Globalisation drove the world a lot closer with culture spreading from the rich world to the third world, including countries such as China and India with a rich cultural history of their own. However, there seems to be a reversal of sorts with the emergence of hyper nationalist strong men at the helm propagating a return to roots. This fascinating piece in The Economist points to research which has studied the cultural movement of various countries over 25yrs, which shows that the trend of aping the west isn’t that straight forward. The piece is worth a read given the graphic detail which helps visualise these trends including a fun interactive exercise which asks the reader to plot where America, China, Sweden and Pakistan would lie on a chart with the y-axis ranging from traditional to secular and the x-axis from survival (tribalism) to self-expression (individualism).

Some interesting takeaways from the chart:
“Take the map from the survey wave ending in 1998. In some ways it looks similar to today’s. In both, Protestant Europeans are the most secular and individualistic. Catholic Europeans hold similar views, though less strongly. In Islamic and African countries, religion and family hold sway. What the WVS calls “Confucian” countries, including China, Japan and South Korea, are a mixture. They hold secular values as strongly as Europeans; when responding to assertions such as “where religion and science conflict, religion is always right”, they are even less likely to agree than Germans or Dutch. But they are nothing like as tolerant as those nations towards gay people and other minorities.

Two decades ago a group of countries combined religious conviction with support for individualism and self-expression, that is, a sort of hybrid of traditional and modern values. They included America, Ireland and some Latin American countries, such as Venezuela. This amalgam put them at the bottom right corner. Many Orthodox countries (such as Russia and Romania) showed the inverse: weak religious values but strong “tribal”, or collective, ones. They were irreligious ethno-nationalists, clustered in the top left.

If you look at the map of 1998, you will see countries scattered across all four quadrants. In the map of 2023, by contrast, most are in just two. The outliers of bottom right and top left are fewer. Most countries are now aligned along a diagonal that starts in the bottom left, with strong traditional and collective values, and rises towards the top right, with more secular values and individualism. In 2023 there is a clear “best fit” line. In 1998, there was not.

On the face of it, this shift suggests that people do think differently as they escape from poverty and insecurity. The diagonal line implies that countries are either traditional-cum-collective or rational-cum-individualistic. The poorest countries are (mostly) at one end and the richest (mostly) at the other.
Eventually, presumably, poorer countries will shuffle along the diagonal.”

Many such fascinating insights from the research but the article ends with questions about geo-political implications from such cultural shifts. Particularly worth highlighting how cultural factors have also contributed to the current cold war between America and China:

“Disagreements about values also pervade the superpower rivalry between America and China. Chinese leaders complain endlessly that there are no such things as “the so-called universal values of the West” (as Xi Jinping, China’s president, puts it), and that appeals by the American government to such values are a mere smokescreen for a new kind of imperialism….

…The WVS implies that secular and liberal values are no more universal than religious and authoritarian ones. The two sets of values sit at opposite ends of the same spectrum of opinion; both are ways in which people adapt to their circumstances, whether secure or insecure. In that sense Mr Xi and others have a point: such values are not universal. But they are not entirely conditional upon a country’s history or political culture.

As a rule of thumb, as prosperity spreads, life expectancy rises, fertility rates fall, and education expands, people tend to move towards the secular/rational end of the spectrum. Mr Welzel describes this as a shift in mindset from “prevention focus” (in which people’s main concern is preventing harm and loss to themselves and their family) to what he calls “promotion focus” (under which people seek self-expression and freedom of choice about how to live their lives).

The WVS, however, finds that the speed at which this shift happens varies greatly in different countries. In some places it even goes into reverse. Different generations adjust more or less readily. Governments intervene to slow things down if it suits them. And it is clear that getting wealthier is not necessarily enough to trigger the shift in values, because countries that are getting richer can often feel less secure.

For all these reasons, traditional ways of thinking persist and the convergence of values widely expected to accompany economic growth is far from complete. Yet the impact of greater security on people’s values does not go away. Slowly, unsurely, religious and authoritarian values tend to lose some of their appeal; secular and liberal values tend to gain. And the battle over values plays out between the two poles.”

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