The East overtakes the West


From the middle of the 17th Century when British, Dutch and other European merchants started arriving in India, the journey to the ascendancy of the West over the East had started. By the year 1850, this ascendancy had reached its apogees and was to remain until the end of World War II.

Sometime either in the 1930s or 1940S, a book appeared on the scene titled Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler. It was a subject of speculation in books on sociology, history and political science. The decline was not rapid, but there is no doubt that the economic fulcrum had shifted from the West to the East.

In the 1980s when Japan’s economy was second to that of the United States (US), many economists were predicting that Japan’s economy would overtake that of the US soon. This has not yet happened. Barely 10 years ago, we would read in reputable British magazines that by 2030, the Chinese economy would overtake that of the US. From the same magazines, we are now reading that China’s economy is now the largest in the world and that it has the largest middle class and a market for luxury goods.

We people of Africa should study histories of Japan, the Tigers and China to find out what has been the secret of their success. At the end of the World War II, some of those countries were colonies of other countries like African countries and not much richer, if at all. Within two generations, they have left Africa far behind, why?

One’s study must start with the economic and political history of Japan. The people of Nippon are to the economic history of East Asia what the people of Britain were to the economic history of Europe and North America.

The industrial revolution started in Britain and spread to the rest of the West. In Asia, the industrial revolution started in Japan and spread to the rest of what is called Pacific Rim.

From the 1630s, Japan declared itself a closed country. The Christian religion was outlawed, foreigners, especially Europeans were kept at arm’s length. This did not add anything to the strength and wealth of Japan. Some of the Japanese realised this. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the US forced the Japanese to allow American traders into certain Japanese parts.

In 1868, there was a coup against the Shogum Bakufa system of government resulting in the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese now decided that to maintain the independence of their country, they must borrow from the West education and technology. They modified their system of government, borrowing some principles from the West. They sent their students to study in European and American universities, invited western technocrats to work with their own in Japan.

By the beginning of World War I, Japan had become an industrial country, effectively competing with those of the West. After World War II, despite the destructions, Japan continued to borrow western technologies and to improve on them. By the 1980s, she had become the second richest country in the world, surpassed only by the US.

The newly-industrialised countries of the Far East acknowledge that Japan has been their role model. They have borrowed from western economic principles but have rejected the West’s insistence on the dichotomy between State and private sectors. Government and business have worked closely together.

They have shunned hostility towards the West preferring some form of collaboration, acceptance of aid, negotiating trade deals. While Japan was opening itself to Western influence, China under the emperors steadily continued its policy of keeping the Barbarians out. She built the Great Wall to achieve this end.

In 1911, the Emperor was overthrown, China became a republic. In 1949, the communist party led by Mao Zedong took over China from Chiang Kai-Shek. Mao continued to treat the capitalist West with disdain, borrowing little from it. He kept China lagging behind Japan and the smaller countries around.

In 1976, Mao died. From 1978, the most influential man in China was Deng Xiaoping who openly said it did not matter if a cat was white or black so long as it could catch the mice. He was prepared to borrow technologies from the West if they could develop and make China wealthy. China joined world institutions like World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Under Deng’s influence, China made five reforms all of which were designed to enhance efficiency in the Chinese economy. The rest is current husband.

There is no secret in the development of East Asian countries. They made reforms to remove obstacles. The Confucian ethic of hard work and frugality was adhered to religiously. They maintained political stability.

The East had overtaken the West not because the West has declined but because the East has grown faster. Some people in the West have abandoned the Max Weberian ethic that brought about industrialisation; they indulge themselves and save relatively less. n

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