Taiwan In Japan's Footsteps
by Daniel Pipes
Neither Social Darwinism nor Marxism provided an accurate key to the future. The question remains whether twentieth century theories of progress will be any more successful.
I should like to offer a theoretical argument that small states need not go through the entire process that the major states before them had undergone. Instead, they can skip ahead. Finland is a good example of this phenomenon in Europe, Taiwan in East Asia. I call this the neighborhood effect.
To account for the neighborhood effect, I shall offer in the following pages an approach to modernization (the process of becoming modern) that concentrates on cultural influence. Looking specifically at Taiwan, this approach suggests that its intense modernization of the past four decades results in large part as a result of breakthroughs achieved by the Japanese. Put negatively, Taiwan would not be where it is today without the Japanese model.
Before making this argument, I would like to begin with some thoughts on what is perhaps the single most central issue of our age: Why do some countries modernize and others stay back?
What Causes Modernization?
A half century ago, answers to this question were easy to find. At that time, all the advanced countries shared a host of common elements: Christian and European heritages, light skin coloring and folded eyelids, northern location, democratic politics, capitalist institutions, and industrial economies. An analyst could pick any one of these elements and call it key, and who could nay-say him? This is, in fact, what happened. Even Max Weber (1864-1920), the great social theorist, saw capitalism tied to the culture of the West.
The Japanese achievement already challenged these notions a half century ago, yet Japan was still enough isolated and enough behind that it could be ignored. Then, from the mid-1960s, Japan became too big to ignore. Its achievements rendered out-of-date all those theories based on European exceptionalism. Its record conclusively showed Weber wrong in thinking that Asian culture obstructs modernization. The analysts eventually adapted to circumstances, and even managed to find enough common features (including feudalism and a Renaissance) to show that Japan had, afterall, recapitulated the Western course of development.
Japan had to be seen in a new light: no longer a poor, semi-feudal, unstable, and authoritarian country, it became one capable of beating the West at its own game. In recent years, it has emerged as the country which, more than any other, offers a vision of the future. Still, the change in view was major; Japan's achievement meant that the definitions had to be changed and the viewpoint enlarged.
When the newly industrialized countries (NICs) of East Asia µ South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore µ came along, they presented a wholly new challenge. If it was relatively easy to argue the exceptionalism of Japan µ a major country with a long tradition of high civilization µ these four fragments of countries were much harder to incorporate. They shared only a Confucian heritage and a common problem with political irregularity.
Even as the record of these countries is being assimilated, more states (such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia) have appeared in the distant wings and seem likely to move on to the stage before very long. If they do, it will probably be even more difficult to isolate those factors which lead to modernization.
These developments make the attempt to explain modernization highly risky. The growing roster of modernized states makes it ever harder for the analyst to find the critical factors which account for modernity; any single cause can be refuted. South Korea, where the government controls nearly all capital investment, gainsays a free market explanation. Why does corporatism seem to work in South Korea but not in Argentina? The very different careers of such divided countries as the two Germanys and Koreas and the four parts of China (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and the Peoples Republic) show that culture cannot overcome a deficient system. Even European countries pose difficult questions. How is it that Iceland leaped so quickly to the forefront of modernity and Ireland did not? Are Portugal and Albania always going to bring up the rear?
If recent developments pose real problems, they also offer analytic advantages. The growing list of modern countries means that more examples and evidence can be brought to bear in the search for the keys to modernity. In contrast to a half century ago, some hypotheses can now be eliminated: Christianity, for example, is clearly not a critical factor, and the same goes for racial type. And as the explanation of modernization is shorn of its Western bias, the prospect emerges emerges that Western states will have to "Japanize."
Still, the issues are so difficult, the same feature can be interpreted in diametrically opposite ways. Here are a few examples of the changes wrought by the NICs:
1. Until the 1960s, analysts saw Confucianism as an obstacle to modernization, concentrating on such features as the disdain for merchants and wealth. Just twenty years later, with Japan and the Four Tigers riding high, Confucianism has been turned into a positive force. Analysts now point to its many positive elements: the stress on education, the call for hard work, the premium on entrepreneurship, the positive view of austerity, social mobility, group loyalty, and submission to authority. Confucianism is even seen as "parallel" to the Protestant ethic and a facilitator of modernization.
