Chapter 27 The Era of Decolonization

Section 5 Post-Cold War Asia

The end of the Vietnam War occurred at a time of rapid economic growth in many Asian countries. These developments were further fueled by the decline and ultimate collapse of the communist economic model around the world in the 1970s and 1980s. In Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War and a move towards both democracy and a free market economic system. While adopting market economic models, however, China and other parts of Asia continued to maintain much tighter political control than had accompanied the industrialization of the West. This combination of market economics with continuing authoritarian political systems caused many participants and some observers to speak of an "Asian way" of economic and political development.

China after Mao

In 1976, after leading China for more than a quarter-century, Mao Zedong died. A struggle for the succession ensued between those who wanted to continue the Cultural Revolution, led by Mao’s widow Jiang Qing and the so-called Gang of Four, and those who wished to restore order and economic growth, led by Deng Xiaoping. By the late 1970s, Deng had emerged as the victor and Jiang Qing and her allies were arrested, tried, and imprisoned.

            Repudiating the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Deng and the new leadership began a wholesale reform of China’s economy through what they called the Four Modernizations—modernization of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense. In effect, they rejected the old Communist model of centralized state planning for the economy and began to switch to a market economy in which production and prices responded directly to the forces of supply and demand. The government also actively pursued foreign investment—even from large multinational corporations that had long been denounced as symbols of Western capitalism. Explaining this remarkable reversal, Hu Yaobang, the new Communist Party Secretary, observed, “Multinational companies operate all over the world and they do not injure the independence of any country.”[32] As a result of this new direction, during the late 1980s and early 1990s China's economy grew faster than that of any other major country.

            Economic liberalization also led to demands for greater political liberalization. As early as 1978 a young worker named Wei Jingsheng printed a poster advocating a "fifth modernization"—democracy. As he explained: 

"When people ask for democracy they are only asking for what is theirs by right. . . . Are they not justified in seizing power from overlords?"[33] 

Despite their acceptance of economic reform, however, Deng and the leaders of the Communist Party were not prepared to relinquish their own power. They answered demands for more political freedom with repression.

            Such repression only led to more and more pressure for democratic reforms even within the Chinese Communist Party. Eventually, in the spring of 1989, pro-democracy demonstrators gathered by the thousands in Beijing’s massive Tienanmen Square. Condemning the old men who still ruled China they called for an end to corruption within the Communist Party and a greater say in the selection of their leaders. As a symbol of their desire for democracy some erected a statue of the “Goddess of Democracy and Freedom”—a replica of the American Statue of Liberty.

            After a brief internal struggle, however, the non-democratic forces prevailed in the Communist Party. In June 1989 government troops used tanks and armed troops to evict the demonstrators in what became known as t5he Tienanmen Square Massacre. Despite this setback, however, as China continued to prosper economically into the 1990s, many people around the world hoped that as the old guard of the Chinese Communist Party died off more liberal, democratizing forces would re-emerge.

Japan as an Economic Superpower

In pursuing their policies of market economic reforms, the Chinese were responding to a considerable extent to the economic success story of their neighbor, Japan. Between about 1960 and 1980, Japan had blossomed from a country recovering from total defeat in war to a major world economic power. Committed to a capitalist, market-oriented economic system, the Japanese were able to turn even major challenges to their advantage. In the 1970s, for example, as rising oil prices threatened Japanese prosperity, Japanese car manufacturers rose to the challenge by developing more fuel-efficient cars. By the early 1980s, Japan actually surpassed the United States in worldwide car sales.[34]

            Prosperity in the automobile industry was matched in other areas as well. By the end of the 1970s, Japan was out-producing the United States in television sets, the Swiss in watches, and the Germans in cameras. By the end of the 1970s Japan’s steel industry also matched that of the United States. Over the next decade, Japan overtook American and European companies in the production of high quality high technology products—such things as computers and certain computer components, machine tools, calculators, and telecommunications equipment.

