to quote prominent Italian political scientist Joseph Lapalombara: “The problem of political science (...) is that scientific paradigms developed and tested in one country may not explain phenomena in other countries.” He is echoed by South Korean author Li Zhong Hang. “The methodological error of Western researchers is in their unshakable confidence that Asian peoples repeat European scenarios and follow the path of European modernization development.”
As the new Asian values are partly a synthetic system, some of their critics argue that the progress of Asian countries is due, above all, to borrowings from the West. Here, however, the question arises: “Why, then, did countries of Eastern Europe or Latin America fail to make a breakthrough?” The West pumped a lot of money into some countries, but if we compare the Chile of Augusto Pinochet, extolled by liberal economists, and the Republic of Korea of Park Chung-hee, we will see that the results of Pinochet’s rule, marked by more bloodshed, were much more modest than Park’s achievements.

Another critical point of view on the modernization of Asian countries argues that South Korea and other countries of the Confucian cultural region could carry out modernization because they were allowed to do so. South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore were created as an Asian showcase of democracy to counterbalance countries from the socialist camp. In addition, the favorable political situation coincided with a period when the United States and other Western countries needed to move production abroad to make it cheaper. The First World had the ability to transfer some low and medium-tech industries to third countries, and East Asian countries only took advantage of this historic moment. On the other hand, the above does not fully explain the success of Vietnam and China, which began their modernization already after the end of the Cold War.

Critics of Asian values included former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who wrote that the theory of some special Asian values was nothing more than a myth created by opponents of the modernization in Asian countries. Moreover, Kim repeatedly emphasized that the Asian financial crisis was largely due to the traditional system. At the same time, Maria Ryazanova’s analysis of Kim’s works shows that he protested not against Asian values but against biased attempts to present them as something opposed to universal human values. Moreover, from his point of view, all those features that are attributed to Confucianism (the propensity to honor rulers and despise the common people, the desire for rigid hierarchy, etc.) are in fact not inherent in it. In this context, he compares, for example, John Locke’s theory of natural rights and the government’s accountability to the law with the Mandate of Heaven and Mencius’ concepts, which he developed two millennia before Locke.

All these factors, in his opinion, indicate that democracy is naturally inherent in the Eastern civilization in general and in Korea in particular; therefore, there is no point in dividing democracy into “Western” and “Asian.” As we see, Kim did not preach the “universality” of Western democracy but believed that, since Asia has a rich legacy of democratic doctrines (he included here not only Confucianism or Donghak, but also Buddhism), it has every chance to surpass the West in democratic development.

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The uniqueness of the Far Eastern mobilization breakthrough is largely based on the traditional Confucian legacy (other factors are also important but rather complementary), which, effectively applied, have helped Asian countries boost their status in the changing world order. Confucianism will remain a strategic line of China.

This point is extremely important not only in discussing whether there are universal human values, but also in analyzing the future world order: its multipolarity is further reinforced by the understanding of the actual difference between value systems inherent in different civilizations.

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