2. Possession of natural resources went through a similar re-evaluation, as James Riedel explains:
There was a time when being well-endowed with natural resources was considered a distinct advantage. That was before the mineral-poor, land-scarnce East Asian NICs outperformed everyone, including the oil-exporting countries. Conventional wisdom was then turned on its head µ lucky is the country that has no mining sector and few farmers. The exceptional performance of the extremely well-endowed countries of Southeast Asia might be expected to change once again the fashion of thinking on this point.
3. Comparing South Korea with North Korea points up the importance of ideology and system; comparing South Korea with the Philippines points up the importance of culture. Which is more valid?
Knowing so little about causes means that analysts have little idea on which horse to bet. Just after World War II, knowledgeable observers would have put their money on Turkey as the non-Western country most likely to succeed. It had everything: a good resource base, developed infrastructure, integration into the world economy, a sizeable market, and a population possessing consirable skills. In contrast, Japan µ destroyed by the ravages of war, bereft of natural resources µ looked forelorn.
In the effort to clarify the discussion of modernization, I would now like to offer a scale by which to rank countries.
Leaders and Laggards
Modernization is achieved in either of two ways: through indigenous achievement or through the acceptance of others' innovations. Leaders break new ground; laggards learn from others. This distinction is quite clean, for breakthroughs tend not to be repeated; once invented, a powerful idea spreads universally. Greek philosophy was elaborated only once, then carried to all parts of the world; the same applies to the alphabet, the compass, nationalist ideology, and the computer. The few exceptions to this pattern (the printing press and gunpowder, which were separately invented in both China and Europe) tend to confirm the general rule.
How does one identify a leader? While societies can all be placed on a continuum between modernity and primitiveness, the condition of modernity is fundamentally an imprecise concept which cannot be measured. Indices which quantify modernity are tempting to draw up and use, but the precision they suggest is spurious. Economic development can be quantified to be sure, but µ and this is a key assumption of my inquiry µ economics are but one dimension of modernity. Modernity being a matter of human skills, it can be defined but not measured.
In fact, it is often unclear which society is ahead. Which is today more modern, India or China, Iraq or Kuwait? Clearly, the United States and Japan are at the top of the list, the Central African Republic and Bolivia are at the bottom, but less stark gradations are difficult to make. Leadership can at times be fractured; even if there is not always a single clear-cut leader in all fields, the various contenders share a great deal in common. This was true of the European states in the nineteenth century; and it is today, when the United States is probably the leader overall but Japan leads in some respects and the U.S.S.R. has the greatest military strength in some areas.
Although there is no set of quantitative indices to measure modernity, it is usually clear which countries are in the forefront. They are the ones which have power and so serve as a beacon to the laggards. They have the most powerful state, the most advanced financial institutions, the most far-reaching transportation network, and the most influential culture. "The essence of leadership is the capacity to set an agenda, organise coalitions, and to achieve a decision on implementing global problems."
Writers dealing with modernization tend to be overly impressed by Europe in recent centuries. Its accomplishments have been formidable, of course; but they differed only in magnitude µ not in kind µ from what came before. Modernity did not begin recently in Europe; it is, rather, a condition that has existed for thousands of years. Similarly wrong is the widespread asumption that the modernization process in Europe is unprecedented. Rather, modernization has existed since the beginning of human civilization. Its progress during the past two centuries has been unique in terms of rapidity and geographic extent, but the essential features recall what came earlier. We witness today a speeded up, more intense version of a process underway for at least five thousand years.
The definition of modernity in this study is very simple: modernity consists of the most advanced ideas and techniques, whatever those might be.
