Elites behaving badly and other theories: why only some Asian states are ‘Tigers’
A new book offers some plausible explanations on the patchy rate of economic success across Asia
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspect a farm under the Korean People's Army.`The place most likely to have a 10 per cent growth story is North Korea,' says author Joe Studwell
There’s a 500kg gorilla in the corner of the room when discussing Asia’s remarkable rise over the past few decades: why has the success has been so uneven?
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in the northeast have become fabulously wealthy while the Southeast Asian states, such as Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia have advanced, but at a far less impressive pace.
You hear some odd theories – the climate is too warm near the equator for these economies to thrive – which I’m sure is news to Hong Kong’s tycoons and their colleagues across the border in Guangdong.
Then there are cultural arguments put forward, that the Chinese or the Japanese are intrinsically hardworking. (I know plenty of lazy Chinese people, for the record, just like there are many lazy Germans.)
In How Asia Works, Joe Studwell goes a long way to cut through the cliches about Asian growth and explain why things have happened at a varied pace. If this is indeed to be the Asian Century, this engaging, thought-provoking book is required reading for anyone serious about understanding the structural dynamics of the continent.
Studwell says the blame is largely due to a lack of political leadership and a tendency by ruling elites to behave, well, badly. And for countries to do well, they have to be prepared to introduce land reform.
Success and failure
“No one had put this together before, a book covering the nine major economies, explaining the differences between the ones that succeeded and the ones that failed, and how in the end it came down to policies devised and implemented by human beings rather than anything else,” says Studwell in an interview.
He describes as “folly” the ways of the iconic leaders in the region in the past few decades, such as Mao in China, Sukarno in Indonesia and Mahathir in Malaysia, constantly railing against western hegemony and sticking “your rhetorical finger in the eye of its leader, the United States”.
“Far better to take a page out of [Korean leader] Park Chung-hee or contemporary China’s book: make public pronouncements about the importance of free markets, and then go quietly about your dirigiste business,” he writes.
One of the striking elements working in the region is the way in which countries like the Philippines, with its resources, its educated, often English-speaking workforce and its central geographical position have done much worse than countries such as Korea, which was devastated by war in living memory and has little in the way of natural resources to lift it, but has gone on to become one of the world’s richest economies.
“In east Asia the countries with the best endowments have pretty much done the worst. That’s why it’s such a fantastic laboratory for understanding economic development. People who had it all have thrown it all away, and the people who had less have gotten themselves organised and have done well,” said Studwell, who has written about the early days of the China boom in The China Dream and looked at tycoons in the region in Asian Godfathers.