August 24, 2020 in History
East Asia after Post World War II


The first post-war decades have become the world’s time of hope. In the vast expanses of Asia and Africa, colonial empires collapsed, and many people thought that new states, free from foreign control and exploitation, would immediately achieve unprecedented economic success. However, these hopes were ungrounded. The history of the so-called “Countries of the Third World” was very sad. In many cases, independence has led not to an improvement but a deterioration of their economic situation. On this background, East Asia was perhaps the only exception. Almost all its countries have managed to change their status from “developing” to “developed” ones. South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, the so-called “Asian tigers”, are among those countries. Two other countries in the region, Vietnam and China, were remaining quite poor; however, in the last twenty years, they have shown an impressive growth rate. Japan, which has turned into an industrial power before the war, has significantly improved its economic status and became, in spite of relatively small size, the second largest economy of the world. In other words, the East Asian countries can be regarded as an example of economic success. This paper aims to analyze the reasons for such rapid economic growth, and what has made this success possible. The circumstances, which made economic breakthrough of East Asia possible, are discussed. It focuses on the countries that have made the breakthrough after the Second World War, mainly China and Korea.

Developmental Dictatorship for Economic Success

After a more detailed look at East Asia, it becomes obvious that the success came to the countries, which belonged to the Confucian world until the end of the XIX century. Confucianism was the dominant ideology there; ancient Chinese served as the main language of written communication of elite; and the basis of the economy was intensive farming, primarily based on rice growing. In 1945, Korea became independent, once cleaved in half. In Vietnam, the path to independence was more tortuous, but even there, by 1954, there were two different but undeniably Vietnamese states. In China, which has never been a colony, 1945 also meant a noticeable weakening of the external influences. The fact is that Japan and the United Kingdom, two imperialist powers, which until 1939 actively intervened in Chinese domestic politics, were relegated to the background at the end of the war. Of course, Asia remained a part of the world politics; however, the majority of countries in the region still had certain freedom to choose their paths.

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In 1945, East Asia was a very sad sight. In those days, most observers were unanimous in their pessimism: it seemed to them that this region had no future. However, the countries of this region have managed to make an enormous progress. First of all, common for all of them feature became policy modernizing. By 1945, there were almost no people left, who considered that the revival of the old order and some kind of idealized antiquity may be the solution to their problems. In the Confucian world, unlike the world of Islam, religious and ideological fundamentalism was never able to become a prominent political force. By 1945, in Korea, Vietnam, and China, all the political forces were unanimous in one thing: East Asia needs follow the path of the developed countries. No one had any illusions: to overcome the gap between Asia and those countries, building of a Western-style society was necessary. In 1945, the developed world offered two ideologies: a Soviet-style state socialism and liberal capitalism of the American sample.

As appeared in 1945, East Asia had to choose between those two models. In practice, however, everything was harder. Attempts to build a society in East Asia, which would combine a liberal democracy and a market economy, were unsuccessful until the end of 1980. On one hand, the pro-Western countries really built capitalism, but this capitalism was illiberal; that is why, those states quickly turned into the dictatorship. On the other hand, attempts to build Soviet-style socialism in East Asia using the Marxist-Leninist philosophy led to the emergence of societies, not similar to that sample.

Later, it became clear that the choice of East Asia in 1945 was not between a liberal capitalist democracy and socialism of the Soviet type; the real alternative was different: either “developmental dictatorship” or “Maoist socialist dictatorship”. At the same time, all participants of ideological disputes had one unifying feature – pragmatic nationalism was a priority for them. Despite many exceptions, politicians of East Asia came to Western ideologies from a practical point of view: first of all, both communism and liberal democracy were social technologies, which should be used in order to create a powerful, modern state. In China, the mainland has taken the path of Maoist socialism, while the breakaway Taiwan and Singapore have chosen capitalist dictatorship of development. In Vietnam and Korea, the northern part of the country has taken the communist path, and southern part has chosen the capitalist one. However, then the situation has become more complicated; until 1980, the economic inefficiency of the Maoist version has become clear to everyone. As a result, Vietnam and China, while maintaining formally communist rhetoric, started to copy the model of their opponents.

China as an Example of Economic Boom

The Chinese Communist Party took the Soviet model of development. The experience of the Soviet Union was borrowed at all levels. Mao Zedong began to claim a leading role in the communist movement. In the late 50’s, China withdrew from the course, agreed with Soviet Union, and started forced industrialization with the aim to catch up with advanced countries. This experiment, initiated by Mao Zedong, was called a “great leap” and was launched in 1958. The “great leap” aimed to transform China into one of the most economically developed countries in a very short period of time. However, the “great leap” ended in complete failure. It cost the Chinese people in 100 billion yuan. Industrial production was declined, economic ties were broken, famine began in some regions. The work was organized on the basis of military discipline; markets were eliminated in the cities and villages; trade was prohibited. Such negative changes destroyed incentives to improve work, and instead of getting a large harvest, productivity in the country sharply decreased.

The elimination of serious consequences of the “great leap” several years were spent. During this time, Mao Zedong was preparing a new experiment called “cultural revolution” (1966-1976). In the late 70’s, Deng Xiaoping returned and made a number of important reforms. The first of those reforms was the restructuring of agriculture. The cooperatives were dissolved; the villagers received land in long lease; they were allowed to sell most of the crop at free prices, and only a certain amount they donated to public order. Farmers’ gains increased significantly. Almost simultaneously the creation of special economic zones started. Because of these economic zones, China received foreign investment, modern technologies, and the experience of modern production. The rejection of centralized directive plan and the transition to a market economy were achieved. It was decided to reform the management of science and technology for its modernization as soon in accordance with the requirements of the scientific and technological revolution. Some reforms consolidated and strengthened the national currency, improved tax system. An important feature of the highly successful economic reforms in China, was that they were not carried out “at any price”, but accompanied with the rise of living standards.


The history of East Asia in the second half of the XX century can be seen as the story of triumph. No other region of the world managed to achieve similar rates of economic growth, improve education and life expectancy. However, the huge price was paid for this success: civil wars, terrorism, and social experiments; they caused massive hunger strikes destroyed millions of lives. The economic success of “dictatorship of development,” that managed to find its place in the world capitalist economy, was largely based on the sufferings of one or two generations of people, who had to play the role of a cheap and deprived of rights “labor force.” Apparently, historians still argue about whether a third way was possible, in which economic growth and the eradication of poverty would be connected with respect for human rights, not to mention about social equality. In addition, the developmental dictatorship was lucky as it entered the historical arena at the time when the developed countries had an opportunity and need to bring a number of low- and medium-tech industries to the third world countries. Developmental dictatorship skillfully took advantage of this historic moment. Thus, both local characteristics and that special moment were quite unique, so that the experience of the East Asian dictators could hardly be copied. At the beginning of the XXI century, the countries of East Asia, especially China, have become the leading and highly developed countries in the world.


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