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
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.
“The main thing that prevents you from seeing that clearly in east Asia is the racial overlay. The rubbish you hear – largely generated by indigenous people in the region – about Chinese culture or Japanese culture, or Korean hard work versus . . . [people] down near the equator. It’s all just rubbish but it’s amazing how many people believe that stuff,” says Studwell.
“It’s been my observation at an entrepreneurial level as well. I’d never rate entrepreneurs that I met in China over the years higher than, say, entrepreneurs in places like Malaysia. They are not producing better businessmen,” he says.
Chinese business communities thrive in many areas of Southeast Asia, but this is down to political structures in the region.
“You find societies that settled into a feudal equilibrium. If you command political power, you command all power, and you can allow other people to come in and play the economic role. This is no different to the way feudal monarchs in western Europe in the medieval and early modern period made use of Jewish financiers and it’s no different to the way Southeast Asian rulers made use of Persian and Arab traders before the Chinese were there,” he said.
He does not see much chance that the situation in Southeast Asia will change anytime soon.
“They found their equilibrium and it was one where the elites live pretty well. There just isn’t the political leadership. I don’t see a single politician down there who is going to change the trajectory of the region. Southeast Asia is the Latin America of east Asia, basically, and that is their political choice . . . they are relative economic failures though they have made significant economic advances since the end of the colonial period.”
Many of the Southeast Asian economies are former British colonies and Studwell talks of how the British empire was successful at marshalling structures in the region, and the long-term impact has been disastrous on many countries.
“The British empire in particular because it was so efficiently and subtly run, working with small numbers of people and working through local elites, it was extremely good at reinforcing and shoring up these kind of economic operating systems. This is why the colonial influence was so utterly perfidious.
“The British don’t come in and put a knife in your back, they finish you off with a warm embrace. They were fantastic at running systems on that basis which in developmental terms have proven to be enormously damaging.
“Malaysia doesn’t get independence until 1957 when the Cambridge University-educated leader of the country agrees to allow the British plantation and mining interests to remain in place and it was only the race riots in the 1960s which changed that,” he says.
“The same thing in the Philippines – independence in 1946 but the Americans locked them into various trade agreements which kept the ruling elites in a comfortable position.
“No country has ever acted generously having become rich, with the exception of the United States for a brief period after the second World War, in very particular circumstances.”
History of selfishness
He cites the remark by 19th century German economist Friedrich List about kicking away the ladder once you get to the top.
“That’s very much what Britain did. China fits much more into the British model. I don’t see them having a positive developmental impact in places like Africa, or in North Korea. The Chinese go in and trade for their own benefits. All that ‘pragmatic’ really means is that countries that climb the ladder of development have a very long history of being revoltingly selfish,” says Studwell.
So much is a question of approach. It’s not about prudence or stability, at least not necessarily.
“Macroeconomic stability was not a clear determinant of developmental success in northeast Asia, and nor was it in Southeast Asia, where there was also notable variation – for instance, between less ‘prudent’ Indonesia and more prudent Thailand, both of which ended up on the industrialisation rubbish heap,” he writes.
“Equally, there is the example of Ferdinand Marcos, who borrowed and printed lots of money like Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan in Korea, but blew his cash like a drunk in a casino.
“I think China will be the last fast growth story that we will see. You can’t have that kind of very fast development without land reform and I don’t think that kind of land reform is going to occur in Southeast Asia because the politicians can’t get it together.”
For those looking for a punt on a future growth story, Studwell recommends North Korea.
“The place most likely to have a 10 per cent growth story is North Korea. The reason would be is that Korean agriculture is collectivised but they have been moving tentatively towards household farming essentially and it wouldn’t require much of a push for North Korea to significantly increase its output and push to industrialisation and go for the east Asian miracle. It has the political infrastructure. It will of course require a political shift.”
How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region by Joe Studwell, Profile Books, £14.99