Monday, July 15, 2013

The "Experts" on Japan in the '80s, China Today

Back in the 1980s a vast literature analyzing contemporary Japan emerged in the West, and certainly the United States. It became so pervasive, and so influential, that writers about other subjects never missed a chance to comment on the matter, while the concern manifested itself in Hollywood features like Gung Ho and Michael Crichton novels like Rising Sun.1

The larger part of this output was the sheerest drivel, discredited just a short time later.2 (It was taken, for granted, that Japan would never be a great exporter of pop culture, a claim that is now unbelievably embarrassing.) However, worthwhile or not, this stream of writing largely ran dry by the mid-1990s, because American observers had largely discounted Japan as a serious rival--a function of Japan's asset bubble's bursting at the start of the decade, while the United States was becoming heady over its own tech bubble, leading to a new triumphalism, and the end of meaningful debate about the course of the American economy.3 After NAFTA and GATT and Windows 95 the country was committed to neoliberal globalization, and the service-information-FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) economy; to the idea that its way was the only viable one in a globalizing world, and that the other courses charted by Japan (and Germany) were paths to nowhere. Europe was synonymous with Eurosclerosis, Japan with the "lost decade," and no matter how hard or how long an Eamonn Fingleton, for example, tried to argue otherwise, the mainstream was simply not willing to give any alternative perspective a hearing.

Of course, Americans have been mindful of China's double-digit growth during these years, which in the first decade of the twenty-first century saw it edge out Japan to become the world's second-largest economy--and had many observers saying that before long it would be first. However, we have not seen anything comparable to that literature emerge in response to China's rise. That is not to say that the country's boom has not been extensively written about, because it very clearly has. Nor is it to say that writers on the subject have refrained from alarmism and xenophobia, because they very clearly have not. Rather, it is to say that where in the '80s we saw enormous, even obsessive, interest in Japanese business methods, in the sociology of Japanese economic life, and in Japanese culture and society more broadly, we have seen comparatively little interest in these aspects of Chinese life.4

I suppose this is in part because the idea of an Asian economic superpower is no longer so novel; because there is less of a tendency to see international politics in stark bipolar terms, or as a competition between social systems, than there was at the Cold War's end; because China is still playing catch-up (its per-capita output, living standards and overall development still far behind the industrialized nations); and because China's success to date does not seem at all mysterious, instead largely attributed to the government's ruthless practice of export-oriented mercantilism and vast supply of cheap labor in a globalizing world.5 Part of it, too, would seem to be the fact of diminished public interest in foreign news and social science, and that writing on the Middle East (again, mostly drivel, though that's another story) has drawn much of what such interest remains in them during the past decade. And it is also the case that the debate which ended in 1995 has not restarted, despite the calamitous events of the last five years.

Whatever one has to say about other aspects of Western authors' response to China's long boom, that last fact should be deeply worrying to all concerned.

1. I recall, for instance, Len Deighton's history of the early years of World War II, 1993's Blood, Tears and Folly, which relates how the United States and Britain fared against Germany and Japan during the war to the then-current debate about Anglo-American economic competitiveness against Germany and Japan in the 1990s.
2. Western observers do not seem to have been totally at fault for this. In many cases they repeated what was being claimed by Japanese observers--many of those '80s-era oversimplifications appearing in Shintaro Ishihara's own The Japan That Can Say No, for example. Among these is the idea of Japan's industrial success as fundamentally rooted in culture, microeconomic rather than macroeconomic, with much made of the country's corporate culture as the key. There is, too, the idea of Japan as a society which refines others' innovations (craftsmanship over metaphysics, to paraphrase Ishihara). Equally Shintaro gives short shrift to the significance of the asset bubble by then obvious to all, or that the country was reaching the limits of its export-driven growth strategy, and blithely assumes that the country's boom would continue indefinitely.
3. Few observers seem to have noticed the end of debate at that time. The sole exception I am familiar with is French sociologist Emmanuel Todd, who makes the point explicitly in his book After the Empire.
4. That is not to say no interest--as this round-up of titles George J. Gilboy offered a few years back demonstrates--but much less than was the case with Japan two decades earlier. Moreover, the interest in Chinese business practices seems more reflective of concern with actually doing business with the country rather than its treatment as a model for others.
5. We also did not see such a literature regarding the success of the "Tiger" economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore) because their smallness makes them less of a concern. That South Korea is a country of fewer than 50 million limits its impact on the international economic scene, regardless of how prosperous the country becomes.

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