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After the Second World War, East Asia was facing multiple political and economic problems. Few would predict that four countries in the region would be the best example of successful development: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea embarked on an unprecedented economic transition. In the beginning of the 1960s they were all low-income countries. Rapid and sustained economic growth and equal income distribution provided for by intelligent industrial policy, with some state intervention turned them into some of the world’s richest countries by the end of the century.
In this article we will present the decisive economic and political factors in each of four tigers’ trajectory, and what they teach us about economic development.
Hong Kong’s Positive Non-interventionism
The city of Honk Kong was a British protectorate until 1997. Thus, its economic development in the 20th century was made under colonial rule. The economy was devastated after the Japanese occupation in WWII and the embargo from China during the Korean War. Nevertheless, it was able to produce an industrial take-off in the 1950s. The reasons for this take-off are twofold: first, the city benefited from capital and know-how brought from refugees from communist China; secondly, the colonial authorities opted for a liberal approach to policymaking.
The authorities, headed by Sir John Cowperthwaite (financial minister from 1951 to 1971), chose a laissez-faire policy, with openness to trade and to capital flows, low taxes, balanced budgets and the creation of the necessary institutional conditions for agents to operate in free, competitive markets. At the same time, the government intervened in the supply of public goods, strong and efficient regulation, and some welfare measures such as supply of housing.
These institutional conditions provided a framework for a rapid economic growth in the 1950s through the 1970s that was heavily based on industry. Structural changes were brought by China’s relative openness after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. From the 1970s onwards Hong Kong’s economy moved from an industrial economy to an economy based on trade and value-added services, with a particular emphasis on financial services.
Today Hong Kong is one of the technological, financial, and trading centers in the world. Its economic results are sound and believed to continue to be so in the future. After the 1997 handover, it has become more economic integrated with China. However, the economic freedom and progress coexisted with lack of democracy and basic freedoms both during Britain’s rule and today.
Singapore: Growth without Freedom
The city of Singapore gained its independence from Britain in 1963 and it seceded from Malaysia in 1965. At the time it was an underdeveloped city, with most of its inhabitants living in poverty while unemployment soared. Furthermore, it was a small state lacking natural resources, and basic economic and well-being infrastructure.
Inspired by the example of Israel, the government of Singapore tried to reap gains from trade and globalization to develop its economy. The government embarked on a set of policies designed to attract foreign direct investment and develop and liberalize trade in the region. Taxes were low, incentives given to investors and the rule of law was strictly enforced. In a couple of years most production units were owned by foreign investors, particularly American and Japanese ones. In the 1960s and 1970s, the country’s GDP grew at an annual double-digit rate. To industrial economic dynamism Singapore created was further enhanced with investment in education, particularly on technical skills.
Singapore produced real structural reforms that created a resilient economy that dealt with relatively ease with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, the Dot-Com bubble and the 2008 Crisis. Today the city-state is one of the world’s trading and financial services centers, with many exporting high-tech industries. Furthermore, it shows many good results in quality-of-life indicators.
However, development came at a cost. The reforms were made by a strong government, under the leadership of the People’s Action Party since the late-1950s. Particularly, the reforms are associated with the person of Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister from 1959 to 1990. The business-friendly measures were coupled with a strong authoritarian government that constantly curtailed individual freedoms. Prosperity came at the cost of democracy, which is not the most desirable model to emulate.
Taiwan: an active government
Taiwan became an independent country after the Chinese Civil War, which opposed nationalists and communists. As the communist regime of Mao Tse-tung was implemented, the Chinese business elite was forced to flee to Taiwan, bringing capital and economic power to the island.
The miracle of Taiwan’s economic growth was only possible due to an active posture of the government, which encouraged enterprising and development of the economy, providing several incentives.
The plan for this growth consisted of transforming an economy based on agriculture to manufacturers, namely in the textile industry, modernizing the stages of production and trying to make it self-sufficient. The support of the government was fundamental since it supported the investment and capital acquired. This plan proved to be a huge success, as it drove Taiwan’s economy, shifting from the primary sector to the services sector, increasing exports and attracting investors.
Another factor to consider in this process was that the labour force was extensive and very cheap, as the degree of education was not very high in most of the population, lowering the costs of production and allowing an establishment in the world’s market with competitive prices. Besides that, Taiwan also invested in the consumption and production of electronics, namely in integrated circuits. As the know-how and quality of the products increased, it boosted Taiwan’s economy, receiving plenty of foreign capital and exporting most of the production.
South Korea: an exemplary case of diverging paths
South Korea’s case is interesting, because, unlike the other three nations, it is noticeably larger and borders one of the worst cases of regime failure – North Korea.
The Korean peninsula was home to a mostly agrarian society prior to World War II, making it one of the poorest in Asia. With the end of the world war, Cold War followed, and the Korean war broke out in full force, pitting the communist forces of the North (backed by China and the Soviet Union) against the US-led troops in the South. This was a defining moment in the Korean economy, leading to a coup by South Korea general Park Chung-hee in 1961. Chung-hee was a de facto dictator; however, the country flourished with him spearheading efforts to transition from an agrarian to industrial economy. His iron-fisted rule ensured controlled growth in the early 1960s. A lot of South Korea’s early prosperity stems from foreign aid provided by the United States – the chaebols, family-ran corporations, the backbone of the Korean economy, benefited greatly from these donations, in addition to tax breaks and easy financing. This period, between the 1960s to the 1970s, led to the consolidation of household names, such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.
During the Asian Tigers growth period, South Korea’s GDP grew at an exceptional average of 8% per year – one of the fastest in Asia. Contrary to its neighbor to the north, South Korea adopted an export-heavy economy, which contributed to this growth as the West turned to Asia for its industrial and electronic goods. South Korea also had a booming steel industry, with some of the largest shipbuilding yards in the world.
The ascension of the Asian Tigers would shape our world, changing the dynamics of the worlds’ economy and the balance of power in South-East Asia.
There were differences, for instance Hong-Kong adopted a policy of laissez-faire, with a very reduced intervention from the government, unlike Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea where that entity played a major role, controlling the reshape the economy. Despite the variety of measures and different approaches, the ultimate result was an astonishing economic growth.
This series of economic growth is an example to follow, as they show how, with the right measures, adapted to each situation, economies can flourish in a sustainable way.
American Economic Association; BBC; Berkeley Economic Review; Borgen Magazine; Corporate Finance Institute; CNN; Economic History Association; E-International Relations; Food Research Institute Studies; Geographical Association; Ichiro Sugimoto; Investopedia; International Development Society – King’s College London; Journal of Comparative Economics; Kellogg Institue; MacroTrends; Montreal Economic Institue; St. Louis FED; Taiwan Today; The China Quarterly; The Economist; ThoughtCo; VoxEU; Wikipedia; WorldAtlas; World Bank; ZBW.