East Asia was on the downside of the Malthusian cycle when western Europe erupted into the eastern Pacific in the 1800s: populous, with many ingenious and efficient non-machine technologies for squeezing output out of very limited resources, but desperately poor. “The West” brought machine technologies and the global market. It also brought a measure of contempt for east Asia. Nearly all western observers thought the idea that the Mysterious East might catch up to the north Atlantic in any reasonable historical timeframe was absolutely ludicrous.
Malthusian poverty meant no domestic middle-class to demand domestic manufactures, and productivity levels in Asia were hopeless as far as manufactured exports were concerned. The military and political power gradient vis-à-vis the north Atlantic meant no ability to impose tariffs, even had a domestic middle class on whose demand one might be able to build a community of engineering practice and progress existed. The lack of a powerful domestic bourgeoisie meant rule by princes for whom broad-based economic growth was simply not a priority. And in general a “Confucian” religious orientation meant that right moral attitude was more important than the rationalization of techniques and methods.
As Melissa Dale says: If we were sitting here in the 1950s, we would not have predicted anything like east Asia’s miracles.
Yet we have had four: first the early industrialization of Japan, then the extraordinary drive of Japan to global north status from 1950 to 1975, then the four east Asian tigers, and now coastal China.
All that surprises...
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