This definition has distinct implications both for the individual and for society. For the individual, modernity implies specialization. Take an extreme case: each person in a tribe of hunters and gatherers has the competence to accomplish all tasks known to the tribe. He can hunt, pick berries, repair clothing, make shoes, build fires, raise children, nurse the ill, and so forth. At the opposite extreme, no one in New York City is capable of learning more than the tiniest fraction of skills present in that city.
The more advanced an undertaking, the more it depends on specialized abilities. Almost anyone can make a cloth shoe that fits poorly, barely holds out the elements, and quickly falls apart; but it takes considerable technical knowledge to make a stitched leather shoe with rubber soles. The same distinction applies to agriculture, scholarship, and the arts.
For a society as a whole, modernity reflects the specialized skills of its members. An abundance of specialized skills increase the society's potential; or, in the felicitous phrase of Marshall G. S. Hodgson, they enhance its social power. Modernity means that the collectivity has the ability to bring skills to bear on an undertaking. While most clearly evident in warfare, this ability holds for commerce, education, and culture. The ancient Egyptians brought their social power to bear on the Pyramids, the Romans on civil administration, the Sui and T'ang Chinese on river works, the medieval Muslims on long-distance trade, and the U.S.S.R. on building an arsenal.
There is nothing anti-modern about tradition; indeed tradition (or traditionalism) has no bearing on modernity and backwardness. Religious beliefs, social forms, and educational patterns may suit the most advanced ideas and techniques, or they may not; there is no way of predicting in advance. The Protestant approach to worldly gain and the Jewish emphasis on education turned out to suit twentieth-century modernity very well; some day they may not. Conversely, Indian and Muslim traditions impeded modernity. But nothing is static, and nothing can be predicted. As Shigenobu Okuma (1838-1922) put it, "the civilization of the world never stays stationary." Just as Protestants and Jews may one day find their heritages less functional, so may the Indians and Muslims some day find theirs advantageous. The relationship between old and new is infinitely subtle; as Edward Seidensticker observes, "what seems newest may in fact be tradition reemerging."
The true opposite of modernity is not tradition but backwardness. In its extreme form, this condition should be called primitiveness. Unfortunately, this word has been driven out of polite society; nowadays one has to make do with euphemisms.
Modernity contains no moral content and has nothing to do with virtue. The modern country is not necessarily better or happier than the backward one µ it simply disposes of greater power. Power can be used for constructive or destructive uses.
Modern societies can be very different from each other. Leaders are distinguished, rather, by the advancement of their culture; this matters even more than a high standard of living or military might.
In particular, modernity need not imply wealth. It usually does, but wealth does not inhere to the definition. Economics is just one facet of advancement, not its essence. Wealth is not synonymous with modernity. Inherited wealth or abundant minerals do not make a people modern. In isolation, wealth means little. To see this, consider the countries that have enjoyed enormous wealth from oil exports. Mexico, Nigeria, and Indonesia did not thereby become modern countries; nor did Qatar become a world leader in anything but per capita consumption. The United Arab Emirates became the richest country on earth during the 1970s, but hardly the most modern. Indeed, so un-modern was it, over 90 percent of its labor force had to be imported. Conversely, though most of Western Europe was impoverished after World War II, that was a momentary condition that implied nothing about the modernity of Europeans.
These examples are exceptional, to be sure, for modernity does normally imply wealth. But they do point to a key fact µ the lack of a strict correlation between between wealth and modernity. Wealth is no more an indicator of modernity than is skill at music or sports. All of these skills tend to go hand-in-hand with advancement; still, they are not the motor force of modernization µ only its most evident symptoms.
The same goes for military power; indeed, the U.S.S.R is rendered less modern by its multitude of missiles and soldiers. Nor does political stability determine much. While it is true that the industrial democracies have achieved an equilibrium almost without precedent (the closest competitor might be the early Egyptian dynasties), leaders are sometimes highly unstable. Even in recent centuries, the most advanced countries have often been unstable. The states of Renaissance Italy squabbled endlessly, France in the eighteenth century never achieved a balance, and what need one say about Weimar Germany?
Modernity has to do, rather, with the development of skills. Those skills lead to a higher standard of living just as they lead to musical achievement, sports prowess, armed strength, and political stability.
