Economic Growth Rates of Asia In 21st Century

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East Asia as a whole had the highest economic growth rates of any part of the world in the decades following World War II. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, in that order chronologically, followed in the wake of Japanese economic success after the mid-1950s to produce their own very rapid development. Much of it was on the Japanese model, beginning in light industry and consumer goods and continuing into heavy manufacturing and precision goods.

Singapore boomed as a close parallel to Hong Kong, both tiny Chinese city-states originally prospering as trade and financial centers and then moving into high-tech industrialization and processing. In China, despite the drag exerted by anti-urbanism and irrational ideology and planning, there were also impressive industrial growth rates during the Maoist period before 1976. However, it should be borne in mind that the data are unreliable and the original base was very small. It is easy to double or even triple a small number.

Since 1978, growth rates have increased dramatically, but one must remember that China has to produce for a population now well over 1 billion, so that per capita shares have remained relatively small, although they are now growing more rapidly.

It is probably not a coincidence that all of these East Asian countries developed out of an originally Chinese tradition that emphasized disciplined hard work and organized group effort, as well as placing the highest value on education. Communist China’s less impressive overall economic performance until about 1992 has been clearly related to its destructive education policies and perhaps to its effort to eradicate much else about the traditional system that it inherited.

Japan has stressed the importance of education, especially since 1950 and to a great degree since 1870, and its modern achievement is closely related to that investment and to a national commitment to learning. South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have been equally faithful to these aspects of their inherited Chinese tradition.

The system that has developed there and in Japan is sometimes loosely referred to as “Confucian capitalism,” but it clearly has much less to do with Confucianism than with the common Chinese heritage in other respects: the value attached to hard work, and perhaps, more importantly, the unspoken commitment to group interest and group effort as opposed to individualism or, as the Chinese traditionally saw it, the anarchy of individual decisions and actions as against the order and the power of group decision and action.

In each of these modern settings, the family has remained centrally important, and beyond that the workgroup. Loyalty to both and the pattern of working together in the common interest has supported the individual and minimized inter-individual rivalry and competition, which tend to be subsumed within the group goals that all strive to advance.

Particularly in the Japanese case, the nation became, especially after 1870, an overriding group to which most Japanese gave their loyalty and their efforts. This pattern produced a powerful engine for national economic development, and it is still operative. Asians have always valued education as a means for upward mobility and as a conduit through which status and prestige are achieved. The learned man has traditionally been honored above all others. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore have all continued this pattern to an outstanding degree and continue to produce a particularly highly educated citizenry.

This has been a strong asset for economic growth and has also enabled each country to keep abreast of the rapid technological changes that are characteristic of modern development. Education is perhaps the chief family priority in these countries, and each child’s progress is treated as a family enterprise, in the realization that the family’s welfare in the longer run, as well as its prestige, depends on it.

Fathers, mothers, and older siblings work with children to help them to excel, to a degree unknown in the United States, for example, as a recent psychological survey makes clear, based on interviews with parents in each society. If their child is not an outstanding student, far more American parents tend to blame the school, whereas East Asian parents blame themselves or the child’s natural intelligence or diligence.

Failure, like social deviance, brings shame on the family or other group, as success brings credit. In any case, East Asian children at virtually all levels outperform their American counterparts in every field of learning, and by a very large margin, as East Asian adults often outperform them in the workplace. The two are obviously connected, not only through the societies’ differing emphases on education but also through the East Asian consensus about the importance of diligent, conscientious work and loyalty in the service of group advancement.

This is not to imply that Americans are necessarily wrong in the way they do things or that they should change their ways and become like the Japanese or Koreans. In any case, that would be impossible; the social patterns in the United States evolved out of very different circumstances, including far more living space, abundant resources, and a small population. Americans value individualism and individual freedom of action; they tend to dislike what they see as “regimentation” and do not have a highly developed sense of the primacy of the group.

In general, Americans are willing to pay the price that such values tend to exact, and most would chafe under the kinds of constraints that Asian societies place on individuals. Americans may, however, soon have to accept more stringent environmental legislation in the common as well as the individual interests of all. And to reexamine their attitudes toward and investment in education. Not merely because East Asians are outperforming them but because it makes excellent sense to do so in their own interest.

Despite their huge populations, China and India have led the world in their economic growth rates in recent years and still do, 8 percent a year or more in each case. China joined the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1991. And its leaders meet regularly with leaders of the other 20 APEC nations (including the United States) to discuss ways to facilitate trade and economic growth. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization, which India had already joined in 1995.

More and more attention is being paid around the world to these two Asian giants, with comparative research on their societies and economies. As they become wealthier, they are each also extending their influence on world events. Leading to more competition than cooperation at this point. Particularly in the areas in between them, such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Indian Ocean in general. Although many Indians settled in Africa during the era of British colonialism, China has surged ahead in terms of influence on the African continent. Where it has made substantial investments over the last decade. The China-India relationship promises to become very significant over the coming decades.

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