Cultural vs. Situational Factors in East Asian Industrialization

In 1991, Ezra Vogel published a slim volume that attempted to analyze for lay audiences some of the reasons why certain East Asian nations achieved notable success in industrializing. He compared Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which he labelled the “Four Little Dragons.” Here are some highlights, from a book review published in 1994.

British and American advocates of minimal government interference in the marketplace will be countered not just by how different the role of Hong Kong’s government has been from the other little dragons, but by the historical perspective offered in the introductory chapter, where Vogel notes that only the earliest wave of industrialization, in England and later the United States, had the luxury of a rather leisurely pace of industrialization with relatively little government direction. The later waves in continental Europe and then East Asia had to rely much more heavily on government to secure the ever larger amounts of capital, complex technology, and skilled labor needed to leap the ever-widening gap between preindustrial and industrial society. Each new entrant in the race to industrialize had a clearer view of the finish line and ran down a better-trodden path to get there.

East Asian nationalists who, like European and American imperialists before them, tend to credit their success primarily to their own harder work and superior cultural heritage, will be forced to consider Vogel’s lists of the many situational factors that aided their efforts. And anti-American nationalists will object to the prominent position of U.S. aid on those lists. Vogel enumerates new global opportunities offered by the postwar world: (1) The United States, supremely self-confident and fervently anticommunist, was willing to open its markets and universities and share industrial technology with its allies to an unprecedented degree. (2) Thanks to the demise of colonialism and to bitter lessons learned during the prewar depression, international trade was far less restricted than before. (3) The growth of mass consumption enabled smaller countries to achieve manufacturing economies of scale that their domestic markets could not have supported. (4) Large Western corporations acquired a multinational outlook that placed loyalty to profits above loyalty to country of origin, making them willing, for profit, “to buy, sell, and lend anywhere in the world” (p. 11).

Vogel also lists more particular situational advantages East Asia enjoyed during the postwar period: (1) The U.S. poured in massive amounts of aid to build a bulwark against communism. Just as the Japanese economy benefited from U.S. procurement during the Korean War, the other regional economies benefited during the Vietnam War. (2) Confucian conservatives were discredited and large landowners were dispossessed. The postwar governments were not beholden to the traditional elite, so they were free to concentrate on production of new goods, not control of existing assets. (3) A keen awareness of external military threats and of inadequate land and natural resources lent an urgency that made leaders more willing to cooperate and citizens more willing to sacrifice for the common good. (4) Each country had large numbers of refugees and displaced people who comprised an “eager and plentiful labor force” (p. 88) dependent on their labor, not their land, for income. (5) Japan’s pioneering effort provided the little dragons with a goal, a way to get there, and the confidence that they could succeed in their drive to industrialize. As wages rose in Japan, corporations there were willing to transfer limited technology and manufacturing capacity to the other East Asian countries. However, some of those countries, most notably South Korea, succeeded in transferring more technology than Japan intended.

Did particular cultural traditions shared by East Asian societies confer any advantages? Vogel begins his chapter on explanations by downplaying the role of Confucianism in the spread of industrialization. He asks whether the ongoing industrial transformations of Islamic Malaysia and Turkey, Buddhist Thailand, and Roman Catholic Brazil and Mexico will not utterly invalidate cultural tradition as an explanatory factor. He further notes that Confucianism was blamed just as frequently during the 1940s and 1950s for retarding modernization, and asks why China, the heartland of Confucianism, has been slower to industrialize than the periphery, even before the socialist era. In answer, Vogel offers a tantalizing suggestion:

“If anything, just as Max Weber found that the greatest drive to industrialize in his time came in areas located far from Catholic orthodoxy, so in East Asia industrialization prospered in areas far from the centers of traditional Confucian orthodoxy, where trade and commerce were most highly developed. And successes occurred not under the old Confucian-style governments but in societies that had cast them aside for new governments, with very different political systems.” (p. 84) …

It is long past time to lay aside such vague, chauvinist notions as the Protestant ethic, the Confucian ethic, or the samurai spirit, and examine instead the more specific cultural traditions that aided industrialization. Vogel identifies four such traditions shared by Japan and the little dragons: (1) a “meritocratically selected bureaucracy” (p. 93) that not only implemented policy decisions, but formulated them; (2) an entrance examination system that afforded the means to overcome feudal favoritism and channel the most talented people into key leadership positions; (3) an emphasis on group loyalty and subordination of individual to group demands that well suited the level of centralized coordination needed to effect a modern industrial transformation; and (4) a tradition of lifelong self-cultivation.

Of course, the challenge today is not just to find a way for all nations to climb onto an industrial plateau, but to find ways to keep scaling new heights of innovation and growth in a postindustrial world. Orthodoxies of all kinds still seem to be among the primary obstacles.

SOURCE: Review of The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of Industrialization in East Asia, by Ezra F. Vogel (Harvard U. Press, 1991).

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Filed under China, economics, industry, Japan, Korea, labor, Vietnam

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