Hunting down the Asian tigers

Learning how to imitate and borrow from the rest of the world has been the main strength of East Asia's booming economies
Over the last year, the Asian tigers have arrived in Britain. At the Tory conference last autumn, John Major launched the idea of Britain as the enterprise centre of Europe, or to put it another way, that we should see ourselves as Europe's tiger. Not to be outdone, Tony Blair has peppered recent speeches with references to the Asian tigers. In January, he made the trip to East Asia in what has almost become a pilgrimage for politicians: Europe has become a problem and East Asia some kind of Mecca.

The most dramatic conversion, though, has been that of Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong and sage of the Tory left. Until last November, and despite having been out in the region since 1992, he had almost nothing to say about what we might learn from Asia: his pronouncements had overwhelmingly concentrated on what Asia could learn from Britain.

Then, in a U-turn, he suggested that the economic success of the Asian tigers cannot be unrelated to the fact that governments in these countries spend 25 per cent or less of GDP compared with more than 40 per cent in Europe. He shows no sign of repenting. In an interview for The End of the Western World on BBC2 last night, he suggested that European governments would be forced to move in the direction of the Asian tigers much quicker than anyone currently imagines.

We should not exaggerate what this political interest in Asia means. But placed in historical context, this assumes a broader significance. Traditionally, British politicians have looked to the United States and western Europe for inspiration and example. For the last 150 years, with the exception of Japan, which was the only non-western country to commence its industrialisation in the 19th century, Europe and the US have enjoyed a monopoly of modernity. For a while parts of the left looked to the former Soviet Union, but this was always a minority interest. The idea that the political mainstream should look beyond the traditional advanced world is something new.

It is a reflection of the growing power and success of East Asia. We are witnessing the first signs of a new cultural traffic; in the past, the flow has overwhelmingly been from west to east. In the future it will increasingly be from east to west. It is the beginnings of the Asianisation of western politics.

The underlying force at work is the economic transformation of East Asia. There is no need to repeat in detail what is already fairly familiar. The original Asian tigers - those that commenced their economic ascent in the Fifties - now enjoy living standards comparable to southern Europe. It is these countries - Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong - that have been attracting most attention. They have gone from rural backwardness to industrial modernity in four decades. It took us two centuries.

The second tier, such as Malaysia, whose take-off began in the Seventies, are advancing in leaps and bounds. But it is the third tier, including China and Indonesia, that promises to tilt the world on its axis in the next century.

Who knows where East Asia will be in 50 years' time? The future can never be extrapolated from current trends, however secure they seem to be. The triumphalist mood that suffused East Asian growth two or three years ago has given way to a more sombre debate.

Paul Krugman, the Stanford economist, for example, has argued that the Asian miracle is nothing exceptional, but simply the predictable consequence of throwing large amounts of labour and capital at the production process. He is too pessimistic. Unlike the old Soviet bloc, the Asian tigers are climbing up the technological tree. By the early years of the next century, the more advanced tigers will be not far short of Western levels of development. The centre of gravity of the global economy has already shifted eastwards: that process will continue apace. For almost half a millennium, Europe and latterly the United States have enjoyed a virtual monopoly of modernity: that era is coming to a close.

So far the claims for the Asian tigers have been confined to their economic power. But with economic power comes political and cultural influence. Asia will come to assert that, though it will take time.Japan is an interesting case in point. Over the last 20 years it has achieved Western levels of development - in some areas it is the world leader - but its political and cultural influence still lags well behind its economic power. Slowly that will change.

As yet, the tigers certainly don't think in these terms. Their ebullience is all about growth rates and economic ambition. The idea that they can teach us a thing or two is still a fairly alien concept for them. This is hardly surprising. Historically their relationship with the West has been based on respect and a desire to learn. They have looked westwards for inspiration for centuries. They still think of themselves as learners rather than exemplars. But there are already signs of change. Growing economic confidence is beginning to find expression in a rediscovery of national and the regional identities.

