In the 1980s, the Japanese were taking over the world. In the 1990s, it was going to be an ‘Asian’ century. These days the pundits are betting on the ‘Chinese Age’. Like all such glib predictions, despite their superficial appeal, they mask complex undercurrents and issues that require careful study.
Michael Schuman, a business journalist, in ‘The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest for Wealth’ tries to describe the transformation that has taken place in Asia over the last 30 years. Schuman covers the post-war reconstruction built on electronics and heavy industry through to the age of outsourcing. The story is personalised and ‘The Miracle’ is at its best when recounting rich anecdotes about the politicians, such as Deng Xiaoping and Park Chung Hee, and business leaders, such as Sony’s Akio Morita and Wipro’ Azim Premji. Schuman’s snappy journalistic style adds colour and insight to the stories.
The Miracle traces the importance of globalisation of trade and capital flows as well as the role of America in the development of Asia. It perhaps understates the less than benign role played by the state in fostering economic development. The Book also is very forgiving of the political repression, social in-equalities and environmental degradation that underpin Asian development.
The defence would probably be that there are always costs to dragging millions out of poverty. In truth, the average business book reader would not be particularly concerned about those issues.
Paul Midler’s ‘Poorly Made in China’ offers a different perspective that is loquaciously captured in the lengthy sub-title ‘An Insider’s Account of the Tactics Behind China’s Production Game’ (obviously a Twitter marketing ploy!). A businessman who has worked in numerous factories in China, Midler provides interesting and, at times, scarily funny insights into a system that produces products that fail basic safety and manufacturing standards.
Midler identifies the process by which buyer demand for cheap products and the Chinese manufacturers willingness to meet the requirements lead to what he characterises in the chilling anodyne term – ‘quality fade’. This is the process by which manufacturers take increasing liberties with quality to eke out profits from unprofitable contracts. This entails cheaper components, altering chemicals, lower hygiene standards and, in general, lower everything.
Midler describes the process whereby manufacturers compete to gain unprofitable contracts to make sought after products. The sole reason is that access enables Chinese manufacturers to gain access to intellectual property allowing the manufacture of lucrative ‘knock-offs’ in places where patents and trademarks cannot be enforced.
Midler acutely records the tensions between buyer and manufacturers and the entire flawed system where ultimately the only true product control and testing is by the final consumer, sometimes, as in the case of the melamine contaminated milk, with tragic consequences
‘Poorly Made in China’ provides an interesting alternative to the hagiographic view of globalisation and trade much favoured by the Thomas Friedman’s of the world.
Underlying both ‘The Miracle’ and ‘Poorly Made in China’ is a view of the emerging world best captured by the term ‘Orientalism’, associated with Edward Said. A Palestinian academic, Said’s writings on colonialism explored the caricatures, cliches and pre-conceptions that shaped Western perception and therefore relationships with Eastern nations. Said’s argument was that the West’s view of the East was shaped by political power and unequal commercial exchange.
Said’s work built on George Orwell’s criticism of colonialism. Writing in 1939, Orwell provided a vivid and stark view of the developing world that has rarely been equalled: “When you walk through a town like this – two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in – when you see how the people live, and still more, how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon the fact. The people have brown faces – besides they have so many of them. Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees as coral insects? They arise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil.”
The unwritten sub-text is that the East is there as a resource for the West. Developments are read and interpreted through the cultural lens of Western literary and economic tradition. ‘The Miracle’ and ‘Poorly Made in China’ are books in the ‘Orientalist’ tradition, which sees Asia as little more that a vast market, a cheap manufacturing base, (recently) a source of money and an opportunity for developed nations. The books never quite see the world from the point of view of the nations and people that they describe.
‘Prisoner of the State’, the secret journal of former Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, provides something of an antidote to a Western view of East Asia.
Remembered now mostly for his disastrous role in the Tiananmen Square student protests and subsequent massacre, Zhao Ziyang was Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1980-1987, and General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1987-1989. He was involved, with Deng Xiaopeng, in the economic reform of China. Produced from smuggled tapes during his house arrest after being removed from power as a result of his role and handling of the Tiananmen Square protests, Zhao produced a memoir covering details of the crackdown, the intricate manouverings of China’s leadership, and the economic reform program.
While the focus around the book has been on the sensational events around the protests and subsequent crackdown, ‘Prisoner of the State’ provides interesting insights into the rationale behind China’s economic reforms.
Anecdotes of Zhao’ overseas trips, where he begins to gain exposure to the glittering riches of overseas economies, provides a vivid backdrop to the changes in economic policy. The interest in reforms appears driven entirely by pragmatic rather than ideological concerns, such as declining living standards, concern about food security, observed inefficiencies in productivity and fear that economic failure would mean political ruination.
Zhao’s notes were clearly predicated on ‘his’ version of history. His commentary on leadership struggles and the complex interplay of different individuals and camps are difficult to verify to those without a deep understanding of the inner workings of China. His views on the weaknesses of the system, especially the issue of corruption and the sheer difficult of political and economic management of vast complex country, are extremely relevant. They show the difficulties of making simple predictions about the evolution of China.
The book is illuminated by the hidden tragic sub-text that this is ultimately the story of a man who finds himself a victim of a system that he entirely understands and helped create. In the end, Zhao does not quite understand this irony.
Unlike other books on Asia, ‘Prisoner of the State’, despite its flaws, provides insights not found in traditional perspectives on emerging nations grounded in the simplistic world of ‘El-dollardo Economics’.