Modern societies share two main qualities in common. First, because they can bring more resources to bear, leaders tend to overwhelm laggards. At a minimum, this causes economic and cultural dependence, at most it leads to the extermination of whole populations. Diseases, armies, culture, and wealth are all part of modernity's arsenal. The diseases of a few Spanish explorers spread to the Indians of South America and eliminated large proportions of the population; a few British contingents overpowered Indian forces many times their number, then ruled almost without serious challenge for many decades; China's formidable civilization enabled it to absorb wave after wave of conquerers and gain influence over surrounding areas; and multinational corporations greatly extend the influence of the United States.
Second, the more modern a society, the more it has been subject to external influence. A primitive society can exist in cultural isolation, but forging to the front always implies building on gains made elsewhere. By the very nature of their success, leaders are receptive to foreign ways. Those who begrudge alien influences cannot move to the top. This leads us to the next topic, how a society becomes modern.
I propose a new definition of modernization: it is the act of acquiring ever-more advanced, and therefore specialized skills.
This definition differs from the usual one in three ways. It is not limited in time; the conventional view limits modernization to recent centuries. It is not restricted to the non-Western world; the conventional view sees only the non-West as modernizing (even though the West has gone through the identical process). It is not limited to laggards; leaders also undergo a process of modernization.
Leaders have always influenced laggards; the modernization effort did not start in recent times but has been underway since the very origins of civilization over four thousand years ago. For laggards, modernization means trying to catch up with the leaders. In one sense this is not hard, for advanced methods spread of their own accord. Influence radiates from the centers of civilization to the peripheries, from the cosmopolitan cities to the countryside, from the advanced states to the primitive ones. "The history of civilization is a history of the expansion of particularly attractive cultural and social patterns through conversion of barbarians to modes of life they found superior to their own." Whoever comes into contact with modern techniques must deal with them, whether because of military conquest or cultural attraction. In previous eras, the Egyptians, Jews and Iranians learned from Hellenistic civilization, the Koreans and Japanese from Chinese civilization, the Malays from Indian civilization, and sub-Saharan Africans with Middle East influences. Today, everyone must deal with the West.
In another sense, however, there is nothing more difficult than to learn from others how to modernize. Normally, confrontation with a country disposing of more wealth and power takes place under adverse circumstances µ defeat on the battlefield, slavery, or economic decline. In these conditions, it is not surprising that the challenge of modernity leads many to act emotionally, even irrationally. Further, because the leader is alien, the absorption of modern ways is that much harder.
Modernization can take place under varying conditions: foreign occupation, military threat, trade, or pure intellectual exchange. Indians modernized while ruled from London; Japanese modernized as the imperialists probbed their coasts for weaknesses; the ancient Greeks learned from the Middle East mainly through trade; and Indian culture of the Gupta era (ca. 320-535 a.d.) spread without any coercion at all.
The points made here µ that modernity is at base a matter of specialized skills; that relations between the West and the rest of the world recall those between leaders and laggards throughout history; and that modernization began over four thousand years ago µ suggest a radically new way to see modernization.
Because the process of modernization consists in the first place of a laggard learning from a leader, it usually includes a number of similar elements. Imagine the trajectories of leader and laggard as the glass of a sideways hourglass; the two civilizations start far apart, come close together, then diverge again, as far as they were originally. This process includes three main stages: convergence, proximity, and divergence.
Convergence. First, the leader extends its influence. Though superior force is not strictly required (as the Indian influence on China and Chinese influence on Japan make clear), it is most often the catalyst for modernization. Absent such a threat, the common practise is not to learn from aliens, for this is a painful process.
Second, the laggard absorbs the leading country's culture. This is achieved through a wide variety of mechanisms: learning the leader's language, sending students to its schools, importing its teachers, adopting its curricula, emulating its culture, and even converting to its religion µ or at least adopting its religious style.
Third, laggards imitate institutions of the leading country. The soverign, the bureaucracy, the judicial system, and the military all adapt themselves to the new model. Businesses and financial institutions do likewise.