Modernisation in these countries is a highly complex process, a constant interaction of the national and the global, the Asian and the Western. It is certainly quite wrong to think that as these countries modernise, they will get more and more like us. The heyday of Western influence in Taiwan, for example, was probably the Seventies and early Eighties. Since then, the country has increasingly tended to look to East Asia, not least Japan and Hong Kong, for its lead.

The West, for its part, has also been slow to think in terms of Asia as a political and cultural force. For centuries, the West has enjoyed a virtual monopoly of modernity. We never dreamt that we could learn anything from what we have seen as colonies, former colonies, or simply backward countries and cultures. We are not accustomed to the idea that we will increasingly have to share modernity with another continent and very different cultures.

It would be wrong, however, to think that the rise of East Asia will be a re-run of earlier periods of British or American hegemony. The new era of globalisation promises to be different and more interesting. There will be no simple hierarchy or pecking order. Instead, the world will be a far more complex place, there will be many players, intense competition and a constant process of borrowing, learning and leapfrogging. Modernity in the 20th century will be hybrid drawing on many different cultures, traditions and role-models.

One reason is that ideas now travel around the globe with incredible speed. Guandong province in southern China combines the traditional with the modern in a way that was unthinkable even a decade ago. Another reason is that intensifying global competition forces countries to go in search of best practice wherever it may be found. No country can afford to ignore it for too long.

A classic example was Japan's lean production revolution. It set a new benchmark for manufacturing. Every car firm throughout the world, for example, was forced to copy or die. The argument that European governments should emulate the tigers and spend a smaller proportion of GDP is an acceptance that global competition imposes constraints on every nation. That doesn't mean that every government will spend the same proportion of GDP, but there will be a levelling tendency. The new global order will contain two contradictory and countervailing pressures, one towards homogeneity and the other towards diversity.

The growing interest displayed by British politicians in the Asian tigers is a welcome development. Nations that succeed in future will be those that are porous to new ideas from wherever they may come. So far, though, it must be said, that interest has been of a pretty predictable and instrumentalist kind. The tigers have been treated as a political football. The Conservatives have tried to appropriate them as living proof that free market ideas work. Labour, in response, has pointed to the role of the state in the transformation of these countries. This is all primitive stuff. The truth is that the tigers are quite different from Europe.

It is impossible to read these societies in terms of the traditional fault-lines of British politics. These societies come from different histories and are rooted in different cultures from our own. To reduce their significance to party-political point-scoring is to miss the point. The challenge is far bigger than this kind of argument can ever admit.

Take the question of the state, for example. It is certainly true that government in all the Asian tigers spends far less than is the case in Europe. And the main reason is that it does not assume anything like the same kind of responsibility for welfare. But that does not mean that the state does not play a crucial role in the development of these societies. On the contrary, government is generally far more pro-active than in Europe. The Asian tradition of government is simply different: generally, it is less ideological, more pragmatic, more interventionist and more authoritarian. And the reasons are twofold: firstly, their economic transformation has been achieved under very different conditions and secondly, the state bears a different cultural relationship to society.

A Taiwanese academic, for example, recently suggested to me that the relationship between the state and the people was akin to the relationships in a Chinese family: it is inconceivable that Westerners would speak in such terms.

It is foolish to think there are any simple lessons to be learnt from Asia. We know it is difficult enough to copy from the United States or Germany; learning from Taiwan or South Korea is a far trickier process. What may work in one culture may prove quite alien in another.

On the other hand, there is no question that studying how countries quite different from our own do things can help to expand the imagination, especially in our search for new political parameters.

Yet there is one general lesson, however, that Britain could learn lock, stock and barrel from the Asian tigers. Without much doubt they have been the most successful economies in the world over the last few decades. And the key to their success has been a willingness to learn from the rest of the world, a thirst for innovation, and a strong sense of national priorities.

They are immensely dynamic societies, addicted to change and prepared constantly to reinvent themselves. In contrast, we remain insufficiently porous to the outside world, resistant to change and weighed down by a past which consistently thwarts efforts to redefine ourselves. If we could learn to be a little more like them, it would be greatly to our advantage.