China is now Japan

It’s official. China is now Japan. Or, more specifically China is now the country that poor countries in the third world are supposed to be emulating. When I was just a grad student, Japan was the model the world was supposed to follow. That one at least made a bit of sense, since by the 80’s Japan was a fully first-world country (no millions living in rural poverty) and a democracy. Even then most popular evocations of “The Japan Model” were pretty silly. Japan was, like all countries, shaped by its history, but I would find it hard to recommend a period of ultra-militarism,  losing a war, and being bombed, atom bombed and occupied as a development strategy. FOARP discusses some of the problems with attempts to borrow the China model, identifying China’s strong nationalism as the reason China is such a hard model to follow.

“under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen.”

This may well be true, but it still freaks me out a bit to see how a couple decades of success can change China’s entire past. I work in an industry (Modern Chinese History) whose chief product has always been explanations for Chinese failure at nation-building. Now it looks like we are going to have start churning out the exact opposite. Well, the Japan people seem to have adjusted to going from an Asian Anomaly to a model for humanity and back, so I guess we can. And regardless of how useful the China model ends up being I’m betting there will be buyers in the Third World for the idea that being run by a corrupt one-party state is no barrier to a nation’s development.


  1. In fact it already does have buyers, check Mugabe’s aping of Mao and the Kims, his ‘sun rises in the east’ speech, his Zanu-PF flash-card jumbo-tron (lame in comparison to the NK one though). The fact that he has totally destroyed his country’s economy and driven a good portion of Zimbabwe’s population into exile means he hasn’t quite fully grasped the China lesson though . . .

  2. Ahh, but maybe he does grasp the China lesson. Obviously China would not be where it is now without the Cultural Revolution, and that at least is easy enough to copy. I doubt he could get the Japanese to invade his country, however.

  3. Let’s not forget the success of Nazi Germany in rebuilding Germany economy in the 30s.

    An authoritarian even a totalitarian regime has some advantages in mobilizing resources and pulling forward plans once a decision is taken at the top level.

    But there are side effects too.

    Wrong decisions are difficult to stop once they are started, even impossible; and sometimes dangerous to try. Remember the hunger in Ukraine after the collectivization of agriculture by Stalin, or the big jump forward by Mao. The plans become substantial to the legitimacy of the system, therefore any critic would be rejected, with violence if necessary. Besides no one dares to report the real problem for fear of being accused to work against the regime. I vicious circle is created.

    On the other hand. Centralized command structures tend to be less flexible and unable to adapt to rapid changes in the long run. In the end they are less efficient in managing resources be it natural, technological or intellectual.

    One of the reasons Germany loose the war (or reach a draw), even with its advances in key technologies was due to inferior organization and management capabilities: producing excellent weapons systems but so expensive to build that they could put far fewer on the battlefield that their opponents, lack to take advantage of decisive technologies like nuclear weapons, driving away key scientist due to ideological reasons, failure in truly mobilizing the whole society for industrial production until too late and driving away possible allies with its extreme racist oriented ideology.

    Similar reasons can be applied for the fall of the soviet union, in the end it stagnated.
    What can be expected of a society that required permission to use a xerox machine?

    Something similar is happening in China, the increasing efforts to control access to information in the internet and social networks can eventually damage the capability of the country to keep up with the advances of other societies, which do not have such need for stringent thought control. What can be expected of a country that blocks Wikipedia?

    Can you imagine China been able to provide to the world such disruptive and empowerment technologies like the personal computer, GPS, the internet, the world wide web? Or make they available to the rest of the world in a similar way those technologies has been freely given by the countries where they originated?

    The grasp of control of the CCP prevents any development of a truly civil society. That has consequences not only on the moral but in the mental sanity of the society. No healthy personal development may happen when there is such need to muffle out so many opinions, and blame problems to external cliques and conspirators.

  4. Governments love to emulate China. Japanese government can be replaced, but not the government in China. Won’t you want to have perpetual reign, instead of serving at the pleasure of the voters ? In addition to the economic prosperity lessons, these government can learn how to “harmonize” dissent, make a lot of money personally and by friends and family too.

  5. Japan was the model the world was supposed to follow. That one at least made a bit of sense,

    Until we figured out that Japan’s development actually looks a lot like Europe’s (France and Germany, rather than UK), complete with Early Modern capitalism. Then it started to look like you couldn’t develop without E.M. Capitalism. China had it, too, but the 20th century pretty well obliterated the Early Modern everything.

    Well, the Japan people seem to have adjusted to going from an Asian Anomaly to a model for humanity and back, so I guess we can.

    Actually, Japan’s gone 180 degrees and has become a negative example for demographic, financial and rights development. Between the “aging Japan”, “Lost Decade” and rising tide of neo-nationalism….. we need a new narrative, too.

  6. I fully agree with the absurdity of such national modelling. Perhaps we need to take a full step back and re-evaluate the usefulness of notions of “development” and the emulation of models at all. Is this not simply a sign of the theoretical poverty of those social science “experts” who would rehash the Cold War developmentalism of Rostow or Shils where America was purported to be the model for economic, social and scientific development, only now substituting the latest “national” success story as the model? It seems to me that the only appropriate analytical perspective to view any country’s failure or success (I would even question the value of such a project at all) whether then, or now, is the perspective of the world, and a particular state’s position within global capitalism. This is what Kenneth Pomeranz has given the China field with his “Making of a Hinterland” and his subsequent work (not to mention Bin Wong, Gunder Frank and more recently Arrighi and all the excellent work that engages with the above). The point should not be to determine which country’s national bourgeoisie-state apparatus happens to be the envy of others, but to analyze the historical and contemporary mechanisms that produce such imbalances of resources between and within regions.

  7. “Japan was the model the world was supposed to follow.”

    Yes and no… that is, I do think you’re right, but I also think it’s a eurocentric viewpoint. It seems to me that players in the non-aligned movement and international socialism in the 1950s-1970s at least semi-accepted China as a potential model of a successful socialist country (barring whatever reality may have been).

  8. I find the idea of other countries copying China slightly ironic given how often the CCP plays up “Chinese characteristics”.

  9. I certainly think China is not a country to be imitated even by authoritarian governments. The One Child Policy has created more males than females, a scary demographic reflected before wars. China is only imitatable because the US chooses to send jobs and factory equipment overseas. This is due to Chinese manipulation of the yuan, which will eventually lead to inflation. The US is now printing more money to keep up with the debt to the Chinese.
    Thus the US is working along with China for inflation. China, when it decided on capitalism, knew it could force production, but how long can it force production. We see Japan as more of aged demographic, but what will China be in 25-50 in terms of demographics? A possible
    reduction of population due to One Child, along with less selection of women for native Chinese men.

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