A Genuine Historical Transition
Does China really need to embrace Western principles such as transparency and open markets to grow economically?
May 21, 2008
Since the early 1990s, Asia’s economic strategy was based on a distinctive cultural and political model — stemming largely from Confucianism. It generated exceptionally high economic growth, initially in Japan and then throughout East Asia, including China.
It was a triumphal affirmation of the superiority of the Asian way over the Western model — and over U.S. culture in particular.
The “Singaporean cultural offensive” was seen to contrast the Asian virtues of order, discipline, family responsibility, hard work, collectivism and abstemiousness with the self-indulgence, sloth, individualism, crime, inferior education and disrespect for authority of the West.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew explained that “the values that East Asian culture upholds, such as the primacy of group interests over individual interests, support the total group effort necessary to develop rapidly.”
Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad described the Asian philosophy more pointedly: “The group and the country are more important than the individual.”
This Asian economic triumphalism, however, suffered a setback from Japanese economic stagnation during the 1990s — and the Asian financial crisis late in the decade.
The Asian values of order, discipline, family ties, collectivism and group over individual rights devolved into crony capitalism, revealing massive corruption and disastrous economic management — particularly in the banking sector — which resulted in the ruin of many companies and extensive job loss.
Subsequently, major economic reforms were undertaken, with great success, in restoring economic growth.
They were all in the direction of open markets, more effective competition, the rule of law and government transparency — or, in other words, the Western economic model.
This economic change, moreover, was accompanied by political change in governance, most dramatically in the transition of South Korea and Taiwan from authoritarian regimes to multiparty democracies, along with basic individual rights under the rule of law.
Asia’s path thus continues to demonstrate high economic growth and industrial modernization, but now with a mutually reinforcing blend of Asian and Western values.
The most important development within Asia since the early 1990s is the rise of China, and more recently India, toward becoming advanced technology superpowers.
The rapid process of Chinese industrial modernization has led China to become, by the beginning of the 21st century, the number one exporter of manufactures — predominantly in high-technology industries — with little resemblance to the antiquated trading patterns.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Ernest Preeg’s book, “India and China.” Printed by the permission of the author and publisher.
Today's Asia demonstrates that high economic growth and industrial modernization can reinforce a blend of Asian and Western values.
During the 1990s, Asian economic triumphalism suffered a setback from Japanese economic stagnation — and the Asian financial crises late in the decade.
Asia's economic strategy has been based on a cultural and political model stemming largely from Confucianism.
Ernest H. Preeg
Senior Fellow for Trade and Productivity at Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI Ernest H. Preeg has been senior fellow for trade and productivity at Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI since 2002. He is a career foreign service officer and was a member of the U.S. delegations to the Kennedy and Uruguay Rounds of trade negotiations. He also served as Deputy Assistant […]