            As Japanese exports rose, Japan also limited the growth of imports. The result was a growing Japanese trade surplus. With this growing wealth, Japan invested heavily in the economies of other countries, including Europe and the United States. By the early 1990s, the Japanese economy had overtaken that of the Soviet Union as the second largest economy in the world. Japan had become an economic superpower. Japanese investors bought foreign companies and real estate, including such landmarks as Rockefeller Center in New York City.

            Japan’s growing wealth allowed Japanese to buy goods from all over the world. As they did so, Japanese culture also changed dramatically. American influences were especially heavy. New sports, such as golf and baseball, became national obsessions. American music and films became a staple in the diet of Japanese young people. Underlying it all, however, Japan retained its own way of doing things. Fearful of losing many traditional arts and crafts, for example, the Japanese government began to recognize some traditional artisans and artists as “Living National Treasures.”

            Even in industry, Japanese traditions were harnessed to improve efficiency and productivity. Factory workers, for example, were encouraged to transfer the loyalty they had once had for their families and feudal lords to their companies—even as the companies undertook to provide for their employees. One British observer perhaps expressed the Japanese approach to western cultural adaptations in general in an observation concerning Japanese attitudes to food: 

“They have done to our food what they have done to our language: assimilated odds and ends and adapted them to their own ends.”[35] 

The Four Tigers

Japan's success inspired others besides the Chinese. In addition, the growing Japanese economy created a new sphere of dynamic economic growth in the Pacific region and throughout much of Southeast Asia. Four countries that both benefited from the dynamism of the Japanese market and successfully followed the Japanese model, with variations to suit local conditions, were South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore—the so-called Four Tigers (or sometimes Dragons) of Asia.

            At the end of the Korean War in 1953, for example, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Its government, while staunchly anti-communist, was almost equally anti-democratic. First under President Syngman Rhee and then under General Park Chung Hee, the government in Seoul suppressed most dissent. At the same time, it actively promoted economic development. It encouraged investment in such basic industries as steel and textiles, and it rigidly circumscribed the activities of labor unions, thereby keeping wages low. Exports boomed, and the economy grew rapidly.

            As in China, economic growth brought demands for political liberalization. With strong encouragement by the United States, South Korea's principal ally, President Roh Tae Woo gradually relaxed press censorship and restrictions on opposition political parties.

            Taiwan too prospered even though it remained divided from mainland China under the Nationalist government of Chiang Kaishek and his successors. For many years, Nationalist rule in Taiwan was authoritarian and oppressive. As in South Korea, the government concentrated on economic expansion. Taiwan became one of the most active traders in the world economy. As in South Korea, economic growth produced pressure for political reform. Gradually the Kuomintang tolerated the development of political opposition and allowed freer elections.

            Perhaps the most successful of the Four Tigers was Hong Kong, which absorbed some 5 million refugees from mainland China while remaining economically strong and dynamic. A British colony since 1842, Hong Kong was scheduled to revert to Chinese control in 1997. The inhabitants of Hong Kong wondered how their city-state would survive the transition. China’s economic reforms were a promising sign, but the growing repression of the Communists in the 1990s worried many in Hong Kong. In an effort to anticipate the eventual reunion with China, in the 1980s and 90s the British Governor of the colony moved forcefully to establish a full-fledged democratic institutions in the colony—hoping that they would prevail even after 1997.

            Singapore provided perhaps the best example of how a socialist movement could make the transition to capitalism successfully. From 1965 until 1990, Lee Kuan Yew, the head of the People’s Action Party, led the government of Singapore. Originally a socialist, Lee believed that a firm hand by government was most conducive to economic growth. Once in power, however, he soon became a devoted advocate of market economics and controlled capitalism. As Lee himself later explained: 

“The question was how to make a living . . . a matter of life and death for two million people. . . . How this was to be achieved, by socialism or free enterprise, was a secondary matter. The answer turned out to be free enterprise, tempered with the socialist philosophy of equal opportunities for education, jobs, health and housing.”[36] 

As measured by statistics, Lee's argument was hard to rebut. Singapore soon became the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia. Foreigners sometimes criticized the repressive politics of Lee and his successors, but locals tended not to—partly because they appreciated the benefits of economic growth, partly because they did not want to get thrown in jail.