These processes take place each time a laggard confronts a leader; they are emphatically not particular to the era of Western domination during recent centuries.
Proximity. There must be a moment when the laggard contends with the whole of the leader's civilization. This moment of proximity is exceedingly difficult to attain because it requires adaptation at a basic level, something very few countries willingly accept. The Meiji period offers the pre-eminent case in modern times. The Japanese were ready to learn from outsiders and were open to ideas; as a result, they absorbed what they needed to modernize.
Divergence. At the moment of emulation, civilizations begin to separate. After the leader's ways have been learned, the laggard follows its own path again. "It appears likely that the borrowed institutions are most Western at the point of adoption, but that in time they may evolve in other directions." After a certain point, the caught-up former laggard can no longer emulate µ something the Japanese experience has repeatedly confirmed. Labor unions in Japan, for example, "resembled those of the West more at the outset, in the nineteenth century, than today ." The police force follows this same pattern: "the high point of resemblance between the Japanese police system and its French model . . . was in the early 1880s; thereafter it developed distinctive patterns."
This trajectory implies that there is no danger of a laggard continuing to become more and more like the leader. Although a deep concern about this possiblity diminishes the willingness of those who are behind from adopting foreign practices wholesale, it is unfounded; there is no case of one civilization losing its identity to another. At a certain point, when the laggard has sufficiently caught up, the process of homogenization goes into reverse, and the two again become more different. Thus, Japan differs more from the West than any other non-Western country, precisely because it has the opportunity fully to develop its own culture.
The laggard cannot and need not become like the leader; but it can and must thoroughly immerse itself in the civilization of the leader during a short but critical period. Laggards must temporarily emulate the West, but not do so permanently, much less converge with it. The point is not to become Western, but to learn deeply from the world leader.
The Taiwan Miracle
What does one make of the Four Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore)? They are modernizing rapidly and the do seem to be going down the same path that the Japanese trail blazed a century ago; but they lack Japan's deep connection to Europe. Taiwan was until 1949 but a minor province of the Chinese and Japanese empires. It has never been a center of civilization, and even now it cannot exert influence comparable with that of Japan. Where does it fit in?
Four points need to be made here. First, the argument made here is that a connection exists between cultural exchange and modernity µ not that the cultural exchange must go both ways. Influence on the West is not necessary, the fact that the Japanese have had such a wide-ranging impact on the West suggests the Japanese achievement; they are truly leaders. Japanese influence on the West is possible in part because the modernization process began over a century ago; and in part because Japan is a demographically large and cultural powerful country.
Second, even small states begin to exchange more as they modernize. The scope is modest, to be sure, but they begin to develop artifacts, processes, and institutions that interest the outside world, and even the leaders. Taiwan is not likely ever to have Japan's cultural impact, but then Belgiium is a modern country and what impact has it had?
Third, small states need not go through the entire process that the major states before them had undergone. In Europe, Finland contributed precious little to modernity and was until World War II a cultural backwater. Indeed, it was a poor and divided country until the 1950s, making its modernization no less remarkable than Taiwan's. Finns did not need to develop the innovations on their own, they just had to accept them and benefit from them. They were part of the German cultural world or, more broadly, the European one, and they enormously benefited from that proximity. Just as Finland followed Germany, so the Four Tigers are following Japan. As Helen Hughes puts it, "neighborhoods appear to matter."
Finally, recent years have seen the emergence of what analysts call an East Asian development model, which consists, in effect, of emulating Japan. This has been most of all the case in Singapore, and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. The economic features of emulation include: high savings and investment rates, export-led industrialization, a modified form of mercantilism, high and sustained growth rates, protectionist tariffs, a government actively involved in economic affairs, labor-management peace, income equality, low taxation rates, high saving rates, and minimal welfare spending. Politically, the state is dominant but paternalistic, technocrats rule, and its legitimacy is tied to economic growth. Socially, emphasis is placed on education, harmony, a work ethic, collective solidarity, and meritocratic institutions.
Reader comments (1) on this item
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes